NEW YORK — "You can't make a designer....I think you're born to design," said Donna Karan at Parsons The New School for Design on Thursday.
"It's a gift," she continued. "But what is a designer? How do you create a designer? How do you help support a designer? How do you allow that which is inside of you innately to come to fruition? Well, that's where we have teachers."
Karan was speaking in the final installment of the "At the Parsons Table" series in a conversation with Paul Goldberger, the school's dean. During the conversation, she discussed her career, her fashion and lifestyle philosophy and her take on fashion globalization. Along the way, she peppered the chat with unexpected tidbits, including the revelation that she once contemplated leaving New York, the city that informs so many of her designs, for Italy.
The event was held at The New School's Tishman Auditorium.
Karan recalled how she came to Parsons. She couldn't decide between the school and the Fashion Institute of Technology.
"They said if I was going to be an illustrator, I'd go to FIT, and if I was going to be a fashion designer, I'd go to Parsons," she said. "So I went to Women's Wear Daily and asked them, 'Could I have a summer job?' I was dismissed very quickly. [The head of WWD] says, 'My darling, you just absolutely do not know how to sketch. So I highly recommend you choose another field.' Well, I was mortified about that...because I really thought I was a brilliant illustrator, as I still do."
So Karan enrolled at Parsons, where she failed a course in draping and dropped out of the school to work for Anne Klein before starting her own label in 1984. (She received a bachelor's degree from Parsons in 1987.)
"[Anne Klein] says, 'You can sit anywhere you want,' and where did I want to sit in...the sample room," Karan said. "For me the sample room is where it's at, here it all happens."
Karan added that fashion is about touching people through the experience of fabric against the skin. To her, it is a sensual, "visceral" experience. While she respects the use of computer technology in fashion design, she stressed the importance to maintain the craft's "hand, soul and touch.""I just came back from Israel. I had an amazing, amazing experience in the school in Israel," she said. "And I got so turned on. People were actually structuring lasts of shoes. We do not have the craft here in the States right now. We're all flying to Italy. We're flying to Mexico. I really do believe that outsourcing is brilliant, but where are the craftsmen here? Where are the hands? Where is the sculpture? And that's what I would love to put back into the school."
Karan said that while she loves scouring flea markets, she has become tired of fashions that are too overtly referential of bygone times.
"Where is the art? That's not designing, that's styling," she said. "I don't want to see another vintage dress."
Karan also explained why she chose to make New York such an important element in her design philosophy.
"I really feel that it wasn't about me, the ego Donna Karan," she said. "I had to remove myself from it. And I was sitting in my kitchen and there was a box there. And it said, 'Maude Frizon/Paris, London.' And I said Donna Karan New York, how perfect. I didn't want it to be about me, the person. I needed an anchor and that's how New York happened."
New York continues to be a major inspiration, but she admitted she doesn't necessarily call it a home.
"The level of New York is work, work, work, work, work, so to me, I don't feel that I live in New York. I feel that I work in New York," she said. "I like to live outside of New York. I just think the calm in the chaos is the thing that I always look for."
She even admitted she once contemplated moving to Italy, but didn't simply because she didn't speak the language and had little motivation to learn it.
"There's a reason why I don't speak the language," Karan quipped. "I don't want to understand what they're saying about me. So when they're sitting there talking at a fabric meeting and they're yelling at me...it doesn't bother me. I don't understand what they're saying. I'd like to keep it that way. Let everybody else understand what they're talking about."Karan conceded that it can be challenging to be a designer in New York today because the business continues to be dictated by Italy and France. Fashion itself, she said, has become globalized, a fact she still finds herself struggling with at times. "Sometimes, I have a problem walking in Turkey and seeing a DKNY store," she said, indicating that the global nature of the business has impacted the individual nature of many places.
During the conversation, the school officially unveiled the Donna Karan Professorship in Fashion Design. Karan made a contribution to the school, the value of which was not disclosed, and her gift serves as the foundation of a new Master of Fine Arts program in fashion design and society at Parsons.
When Goldberger asked her about her best idea and what she will be most remembered for, Karan didn't hesitate. "The seven easy pieces," she said. "It's also understanding the physical nature of the body and telling women that they can show the shoulder. It never gains weight, never has a wrinkle, and doesn't need Botox."
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