Donna Karan is still telling it like she sees it.
In a broad-sweeping interview Thursday night, Karan spoke with Bridget Foley, former executive editor of WWD, about the past, the present and where fashion is going. The interview was prerecorded and was part of Fashinnovation, a daylong summit.
The 35-minute conversation touched a multitude of topics, including the cold-shoulder design; Karan’s love of connecting with customers in the dressing room; the Battle of Versailles; the bodysuit; Haiti; Seven Easy Pieces; Robert Lee Morris; 7th on Sale; Conscious Consumerism; buy now, wear now; Super Saturday; Urban Zen, and the future of brick-and-mortar stores. It was a trip down memory lane for the 72-year-old designer, who left her design perch at Donna Karan International in 2015 and has been focusing her efforts on Urban Zen.
Foley kicked off the conversation by asking Karan what fashion means today.
Karan said fashion, both dressing and addressing, is more important than ever. “The minute I walk into a dressing room, I hear the real story. It never became about the clothes, it became about the life,” she said. She’s always loved the personal connection and helping the customers with how to wear something.
There’s no question Karan has been a trailblazer in terms of her philanthropic and citizenship approach to fashion, but there’s also the aesthetic approach to fashion, said Foley. She explained that Karan launched with a very pragmatic aesthetic and a very sexual aesthetic. It was about body dressing. “It was a very alluring fashion and pragmatism approach,” said Foley.
Take, for example, Karan’s famous cold-shoulder design, which Foley didn’t review favorably. “It was a huge success and you never let me forget it,” said Foley.
“The whole philosophy for me is day-to-night, being a working mother, what can I show, what can’t I show, accent the positive, delete the negative,” said Karan. “I’m very big on that. When I did the cold shoulder, the woman is going to work, she’s in her turtleneck, she’s wearing her blazer, wrap-and-tie skirt over her bodysuit. Now she’s going out, and she doesn’t want to wear the same thing, so I gave her a little skin. Her neck still wasn’t looking so hot, but her shoulder was, so I cut out the shoulder — cold shoulder,” said Karan.
Karan then jumped to the Battle of Versailles in 1973, a fashion-show-cum-competition that pitted the American designers against the French designers, and explained what occurred.
“Anne [Klein] was chosen as the only woman designer, and I was her assistant. There was no water, there was no heat, it was freezing. We had no backdrop.…We had Kay Thompson and Liza Minnelli. However, the French had them all, every set was more extraordinary than the next, and all the models walked out with a piece of paper with a number. The Americans came out and we were downright doing it…” The French designers were Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior.
“I am eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and I was huge. [For the Americans] it was Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, Stephen Burrows and Anne,” said Karan.
Foley said Versailles was a moment of arrival on the global stage for American fashion. It was a triumph of sportswear ease over couture fussiness, and the show’s 10 Black models, including Bethann Hardison, Billie Blair, Norma Jean Darden and Pat Cleveland each captivated the audience with their original way of walking, twirling and emoting. “Jump 40-plus years later, and American fashion is severely challenged. Why do you think that is? What is American fashion’s place globally?” asked Foley.
“You just hit the nail on the head. It’s called global,” said Karan. She recalled when she launched Donna Karan, she only wanted to sell to two stores in the U.S.: Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. “Then I sold in London, then I sold in Asia, and all of a sudden, I saw fashion as a world story, not just as a U.S. story.” She said that’s why she did luggage because the woman is on an airplane and she’s traveling. “It was an internationally based fashion collection,” she said.
After launching her business, she needed more and more money, and they figured they needed to license products. “And why do you go out and start licensing? To bring in large amounts of money because your fashion collection wasn’t bringing in the money. It was the licensees. I’ll never forget this moment when my husband said, ‘you have to do fragrance,’ and I said ‘Stephan [Weiss], I don’t wear fragrance. I only wear oils.'”
She said her husband, a sculptor, made the fragrance and the bottle in their bedroom at night, echoing the curve of a woman’s back, and he was determined to make a go of it. “He poured the fragrance together. If it smells like my husband’s neck, it has to be vicuna suede and Casablanca lilies, and then we’ll talk about it.” It did. She said the fragrance, Cashmere Mist, was black and gold and was “an absolutely beautiful bottle.”
Another successful licensing venture was hosiery. “People would pick up their skirts, and say, ‘I’m wearing your hose,'” said Karan. “The reason I did hose was because my skirts were opening up all the time. I was so obsessed with these black opaque hose. They had to go with my bodysuit. It was underneath the clothes was more important than what was on top of the clothes, which today is probably the most important part of fashion,” said Karan.
So with all that emphasis on undergarments, Foley asked, where does that leave aspiring designers who want to go into fashion?
