Donna Karan is a smart woman. Smart enough to know when she’s said something stupid. That’s her word — no argument here — for comments she made last week regarding the Harvey Weinstein revelations that first came to light so powerfully in The New York Times. (Or, more accurately, that were first officially codified so powerfully in The Times, after years of apparent enabling by many people, including many powerful people, who knew and did nothing. But that’s a digression.)
Donna’s comments appalled, disappointed and confused legions of people, both those who know her well personally or by reputation, and buy into the platform of women’s empowerment on which she built both her fashion business and her name, and the millions more who know her as celebrity designer and/or the name behind the Donna Karan and DKNY labels — the dual anchors of the Donna Karan International business which she no longer owns, and Urban Zen, which she does.
The on-camera comments went viral, triggering outrage. Reaction included calls for boycotts of all products bearing the Donna Karan name as well as a significant drop in the stock price of G-III, which has owned Donna Karan International since 2016.
The episode has devastated Donna but not shocked her. She knows she blew it, not only by missing an opportunity to articulate a strong stand against sexual predation, including that exercised by the uber powerful, but by invoking an old, very dangerous reversal of blame by posing the question, “Are we [women] asking for it?”
Donna has remained in Los Angeles since her role in the Weinstein story erupted. On Friday afternoon, she and I spoke on the phone. She couldn’t fully explain the “asking for it” comment, saying that she can’t believe those words came out of her mouth. That they did is now Donna’s albatross to bear. She’s hoping not to be judged definitely by her worst moment.
Here, Donna’s contrition, in her words.
WWD: Donna, you have always linked your career as a designer to various causes, women’s empowerment at the top of the list. That makes what you said on the red carpet last week all the more difficult to comprehend. Please take me through the course of events at that moment. It’s important that people hear from you why you said what you said.
Donna Karan: It is. There is no question about it. I’d been in Paris, I was exhausted. I had just come from Italy and England. I had not slept for days putting the spring [Urban Zen] collection together and working my butt off. And I was asked to do this event, which I could not come back on, you know, even though I was really tired.
I had just flown in from Paris and, what is it, a 14-hour trip? And I didn’t sleep at all. So I was really, really tired. And, I said, “OK Donna, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.” You know that moment. And I was answering questions. Everything was kind of cool, and they kept on saying, “OK, we’ve got to go in.”
WWD: You mean you were answering questions on the red carpet?
D.K.: Yes. The kind of questions, you know, it was your typical, “Donna, dressing women, you’ve been so important over all these years.” I said, “Do you have to name the amount?” That kind of thing. OK, then I was asked about Harvey.
WWD: What were you asked about Harvey exactly?
D.K.: What did I think about what happened to Harvey. And I was confused by the question. I mean, I hadn’t been paying attention to any of the news, and you hear little stories here and a little story there. And quite honestly, it wasn’t my place to say anything. Sometimes the press can kind of gear you on, and I didn’t feel it was appropriate.
WWD: But you did say something.
D.K.: I talked in general that under no circumstances, absolutely none, whether it’s Harvey, whether it’s any man, [no one] has any right whatsoever to touch a woman, to — I mean it’s unacceptable. I mean, certainly from me. That’s just who I am as a woman, as a mother.
WWD: But that’s not what you said. So let’s go back. I understand that you’re used to people throwing questions at you on the red carpet. But, “What do you think about what’s going on with Harvey Weinstein?” If you didn’t know what was going on, why didn’t you ask for clarification of the question?
D.K.: Because I heard a little bit of rumor. It was not like I had heard the entire story. It was like a complete rumor that I had heard and I didn’t want to comment on it. So I kind of weaved my way around it. I know Georgina [Chapman, Weinstein’s wife and principal designer of the Marchesa brand], I know Harvey, and I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to be commenting on it, so I wiggled my way out of it. However, what I did comment on was sexual harassment.
WWD: But what you said…
D.K.: It didn’t come out [the right] way.
WWD: What you said: “How do we display ourselves, how do we present ourselves as women, what are we asking? Are we asking for it, you know, by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?…It’s not Harvey Weinstein. You look at everything all over the world today, you know, and how women are dressing and, you know, what they’re asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.” That doesn’t sound like you’re addressing sexual harassment. It sounds like blaming the victim.
D.K.: It was not what I meant. I [so regret] that that came out of my mouth because, as I was avoiding Harvey, and what [a] blur…I am really, really apologetic. I have been dressing women for 40 years and I show their sensuality, I have done it in my advertising campaign, I have shown it as a mother, as a grandmother, as a woman, [I’ve shown] her legs and her hosiery and her bras and her fragrance. And I have always had men and women together.
WWD: I know.
D.K.: So the fact of what I said was — it was inappropriate and I just went off. And I shouldn’t have done it. I was exhausted, I was tired and — [when] it came back to me, I was shocked that I even said this myself. Because I was preparing in my mind what I was going to say in the theater. And I just went off on something that I shouldn’t have, and I apologize profusely. I regret it so strongly.
