NEW YORK — When Alina Cho, editor at large at Random House, was about to join the book publisher last year, Donna Karan was on her short list of authors whom she wanted to write a memoir. She called Patti Cohen, former executive vice president of global marketing and communications at Donna Karan International, and asked her if the designer would ever consider writing a book. Cohen said Karan had already started to do an outline for one, and Cho secured her first acquisition. A year-and-a-half later, “My Journey” is Random House’s “big book for fall.”
“I hope it does well,” deadpanned Karan, who was interviewed by Cho at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Tuesday night at a private Friends of the Costume Institute event, one of several on the designer’s jam-packed book tour.
Karan spoke about what she hopes to eventually do with all her free time — art school is a possibility; that she married her husband Stephan Weiss for his “artistic” nature, and never thought he’d become such a great business partner, and how prescient she was in 1992 when she did an ad campaign featuring a female for president. Asked what her late husband would think of her book, she replied: “He came off very good in the book.”
Cho called Karan part of the “trifecta” of American fashion designers along with Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. She began by talking about Karan’s impact on fashion, which prior to her “Seven Easy Pieces,” anchored by “that iconic bodysuit,” consisted of women wearing power suits with big shoulder pads (think Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl”).
“You really taught us through your body-conscious and sensual clothing that women could be not only powerful, but sexy in their clothes,” said Cho, who was wearing an Urban Zen black dress that Karan helped her pick out at her store in Sag Harbor. “We were in a dressing room in Sag Harbor at Urban Zen for about an hour, half naked, and she was putting dresses on me, and this was the one she said, ‘You look hot in, so wear this tonight,’” said Cho.
Here are some excerpts from Cho’s interview with Karan:
The book, which feels like a personal diary, has been out for a week. Karan’s thoughts about her personal life becoming so public.
I should be wearing a hood. It’s a little embarrassing sometimes. When I was writing the book with Kathleen [Boyes], it was “girl talk.” Then I realized it wasn’t just “girl talk,” it was a book. My family’s going to read it, and my children are going to read it. Knowing me, I couldn’t withhold. It was a cathartic experience to really portray what I felt my life was about.
There are recurrent themes of life and death in the book. Karan, who was working at Anne Klein at the time, gave birth to her daughter Gabby and suddenly her mentor, Anne Klein, died.
I had no clue how sick Anne was. I think that’s the largest awakening that I had. In those days, people did not discuss cancer….We had a collection due, and I was nine months pregnant. I said, “Now I’m not going to be here because I’m going to go home and be the mom I wanted to be,” and Anne’s husband took me aside, and said, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea, Donna. Anne has cancer, and we’re going to need your help.” I kind of freaked out a bit. I said, “Let’s get Louis Dell’Olio.” Anne said no. It’ll be two against one. [I thought] maybe it’ll be three against zero, and we’ll all be in agreement. Anne didn’t think it was a great idea. Louis did come to us less than a year later to really help me out after Anne passed.
The idea behind Seven Easy Pieces, which created a fashion moment.
For me it was all about the body. People ask me, “Why the bodysuit?” and it’s my natural way of dressing. I practice yoga every morning. I start with a bodysuit and a pair of leggings and I wear something to wrap up over it, so I needed a skirt. I love designing tailored clothes. My father was a custom tailor so it’s inside my blood, I love doing jackets, so the bodysuit, wrap and tie skirt and jacket.
WWD called Karan’s first collection “the highlight of the Seventh Avenue season, sheer perfection…an instant hit,” and Bergdorf Goodman said in the first year, Donna Karan produced the highest sales per square foot of any other designer.
I never thought anybody would wear it. I thought, OMG, how many wrap and ties do I have to teach? The bodysuit, “How do I wear a bodysuit?” I said, “It’s very easy, don’t worry about it.” What I needed was a pair of tights, and that was the most important thing. Because the skirt wraps and ties and the way it opens, I wanted to make sure the woman’s legs were covered. Some of us don’t have great knees, not all of us, but some of us. I wanted to create a pair of hosiery that would hold you in, and would be what we know as Spanx today.
Her thoughts about what her late husband Stephan Weiss, whom she met while she was engaged to her future husband Mark Karan, would think about the book.
