Kay Unger, Donna Karan and Michelle Lee.

Donna Karan never wanted to be a fashion designer.

That was the most revealing news that emerged Thursday afternoon at the Festival of New at the New School, where Karan and Kay Unger spoke on a panel titled, “The Power of Reinvention.” The panel was moderated by Michelle Lee, editor in chief of Allure.

“I hated fashion. My mother was in fashion, my father was in fashion. My father was a custom tailor,” said Karan.

“I wanted to sing like Barbra Streisand and I wanted to dance like Martha Graham,” she said. While she was “into dancing and the bodysuit, and all that,” she wasn’t that great a dancer. “But I dressed them instead,” said the 71-year-old fashion designer.

As a young woman, Karan applied to WWD for an illustration job, but was told she wasn’t good at illustrating. She had been deciding between attending F.I.T. for illustration or Parsons for fashion design. She chose Parsons. “I didn’t do so well at Parsons either because I failed draping,” said Karan. She also said when she made her first dress, she had her iron on it, and burned it.

Among the topics that Unger and Karan discussed were their first jobs, what it was like being a woman launching her own business, the pitfalls of going public, the problems with taking one’s eyes off the business, and the importance for a designer to have business knowledge.

Unger, a 74-year-old fashion designer and philanthropist, recalled that when she launched her first business (her father left her $25,000 and she spent it all in one fell swoop on Liberty of London fabrics), she hired two salesmen as partners, and one of them ended up embezzling from the company, forcing her into bankruptcy. Her Korean factory gave her $1 million to start all over again, and she launched Kay Unger New York. Karan, whose namesake business was growing so quickly in the beginning, told the audience in no uncertain terms, “Do not go public.”

Discussing the first jobs they ever had, Karan said she worked in a clothing store called Sherri’s in Cedarhurst, N.Y., because she needed money to go to school. She quickly found out she was good at it. “I realized at that time, that kids didn’t want to be dressed by older people. I was like this cool young kid on the block. I was like talking one to one. Now I dress all the old women,” she said.

Unger, who said she had a privileged Winnetka, Ill., upbringing and her parents wouldn’t let her work, got her first job when she was in Parsons, working as a camp counselor for 3-year-olds. She quickly learned she wasn’t cut out for that work.

Turning to current passions, Karan discussed her experiences in Haiti where she said, every person is an artisan, and how she puts people to work there through her Haiti Artisan Project. She discussed one of her most rewarding projects, her collaboration with Parsons on the D.O.T. (Design, Organization and Training) program, where they bring Parsons students to Haiti. D.O.T. is an artisan vocational training center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

“What I want for Parsons is for all of you to be able to get out there, and work with those people who need help. Look into something you haven’t done that can spark your interest that can take you to the next dimension,” said Karan, who’s been traveling to Colombia, Guatemala and all over the globe. The most meaningful thing for her has been her Urban Zen Foundation work, and addressing and dressing the past, present and future — the preservation of culture, health care and education.

Unger said she grew up in an environment where her mother wore couture clothing such as Charles James or Norman Norell.

“I was convinced that in order to be a designer I needed to be a genius, and I didn’t think I was that,” she said. Her parents bought her a sewing machine, and she would take all the quilts off the beds at night, and sew them into skirts. “The only problem was my parents thought the housekeeper was stealing them,” said Unger.

She first studied painting at Washington University and realized she wasn’t terrific at it. So she switched to fashion. She moved to New York with her first husband and enrolled in Parsons. She later worked for Geoffrey Beene, and made the decision that she preferred to design affordable clothes for the masses.

Karan then discussed what the early days were like, and how things never turn out how you plan them.

She told the story of how she worked for Anne Klein, who took her out of school. “What do you need to go to Parsons School of Design for? You got a job now,” she recalled Klein telling her. Karan guessed that was cool, and she didn’t go back to school (she eventually got her B.F.A. degree in 1987). She became an assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the assistant. “That meant making coffee, sharpening the pencils, staying up all night long, trying to do it all. I was really over my head. It was quite an amazing company at that time. As I failed draping, I failed my first job. I got fired,” she said.

She recalled when she first showed up at Anne Klein, they told her to take a walk back and forth. “I don’t want to be model, I want to be a designer,” said Karan. Klein asked to see her sketches. “And she hired me to make her coffee. And then a little vodka and club soda, depending on how late I wanted to stay at work,” she said.

Klein told her to get her passport and they would be going to Paris and St. Tropez. She said all these people were saying hello to her because they thought she was Marisa Berenson. They went to Paris and stayed at the Bristol Hotel. “This is not for me at all. I call up this man I was engaged to, and his name was Mark Karan. I told him to meet me at the airport and we’re going to get married. That’s how I got the name, ‘Donna Karan,’ she recalled.

She said she got fired from Anne Klein again (and re-hired) and wanted to start a little company called Donna Karan for herself and her friends. “All I wanted to do was a bodysuit, a pair of leggings, a wrap skirt. I did not want to do a collection. I just wanted to do my clothes for me,” she said.

But even before that, she recalled she was still working at Anne Klein when she went into labor. “I was in the hospital and we were trying to figure out how many buttons go on the blue coat during labor,” she said. She was planning to leave Anne Klein to be a mother, and told Klein she needed to hire somebody. Anne Klein said, “Donna, you can’t leave right now.”

Meantime, Anne Klein was also in the hospital. “I’m dealing with birth and death. They didn’t tell me because in those days, the word cancer was not discussed. I’m having a baby…I get a call from the office, ‘when are you coming back to work?’ And I said, ‘Would you like to know whether I had a boy or a girl??” She had a little girl, Gabby. “That’s nice but we have a collection due,” she was told. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about the stitches, I have a seamstress.’”

The company brought the entire collection to Karan’s new house on Long Island. The whole staff came out with the racks and clothes. Karan was sitting on a tire, because she wasn’t very comfortable, and it was day number six. “I thought we’d have bagels and lox, and that’s how you welcome a child,” said Karan. “That morning at 9 o’clock, the phone rings, and Anne dies.”

“The reason I’m telling you this story, is whatever you think about, it ain’t,” said Karan. “We can make all the plans in the world, but you’re being guided. From failing Parsons and not wanting to be a designer, still at the age of 71, I question what it’s all about,” she said. “Just go live it, be it, do what you can. Something up there really does guide us. The last person I wanted to be was a designer.”


For more stories:

Urban Zen Opens Winter Market, Discusses Education, Craftsmanship

Donna Karan, Parsons Link on Haiti Initiative

Kay Unger Named Chairman of the Board of Governors of Parsons



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