I think every woman who knows me, and I have [worked for] them in all sizes and all shapes, all I do is want women being free to express themselves. And that has nothing to do with being disrespected, molested and harassed. Absolutely not.
WWD: Do you understand why people wonder where the sentiment you expressed came from? Whether it’s in response to a question about Harvey Weinstein or something else — “What are they asking for? Trouble.” Do you understand that people don’t understand where that came from?
D.K.: I mean, if it came from anyone, it came from the mother inside of me. I shouldn’t have said it….I’m a woman loving women and letting them be who they are. That to me is the most important thing. And I got scared.
D.K.: I got scared that women were being attacked. I mean, it just infuriated me.
WWD: There is concern among some researchers who study adolescent mental health about the effects of sexualized imagery on young girls. That’s a legitimate concern but not the point here. An outfit never justifies harassment.
D.K.: I have to say that it is absolutely all right for women to be who they are, and it is not a call for men to behave the way they do. Women are women and men are men. And it’s just — it’s a sickness, it’s a disease of men.
WWD: “A disease of men.” Do you want to qualify that?
D.K.: Absolutely. Thank you very much. This is not all men. I love men. I am a woman who loves men. So once again you hear that I sometimes say something that I didn’t exactly mean. It’s the men who inappropriately address women in a sexually predatory way.
WWD: How well do you know Harvey? You called him and Georgina “wonderful people.”
D.K.: I met Georgina when Harvey called me when she was first going into fashion and I tried to help her in any way that I could. I see Georgina’s clothes. I think they’re absolutely beautiful. As a matter of fact, she just dressed Barbra [Streisand] for a concert, her last concert, and I was there. She’s an elegant, elegant, elegant woman. Harvey — we haven’t personally been friends. The only time I’ve really been with Harvey is at a screening he would do or something like that.
WWD: Had you heard the Harvey rumors, or was he not enough on your radar?
D.K.: Honestly I heard them in such bits and cracked pieces. l didn’t hear this whole thing on TV, I didn’t hear any of that.
WWD: I mean before. So many people now acknowledge that his predatory behavior was “an open secret.”
D.K.: Never. Never, never, never have I ever heard this about Harvey. Ever.
WWD: Back to what you said, the much-quoted sound bite: “Are they — are women — asking for it…”
D.K.: I made a horrible mistake. I regret it from the bottom of my heart. This is never who I am as a woman. I love women. I love every single type of woman, every size of woman, every person. I think that’s why people — I mean, if anything, [there] was a reputation, it’s Donna Karan being a woman and dressing women. I am apologetic from the bottom of my heart. I am so embarrassed. I don’t even know what to say other than I am so sorry. It was stupid.
WWD: I hope you understand my reaction as someone who has known you a long time and so respects all you’ve done for the betterment of women; it was stupid. When I heard it, I was stunned. I flashed to Rosemary McGrotha being sworn in as President [Donna Karan’s 1992 “In Women We Trust” ad campaign]. I thought about the season of real women on your runway, long before it was a thing, and of so many conversations about your commitment to women’s issues, not just on the record conversations. I thought, this is not tracking. This is strange.
D.K.: [Rosemary] was wearing a lace bustier and a pinstripe suit in 1992. We all know Rosemary’s body; she’s a woman. I always have had real women presenting themselves because I feel so strongly about women. No matter what size you are, no matter what body type you have, as a woman, I have believed in women. I can’t fit in the clothes today. I dress myself and [other] women and allow them to be sensual.
WWD: When you say you can’t fit the clothes today, do you mean the clothes of other designers that are largely out there across fashion?
WWD: For the record, you would agree that no matter what you or I or a hot 20-year-old wears, no one has the right to harass any woman at any time?
D.K.: With. Out. A. Doubt. Without a doubt. For that matter, it is never OK to disrespect another human being.
And don’t forget the work I do in Haiti. The woman that I had giving me the award, Maria Bello, I mean, her major, major statement in life is about women.
WWD: What was the award for?
D.K.: It was the [CinéFashion Film Awards] Designer Icon Award. It’s about how fashion and the arts [integrate]. I spoke out as — I think you know me, about talking to my audience. Maria spoke about my work in Haiti and how I’ve helped all these women and the schools that I’ve started and everything to help women. And I got up and I changed my entire speech and everybody was standing up…and I said, “I know I would love to discuss my life and what I’ve done. But I sit here today in California and I cannot accept what has happened in Las Vegas.” And that’s what my speech was about, that every one of us must do something about gun violence.
WWD: I’ve certainly know you to go off-topic, Donna. And I know that you’ve been committed to the antigun violence cause for a long time. But I don’t want to digress to that issue now. It’s not what we’re talking about. I was very put off by Harvey Weinstein saying that he’s going to channel his anger to fighting the NRA. It sounded like trying to market Las Vegas to his advantage.
D.K.: I appreciate that.
WWD: Your philanthropic pursuits and your lifelong focus on improving women’s lives are well-known. Do you understand that with your comments on that red carpet, you not only angered people but you confused them, too, precisely because of your history?