“Only my wife,” that was a cliché he would have. “Do you know what my wife….only my wife.” I think maybe he’d be proud. I think he came off very good in the book. My husband was the rock, and if it hadn’t been for my husband, I don’t think I’d be sitting here today talking to you. He was really the driving force. People thought he was this hot, very hot, ponytailed motorcycle rider, but he was a brilliant, brilliant businessman. That was the surprise to me. I kind of married the “art guy,” the ponytail, the artist, and the motorcycle. That’s what I was looking for. I wasn’t looking for a partner in the business. He proved to be the most amazing partner.
It was Stephan’s idea to do fragrance. He said, “Hemlines go up and down, but fragrances last forever.” In our bedroom, Stephan created all the fragrances, he created all the oils, the bottles, and we went into the fragrance business by ourselves….we needed something stable that would pull the company together. I said, “Honey I don’t like fragrance,” and I had to smell it every night. That was my nighttime scent. He would sit there and literally make the oils and all I wanted was shampoo and conditioner.
In the book’s foreword, Karan’s best friend, Barbra Streisand, says how much she admires what Karan’s doing as a designer, philanthropist and visionary, but then calls her “the most scattered, disorganized human being you will ever meet.”
I love you, too, Barbra.
Karan’s habit of finding the calm in the chaos.
That’s exactly what I do. When I’m let loose, I like to let loose. Believe me, when I’m on, I’m sharp as a tack.
The fact that there’s virtually nobody in Karan’s design studio who hasn’t seen her naked.
Not now, but when I was younger. I do have to try on all the clothes, and I’m not very big on underpinnings. Sometimes it gets in the way of fittings. The difference between Anne [Klein] and I, our bodies are different and our clothes are different. Anne had a belly, and I had a butt. So her pants are cut this way, and mine shifted that way. She had narrow shoulders and I had broader shoulders. For the first year we were in business, there was the Anne fit and the Donna fit.
What she learned from Anne Klein, who was her mentor and like a second mother.
Anne was a genius. There was nothing Anne could not do. She saw the whole picture. When the midcalf skirt came out, she said, “What is my customer going to do? This is horrible. Last season we had the miniskirt.” The genius of Anne was to take last season’s fabric and make the skirt out of it that would go with the jacket she bought the year before. That’s a woman who thinks. It’s not just designing. She really cared about her customer.
How Karan is feeling three months after stepping down from Donna Karan International after 30 years at the helm.
Eh. I had expected it would be a lot easier. When September came along and not being there [in the design room] felt weird. Then I went to Paris to show Urban Zen to buyers. I got our team revved up differently. There is that energy, and I’m very susceptible to energy.
In 1992, Karan created a campaign of a woman being sworn into the presidency. Now Hillary Clinton is running for president. Thoughts on why this is the time to have a female president.
I’m not going to say I like Hillary because she’s a female. I think Hillary is a genius and knows what is happening in the world today and is prepared to deal with it. I’m very involved with the Clinton Global Initiative. I think Hillary has the experience to deal with the chaos today. We’re living in a world that’s very chaotic, and I think we need the brains….We need to look at who would make the best president of the U.S., and I think it’s Hillary. It’s not the fact that she’s a woman. I would say that it’s about time my ad campaign came to life. I was a bit early, like I am with a few things. I did feel that a woman should be running for president.
How she visualizes a potential President Hillary Clinton dressing at the inauguration.
Cold shoulder. It is guaranteed that it’s the only place you will never gain weight is on the shoulders.
Designers never know when a celebrity will wear your outfit.
You never know, unless you know. If you’re working with that particular person and preparing that particular dress. Generally speaking, the stylists come in and wipe you out and take all these dresses. If the milkman doesn’t like the way you look, that dress will never get out there on the red carpet.
What her plans are for the future.
I want to go to China, I want to go to Colombia, I want to go to Cuba. That’s definitely on my travel list. I have to do my collections for Urban Zen, that’s a guarantee. I hope to create and relook at the community conferences that we did on health care at Urban Zen. Creating a community of consciousness and change at Urban Zen is a priority of mine. I also want to go to art school. I’d love to do life drawing again.