Karan said she’s very involved with the Parsons School of Design, which she attended, and told them that when she was at DKI she would hire all “her kids” from London because Parsons didn’t have a graduate program. “So I started a graduate program at Parsons [in 2010],” said Karan. “Then, I said, we have to teach them differently with a different headset.” At that time, she was traveling to Haiti, and she took the Parsons School of Design students to Haiti to work with the local artisans, starting in 2015. “Instead of sitting in school, today.…I think that’s the important thing you can do. We teach, they teach. We learn from them, and they learn from us,” said the designer, who supported the program through her Urban Zen Foundation.
Jumping back to the launch of her line, Karan explained what it was like when she was conceptualizing her Collection at Donna Karan International.
“It was seven easy pieces. It started out with a bodysuit, a wrap and tie skirt. I think the scarf is the most important thing, then I did a blazer, which was dedicated to my father who was a custom tailor, the sweater and a suede and leather jacket. I took the black jersey into a long skirt, and wrapped and tied it and it could go from day to evening. You could wrap this up in a ball, go to work and then go to the Met, and you don’t have to go home and change,” explained Karan.
Then jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris came into her life. Because she was doing so much black, she needed the gold for the jewelry.
She recalled when the AIDS epidemic broke out, she had this vision to “take all this stuff,” that collects in the office and sell it. Karan spearheaded the 7th on Sale initiative to raise money for AIDS. She went to Perry Ellis, who said it was a private, not a public, discussion. Ellis died, and she approached Anna Wintour. “She was the leader in all of this. It was Anna, myself and Calvin Klein. Then we asked Ralph [Lauren, who had a retail operation]. God bless Ralph. Ralph made that thing happen,” said Karan. She said all the American designers got involved, as well as the Europeans.
Today everyone’s talking about conscious consumerism and recycling.
“These clothes don’t ever go out. Sometimes hemlines go up and sometimes hemlines go down, and sometimes things better bigger and sometimes they get smaller, but I find most people say to me they have been wearing my clothes from the beginning,” said Karan.
Asked if she’s ever thought of herself as an industry organizer, Karan said, “I’ve never thought of myself that way. I do everything personally. What I feel from my heart, and what I see. Why do I do what I do. It talks to me, I can’t explain it…I see a problem and I see a solution,” said Karan.
Karan said there are two issues that she still stands for today. One is conscious consumerism, or having a reason to buy something with a purpose, and buy now, wear now. “Buy now, wear now was my dream that drove me to who I am today. I used to go into the stores in the summer and see shearling coats and fur shoes. Then I’d go in January, when the snow would come, and see little silk dresses and they were on sale. And I’d say, ‘who are we talking to?’ What really got me upset is when we were showing the consumer the fashion shows. So the consumer is buy now, wear now, and they see it online and want to buy it. But guess what? That was a fashion show, it’s not available for another six months. All the people are going to come in, knock it off and get it for cheaper.”
Five years ago, the industry launched ‘buy now, wear now,’ and it basically failed at the designer and luxury level and didn’t take off, said Foley.
“We’re an international world right now, we’re not only New York. Buy now, wear now is an American thing,” said Karan.
Discussing whether she still believes in physical retail, Karan said, “Absolutely. But I don’t believe it’s about me, me, me. I believe it’s the ‘we.’ It’s collective groups getting together with a point of view that we can all do this together.”
When asked whether she thinks the customer can be lured back, she said, “Absolutely. Why are people eating outside and loving it? The tent is great.” Karan said when she opened her Collection store on Madison Avenue, her dream was to have outdoor dining.
Foley recalled a conversation she had in 2016 with Norma Kamali and Karan, and how they never could have predicted what would happen over the next four years. Now that President Joe Biden is in office, does she see a shift that will impact fashion and how so?
“I can’t blame the political issues on what has happened in fashion only. You have to look at the virus, which has definitely hit it. Fashion was in trouble, I have to say I saw that. It isn’t a president who’s going to change fashion. We the people have to be the changers of it. We the people have to deliver a product that the consumer wants.”
And speaking of the president, Foley recalled Karan’s 1992 ad campaign, “In Women We Trust,” featuring Rosemary McGrotha being sworn in as president of the U.S. It was photographed by Peter Lindbergh. “The night before I was doing a different ad campaign, and I called Peter Arnell and I said, “I got it, it’s a woman running for president,’” said Karan.
“He made that happen in one night. I don’t know how he did it. It’s genius,” said Karan.
In wrapping up, Karan said she’d like to do her life story as a documentary, as opposed to scripted television. “I’d like it to be truthful and I’d like it to be honest. I never wanted to be a designer. I wanted to sing like Barbra Streisand and dance like Martha Graham. That’s all I wanted to do. That’s where the bodysuit came from.”
Asked if she thinks about her legacy, Karan replied, “There are so many things I haven’t done. There are countries I haven’t seen. People I haven’t seen. I don’t want to be in charge of, I want to be the inspiration for.”
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