D.K.: Yes. Because this is so not me. I was shocked. I was absolutely in a state of shock.
WWD: You mean at your own words?
D.K.: I said, “I said that?” That was the first thing out of my mouth. “What? I didn’t say that. That’s ridiculous.”
WWD: You are no longer a principal of Donna Karan International, though you continue to care deeply about it. Immediately, the stock of G-III, which now owns the company, took a hit. Do you want to say anything about that?
D.K.: I am so sorry about that. I happen to like Morris [Goldfarb, chief executive officer of G-III] a lot. I want to support them in every way I possibly can. I haven’t walked away from my brand. My name is extremely important. Having been the designer for Anne Klein for 10 years, when Anne wasn’t even there, [the perception was that] the company was still Anne Klein.
Most people do not know that I am no longer designing Donna Karan and DKNY. So it’s very important for me to keep that reputation on the highest level. The first person that I spoke to was Morris. I really like him a lot. He’s a nice guy. And I care about my customers.
WWD: What did you say?
D.K.: “I don’t know what to say, Morris. I am so embarrassed; I am so sorry. Whatever I can do to help this, you got me. I mean, in any way. I’ll be on a plane tonight, tomorrow….Whatever I can do, I’m here for you.”
WWD: Do you have anything to say to the loyal customers of the brand?
D.K.: I turned 69, right? And my daughter and everybody, “Mommy, why are you still working?” This trip was work beyond work, beyond work. I so care about my customer because I don’t think she is necessarily being spoken to. You know, life changes and so do bodies. [Many women], they need support and help. And I will continue to do that.
But I will not only dress people, I will address their needs as well from health care, education, culture. That for me is my main purpose in what I do in life, and I will not give up on that. I will be there to help women in every way I can, and my apologies cannot be made — I can’t express it any more strongly. I am so grateful for their loyalty, and I am devastated by their disappointment in me.
WWD: You were addressing the Urban Zen customer, for whom you now design. Do you have anything to say to the G-III customer as well?
D.K.: Oh, absolutely. People come up to me and say, “Oh Donna, I’ve worn you for so many years.” They say, “You know, those underpants; you know, those stockings; you know, this; you know, that.” And they say, “It was Donna Karan,” and then, of course, “It was DKNY.” When your name goes to so many places and becomes a larger name — I respect every single place that name belongs.
WWD: It’s an honor and a responsibility to have your name out there.
D.K.: I have worked too hard my entire life, and people have given me that platform. And the platform that I’ve been given I will never walk away from as long as I’m well.
WWD: Did you have any conversations with your granddaughters about this whole episode?
WWD: Can you share any of that?
D.K.: I’m pretty embarrassed. They know me. They know Grandma. They know Grandma really well. And they said, “Grandma, that’s not you. We know you.”
WWD: How many granddaughters do you have?
D.K.: So I have three granddaughters and I have five grandsons.
WWD: You discussed this with them.
D.K.: Absolutely. Immediately. And I apologized to them profusely.
WWD: Is there a message in this for all of us as women to accept responsibility and admit it when we’ve messed up?
D.K.: Oh my God. But it’s not only women.
D.K.: It’s our universe. We’re emotional creatures. We’re emotional and intelligent creatures and we feel on every level.
WWD: Do you have anything to say directly to Harvey Weinstein’s alleged victims?
D.K.: I don’t know what to say to them. I will do anything for any of them. For any woman who has been attacked in any way possible. I think these women have been incredibly courageous to be dealing with this. These are iconic women. These are women we all love. These are women that are inspirational to us, certainly to me as a woman. I want to tell them how sorry I am that they have been subjected to this vile behavior. And I will support them on their long road ahead. This is not going to be easy for any one of them.
WWD: When you say they’re iconic women and women who have inspired us – the famous ones. But who knows how many more, the young women who never became famous, who may have given up on their dreams because of Harvey Weinstein’s abuse?
D.K.: That saddens me tremendously. That truly saddens me, their fear and saying, “I don’t know how to do this. I can’t handle this.” Really. They didn’t know what to do. How many women have been attacked and never came forward with this because of their fears?
WWD: It’s so important for all women who have been abused to feel they have a voice.
D.K.: All women everywhere. I mean, I cry when I think about it.
WWD: Is there anything else you want to say?
D.K.: I am sorry. I am so sorry. I am so sorry. Please forgive me. This is not the woman that I am and that you know, and I think most women know that about me. And for those of you who don’t, I will try to show over the next years or decades who Donna Karan is.
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Love Courtney. Over the weekend, a 2005 video of Courtney Love started circulating. When asked at an event if she had any advice for a young girl moving to Hollywood, she answered, “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party at the Four Seasons, don’t go.” Love tweeted on Sunday that she herself was not a Weinstein victim, and that the comment got her “eternally banned by CAA.”
I received the clip from my daughter, whose confirmation name is Violet in Courtney’s honor (never mind that there’s no Saint Violet in the litany). “I feel so justified in my teenaged adulation,” Grainne wrote. Here, here.