If fashion is forever young, several top fashion designers have turned to a secret weapon in keeping up with the trends — their children. Offspring of the likes of Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren are, either officially or unofficially, working in their parents’ businesses. They’re offering design advice, expanding the businesses through Web sites and licensing, or just keeping their parents hip.

Here, what some of the designers — and their kids — have to say about keeping it all in the family.

Donna Karan

“Sometimes she likes to be my mother, she’s always worried about me,” says Donna Karan, describing her relationship with her 29-year-old daughter, Gabby Karan DeFelice.

Born eight days before Anne Klein died — which thrust Karan into the spotlight as chief designer at the company Anne Klein — Gabby continues to be her mom’s best friend and biggest supporter. Virtually inseparable, Gabby attends every single one of her mother’s fashion shows, accompanies her on European and Asian shopping trips, and shares Caribbean vacations and yoga retreats with her.

“She was the influence for DKNY,” says Karan. “She and her friends wanted to wear my clothes, and undoubtedly they couldn’t afford them. It was her generation that I was definitely looking at. She was constantly in my closet.”

“We have inspired each other,” adds Gabby. “I’ve traveled with her to Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, and we’ve shopped and explored culture, which is very stimulating for fashion. I’ve introduced her to a lot of younger people and she’s introduced me to her friends. It’s a really nice friendship.”

Karan relies on Gabby for her opinions about the collection, as well as other more private matters.

“I’m always asking her, ‘What do you think?’ It’s very important for me to see what she thinks,” says Karan. “And if she doesn’t like something going into the collection, she tells me. She’s very blunt about it. She’s probably my toughest critic. She’ll say, ‘I think it’s great but it doesn’t look like you.’ She’s very sharp. Sometimes she has a narrow view of who I am. They [kids] don’t like change.”And, she’ll even get personal.

“She told me she doesn’t like my short hair,” admits Karan. “She said, ‘Mom, men like long hair!’”

While Gabby doesn’t have an official job at Karan’s firm, whose worldwide global volume at retail is $2 billion, including licensees, she spends a lot of her time there, hanging out, sometimes styling the DKNY store windows and writing for “Woman to Woman,” Karan’s magazine sent to top customers.

“I’m very proud and happy for my mom. She’s good at it. I love to go into the office and watch her work. She’s so passionate about it,” says Gabby.

Gabby prefers to freelance and doesn’t want a full-time position at the company. “I never wanted to be connected too intensely. I always wanted the freedom to explore other venues,” she says.

As for their individual style differences, Karan explains that Gabby tends to be more conservative than she is, “but a little bit freer.

“She has an effortless way of putting things together. She definitely inspires me. I want to wear her clothes when I go away, and she wants to wear mine. Gabby is girlier than I am. I’m a little tougher. She’s much finer. She likes to wear printed dresses and is more feminine,” explains Karan.

Gabby says she loves wearing her mother’s dressy dresses, but sometimes she’ll drive her mother crazy when she accessorizes them with combat boots or sneakers. “I’ll wear them with sneaks and she’ll say, ‘You’re crazy.’ It’s so tangible and fun, and so easy to play with. It’s not so serious.”

In addition to sharing a love of fashion, they both are into music, whether it’s rock, reggae or Tibetan. “We love going to concerts. We love going to see Sting perform, and my mom dresses him, or going to a Tibet House concert,” says Gabby.

While Karan’s line has always represented the sleek, sophisticated Manhattanite, the designer remembers the time when Gabby was 13 years old and needed a dress, and Karan couldn’t provide it from her collection.“She wanted a real girlie dress, with a crinoline and tulle, and I called Kal Ruttenstein at Bloomingdale’s, and told him that my daughter wants a prom dress! It was so different from what she was seeing [in my line]. You have to allow them to experience their own thing,” says Karan.

Ironically, when Gabby was growing up in Manhattan, she hated accompanying her mother to flea markets, one of Karan’s favorite pastimes. “I used to drag her to the flea markets, and now she can’t wait,” says Karan. “We partner a lot together.”

Now that Gabby has become a mother herself — her daughter is eight months old — Karan says she’s experiencing a role reversal. “I’ll be out partying with her, and Gabby will say she has to go home and feed the baby,” says Karan. She’s constantly trying to convince Gabby to join the firm full-time, but says she understands that Gabby is busy “raising my granddaughter.”

But what’s the one venture Gabby said she’d love to do with her mom one day? Design baby clothes.


