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Those who have spent some time with Donna Karan know she has been pondering the seasonality of collections, the fashion show system and the industry as a whole for quite some time. Her newest introduction — an element of casual pieces she will unveil with her pre-fall collection today — is one more step in that journey.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.


Gone are the days when designers put 80-plus looks on a runway, so a designer’s message has to be precise and impactful and form the halo for a brand—a notion about which Karan is all too aware.

“You try to put 35 girls on the runway each season and make it look so concise, artistically and communicationwise, but then you look at the whole person and what is really needed in her closet?” Karan said in an exclusive interview. “What is her passion and what are her desires? In thinking about her life, it became more apparent to me that we needed more of a lifestyle-driven collection.”

This shift is one that executives at Donna Karan International Inc. aren’t taking lightly.

They refer to the new group as a “reformulating” of the entire company, with a plan to address the need for fashion in a more relaxed lifestyle paradigm, and in the process dress more people. The new perspective is the brainchild of Karan, and should be music to parent LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which must be looking for a return on its investment in the American designer brand.

Karan said she’d dabbled in the idea over the years, offering cashmere collections, as well as special Gold and Icons lines, the latter of which reinstated her seven easy pieces concept. The new casual component, which was quietly tested for spring but is fully launching for pre-fall, is addressing the newfound need for relaxed designer clothes.

“I think their adaptation to a relaxed way of life has a more fashionable twist to it,” she said. “It’s not just a T-shirt any longer. A T-shirt has to have so much more meaning. It has to have the drape to it, the ease to it, the edge to it. A pant is not just a pant, but there has to be the seaming of it, the suede detail, the distressed quality, the washes of the fabric.

“The way I look at it, it’s the next generation of where jeans go,” Karan added. “I think we have been very jean-oriented and it’s about blue jeans, blue jeans, blue jeans, but the jeans business has evolved, too,” she said. “There are other pieces, but in spite of all that, I say there is another, more relaxed way of dressing.”

For pre-fall, the seven pieces consist of a double-layer T-shirt dress, washed georgette shell, a jersey T-shirt, a skinny pant, a cashmere knit, a washed biker jacket and a shearling piece. The palette is neutral, from ebonies to sage and green leaf colors.

“This is putting together a lifestyle point of view,” Karan said. “It’s something we have been working on but now it’s being framed in such a way that it balances into the collection. No question about it, it could stand independently.”

That said, while Karan, during the design process, saw the collection as a fully independent element with its own name, the line is expected to now only be delineated by the coloration and fabric of the label, though details are still being ironed out.

“It’s important to integrate the two collections together,” she said. “We had the discussion to keep them totally separate, but I really think that this speaks to her lifestyle now. We are now rounding out the complete lifestyle, from a black-tie, drop dead dress to something she can lounge around and do absolutely nothing in. It’s the reinstatement of what Donna Karan is about.” Just don’t label it “casual,” a word Karan takes issue with.

 

“I am having a problem with that because I don’t want people to have preconceived notions,” she said. “To me, it’s more lifestyle dressing as opposed to just casual dressing. We have multiple lifestyles. There is the artist who walks around in that bohemian, street kind of style, then there is the executive, polished woman who addresses her life that way. I also don’t want to take away the emphasis on design that has gone into the new collection. It’s not just any pair of jeans or any pair of cotton pants, it’s creatively designed at that Collection level.

“We are not walking away from that [Collection] woman,” she added.

Mark Weber, chairman and chief executive officer of Donna Karan International, recalled walking into a specialty store during the holiday season two years ago and noticing that the Donna Karan shop leaned heavily towards evening dresses. “As the world started changing…we recognized that evening dressing and occasion dressing, which was our strength, was not enough for the active woman and the lifestyle and the way she was going to purchase for her needs in the future,” he said.

The new addition, he added, would also allow for a deeper and wider distribution in specialty stores that may have previously not been able to buy the collection. The casual component is priced about 25 percent below Collection prices, meaning the median suggested retail price point hovers around $895. Collection, by contrast, has an average retail price of $1,295.

“We can expand to doors we didn’t reach before including suburban doors,” said Carole Kerner, president of Donna Karan Collection. “We can now also concentrate on doors that present the true essence of Donna but in a different facet of her lifestyle. We think we are also gaining a more youthful audience.”

As for projections, DKI executives remained tight-lipped, but Kerner said, “We have a strategy that says it will be a much broader distribution, not a lower distribution,” targeting “more doors in existing companies and certainly the same standard of store, just different lifestyle location. The specialty store, which is still relatively small to us, will expand.”

Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, lauded the move. “This is really addressing the changing lifestyle of a customer and how women are dressing today,” he said. “We are seeing a dressed-up casualization in the market. Many think Collection businesses have a very polished point of view. This will give her a whole new option for day-to-day. We are seeing the need and real desire to have lovely, casual clothes beyond just the idea of tracksuits. We are looking for it and are very happy Donna is addressing it.”

Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer at Saks Inc., echoed those sentiments. “There is this whole area of business, where our lives are less formal today and more relaxed, and people are dressing in a way that their weekend clothes and workweek clothes are starting to come closer together,” he said. “Donna is really onto the right ideas and the right concepts.

“Donna is now servicing more of her customer’s lifestyle,” Frasch added. “It will help her build the client base and volume.”

As for Karan, she is visualizing just how these new clothes will work into her customers’ existing wardrobes. “You can wear the pieces on the weekends, but for me and some people, you wear it seven days a week,” she said. “It’s a way of life.”

 

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