Tommy Hilfiger

Tommy Hilfiger relies on his 18-year-old daughter, Ally, to be his personal trend guru.

“In the young women’s business, she is the target customer,” the designer says. “She knows the fits, the trends, the brands and the colors. We have a team of very talented designers who are in their mid- to late-20s and 30s, and although they’re very talented and we pick up on the trends, being able to pick up the trends from the specific target is very valuable.”

Hilfiger says Ally has been giving him advice for years. “She’s always given me her opinion. Now it’s more relevant.”

While Ally isn’t officially employed by the company, which last year generated $1.89 billion in wholesale volume, she drops by regularly to offer her viewpoint. This past season, she starred in her own reality show on MTV, “Rich Girls,” and in one scene, she appears in the Hilfiger showroom critiquing the line before a roomful of designers and executives. Tommy Hilfiger says MTV has asked her to do another series. She’s also looking into attending art school.Ally was traveling and unavailable to be interviewed for this story.

According to the designer, his daughter wore low-rise jeans before the company really capitalized on them, not to mention other current hot items. “She was into this whole California look with military-inspired bottoms and cargoes and truck driver hats a long time ago. She has a knack for putting things together. She was also cutting her own clothes with raw edges a long time ago that inspired us. She puts different appliqués on her jeans. She customizes a lot of her clothes.”

Ally will go to vintage stores and check out all the nooks and crannies. “She travels and she shops and she was brought up with it,” says Hilfiger. Ally’s mother, Susie, is also a designer and owns Best & Co., a children’s shop in Greenwich, Conn.

“Susie has great taste,” says Hilfiger about his ex-wife.

Hilfiger says Ally also is “right in the groove with music,” and influenced his decision to sign Beyoncé Knowles as the face of the company’s upcoming fragrance. “She was into Britney [Spears] at a very young age,” he adds.

Like reality TV, Ally also likes reality advertising. She wants Tommy’s ads to be very real, not too staged and not phony.

In fact, she has appeared in a Tommy Jeans ad campaign with other famous progeny, such as Elizabeth Jagger, Theodora and Alexandra Richards and Lauren Bush.

But Hilfiger says his daughter recognizes the parameters of her role. “I think the other designers are open to hearing from someone who is the ultimate target,” says Hilfiger, who noted that in real life, Ally prefers to give her opinions directly to him. “She’s very confident in her beliefs. She can spot trends in advance. Her mentality is trained for that. She doesn’t want to work for the company. She doesn’t want to step on other people’s toes.”


Oscar de la Renta

It’s a family affair at Oscar.

Nine years ago, de la Renta hired his stepdaughter, Eliza Reed Bolen, as vice president of licensing. Then last year Eliza’s husband, Alex Bolen, came on board as chief executive officer.“My biggest worry is that Eliza is going to fire me,” quips de la Renta.

Eliza, who began her career working for an environmental company, says de la Renta had been asking her to join the firm for a long time “but up until 22, my head wasn’t there.” She had planned to go to law school, but never got the applications out.

Alex was in the banking world. After he and his partner sold their company, de la Renta asked him to pitch in temporarily at the fashion house. He stayed about six months without pay and de la Renta was “finally able to convince him” to take a full-time, paying job with the house.

“I had been informally helping Oscar with corporate matters, and when Jeff [Aronsson, former ceo] left, he asked me to come. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to stay,” says Alex, noting that Marvin Traub once told him there’s no one like de la Renta who has “a better combination of creative visionary and a business sense.”

One of Alex’s key roles is to help de la Renta strategize about the growth of the business. In fact, de la Renta struck a deal with Kellwood Co. this week for a moderate sportswear line, O Oscar, as reported.

As for her contribution to the firm, Eliza says, “Honestly, I don’t add anything to the collection. With me coming, I brought a new young crew of people into the company. When I got here, everyone had been here for a while, and now there’s a whole team of young people in public relations, licensing and in the studio.”

Eliza explains that she first had to clean up the licensing program, “and a lot of licensees got terminated.” She then coordinated the labels, tags and looks. “Things got tighter and coordinated,” she says. Currently, the licensing portfolio has 23 agreements — for everything from nightgowns to bridal to furniture — and the firm expects to have about 30 by year-end.

Presently, the Oscar de la Renta collection business generates wholesale volume of $50 million, and sales of licensed products top $650 million. De la Renta says that the business has seen sales increases in excess of 20 percent a year over the past five years, and profits have grown even more than that. “We needed to bring more people into the business.”The designer notes that the company has been able to retain its customer base while simultaneously attracting a younger crowd. His business at Bergdorf Goodman, for example, has tripled in the last six or seven years. Two years ago, de la Renta was Bergdorf’s 15th largest overall vendor (including ready-to-wear,jewelry and accessories) and today it is its seventh largest, says Eliza. One of the company’s initiatives is to capture a younger customer with broader price points on the rtw line.

Alex notes that accessories, home and opening freestanding stores are currently top priorities for the firm. The company is now looking for retail space in Los Angeles and Miami and will open its first freestanding store at La Rev in Las Vegas in spring 2005.

So what’s it like working with de la Renta?

For starters, says Alex, he always listens. “He’s never dismissive...not that he does everything we ask, but he’s always interested.” he adds.

“Everybody is entitled to express his opinion,” says de la Renta. “I think of myself as a team player. Ultimately, I’m making the decisions. [But] my studio gets upset if the cleaning man is in the studio, and I’ll ask his opinion.”

And how do the other employees feel about having two of his family members in the business? “The biggest attraction to working here is it’s a family business. But not genetically so,” replies de la Renta. “I spend most of my day sitting in my studio. I don’t have a desk. I like to work with people. If anyone has a problem, I want that person to come to me. It’s a flat organization.”

De la Renta couldn’t be happier having Alex as his ceo, and he believes the former banker has a lot to contribute to the business, including aesthetically.

“Alex has a great eye,” says de la Renta. “In a way, there’s much aesthetically he can bring into the business that being in the kind of business he was in, something was lacking. It’s been super.”“And seeing the numbers increase,” adds Alex. “I haven’t lost my eye for that.”


Carolina Herrera

Having another Carolina Herrera (Jr.) and her youngest daughter, Patricia, on board has helped the designer expand her business globally.

“They came because they wanted to. I didn’t force it,” says Carolina Herrera, discussing two of her four daughters.

Patricia Lansing is a designer in the ready-to-wear division, while Carolina Jr., who lives in Spain and is engaged to former bullfighter and now bull ranch owner Miguel Báez, works in the fragrance division and is also the face of CH Carolina Herrera, the diffusion line that’s distributed exclusively through freestanding boutiques. (Her eldest two daughters aren’t involved in the business.)

“I didn’t want to push any of the girls to work with me. Carolina came five years ago as a summer job to do the perfumes,” says Herrera. Her daughter worked with the design team and Baron & Baron, the ad agency here, on the bottle, scent and advertising.

Patricia joined last April and works in design and advertising and is currently working on a design book with Assouline about her mother. She majored in art history and English as an undergraduate at Brown University and after college went to work as a fashion editor at Vanity Fair. “We didn’t want to feel like our mother had to have us [in the company],” says Patricia, adding they each wanted to do their own thing for a while.

Herrera says she never talked about the business, which has an estimated retail volume of $600 million, including licensees, at the dinner table, nor did she take work home with her.

“We talked about other things, but not the business,” adds Patricia. “While I was in college, I never thought I’d go into the business. I liked it, but I never thought about it as a career.”

Herrera likes Patricia’s taste and what she adds to the design process. “It’s about softness, modernity. It’s about a fresh eye and fresh ideas. Mixing colors and the details,” she says of her daughter.But when they disagree on design ideas, does mom usually win out?

“I think so,” says Herrera.

One of the areas in which Herrera will be expanding is freestanding retail stores. The company has 22 boutiques under the CH label in Europe, and is about to open three stores in Las Vegas, Manhasset, N.Y., and Short Hills, N.J.

In Europe, Carolina Herrera Jr. is the face of the CH line. She is also about to launch her own fragrance, Carolina.

“It’s about both of us,” says Herrera, noting that they both represent the line. “It’s about the collection for a mom and a daughter. It represents the whole world of CH,” she adds.

Does Patricia mind that Carolina Jr. has a whole ready-made business with her nameplate on it?

“I don’t mind, not at all.”

Herrera believes that fashion is always evolving and one’s eye changes. “The most important thing is to design for the time that we’re living in. You can’t do a total retro collection. You can make it look younger with the shoes and the jewelry,” she says.

Patricia adds that she can go into her mother’s closet and pick out an outfit and make it look completely different from the way her mother would wear it.

And that’s not only because she’s nine months pregnant. Patricia’s due date happens to be the same day as her mother’s fashion show. And what does Patricia plan to name her baby daughter?

“Carolina.”

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