A conversation with Donna Karan takes off. Lead with her fabulous fall fashion show—the stated topic for a conversation over lunch at the Stephan Weiss studio—and she’s recounting spring break with Gabby and the grandkids in Costa Rica; appreciate the salmon and she’s opening a restaurant. Ask about Urban Zen’s recent turn toward wholesale, and she wends back not only to a prelaunch meeting circa 2006 with Yves Carcelle (included here) but to Anne Klein-era exchanges with Frank Mori and Tomio Taki (interesting but too off-topic for the space allotted).
While Karan’s antilinear thought process makes for circuitous banter that can exasperate the journalist, it engages the lunch companion. And it’s never about evasion. Asked about that exquisite fall collection, her new chief executive officer and fashion group president, her future and the rumor mill, she answers it all—eventually.
WWD: The show was amazing.
Donna Karan: After runway, I had to go to Italy, then Paris. I just came back from Costa Rica. Costa Rica was my first shot of saying, “Maybe there is hope.” It’s not all commercialized. It was pure. The people were pure, the restaurants were pure. It was the opportunity for me to be with the family. Gabby’s kids were off on school break…
WWD: After New York and before Costa Rica, to Italy?
D.K.: Yes, to do Urban Zen. That’s why I went to Paris. We showed the Urban Zen collection. We don’t show it, we sell it.
WWD: You began wholesaling Urban Zen a year ago. How’s it going?
D.K.: I’m having a fight with myself.
WWD: In what way?
D.K.: I want to do it, I don’t want to do it; I want to do it, I don’t want to do it. People come in and they love the collection. There’s uniqueness to it. It’s seasonless, timeless. There’s definitely a customer for it out there. She’s not [wanting only] what’s new, what’s new, what’s new, what’s new, what’s new. It’s the opposing opposites. So I’m living in both worlds. Collection is what’s new and Urban Zen is how you find the calm in the chaos in fashion. I find that balance between the two, I like. I don’t think I can do either-or. It’s really a question of “and” for me. From the creative standpoint.
WWD: Why wholesale Urban Zen, which launched as a retail-only project?
D.K.: It’s not wholesale as you know it. It’s very particular people. Like A’maree’s in California. They only go to Paris, so for them, [writing the line there is] easier. Trudie Goetz [owner of Trois Pommes] in Switzerland. There are people who see Urban Zen as a staple. They love the store. So I’m doing it very, very, very, strategically.
WWD: Why wholesale it now?
D.K.: People came in. They said, “Donna, we love the clothes, we really want to carry it.” I said, “If it’s the right partnership and you understand the philosophy of the brand—you’re not going to have resort and you’re not going to have spring when you have spring. I’m not changing that. If that’s something you believe in, let’s give it a try.”
WWD: The decision wasn’t a hedge against possible changes upcoming at Donna Karan, or your position with LVMH?
D.K.: Oh hell no. If anything, it would be the opposite.
WWD: What do you mean?
D.K.: When I met with Yves Carcelle [about launching Urban Zen], I was very clear about what I wanted to do. I very rarely say it, but the truth is, I had a vision. I can explain it verbatim in terms of how I saw Urban Zen. Stephan was still alive at the time and I even asked him, “Can I have your studio, please?” because I saw it as a studio. I saw it as a restaurant; I saw it as a living center. I saw it as a center for change. That was what I wanted to curate. I said to Yves, “I’ve done Donna Karan; I’ve done DKNY, I feel this is the next dimension.” And he said very clearly, “Why don’t you keep Urban Zen for you? We’ll keep Donna Karan and DKNY. You’ll still do them. But it’s your baby.”
WWD: “You keep Urban Zen, we’ll keep Donna Karan and DKNY.” So you have perhaps not a different level of emotional or psychological interest, but a different level of financial interest. And therefore, a different level of control.
D.K.: As interesting as that may be, and I have to go back to Anne Klein, whether I owned it or not, it was mine. When you have a child and you adopt a child, whether you had the child or you didn’t have the child, that child becomes your child.
WWD: But take the baby out of it. Donna Karan isn’t only yours.
D.K.: Donna Karan will always be mine.
WWD: Let’s talk about the show. What was your aim?
D.K.: I wanted to say with this collection that it was about the elegance, about the craft. Fabrications are incredible right now. Fabric always talks to me. It tells me, “Hi, I love you.” For me, it is and always will be about the fabric. The fabric and the body. The fabric tells me one thing and the body tells me another. If I look back at all of the collections I’ve done, I know when I go this route and I know when I don’t go this route. It’s very simple. I put the shoes on the floor and I go, “Am I showing flats, am I showing heels, am I showing boots?” It’s all really defined.
WWD: This collection…
D.K.: It was a romance—in modernity, the two worlds coming together, a modern romance. It had geometry and it had softness. It had power and it had calm. It had all of the conflicting opposites. Originally we were going to put white in the collection for a real black-and-white, opposites-attract kind of feeling. But I felt the silhouettes really said it all and the white would detract.
WWD: It was modern and romantic, powerful and calm. And it was gorgeous.
D.K.: I got nervous. I thought, either people would love it or I’m going to get whacked completely.
WWD: This salmon is delicious.
D.K.: My daughter wants to open a restaurant here. Have you been to her restaurant yet?
WWD: I have not.
D.K.: That’s where I really wanted to do this interview, but she doesn’t do lunches. She took Stephan’s artwork and put it in the restaurant, she empties out my space and I go, “Where can I find my vase?” and I look in the restaurant and the vase is there. I was in India and she goes, “Oh Mom, you don’t need them, those hand-painted pillows, you don’t need them.” She did it all by herself. I did nothing. The only thing I did was the biggest mistake in the restaurant, but people like it so I’m not going to say a word.
WWD: What did you do?
D.K.: The grout.
WWD: People say they like the grout?
D.K.: No, it’s a tile. I said, “Gabby, the whole restaurant is gray gray gray gray gray gray.” She steals my table by the way, from my house. That’s the communal table at the center of the restaurant. People love to hang out.
WWD: It sounds wonderful.
D.K.: I’m so proud. She has all of the Haiti product there and all of my husband’s product there. She’s just…I do see a mini-me…The salmon [on her plate; not Gabby’s] is delicious. I should open a restaurant here. I want to do a healthy restaurant. And I don’t mean healthy like organic, just good, healthy food. So that is my next step.
WWD: Do you ever just want to—
D.K.: Not do anything?
WWD: Think you’re doing too much?
D.K.: No, there’s too much to be done. I feel like I’ve been gifted. God gave me a gift and I have to use it. My truth is that I think it would be very spoiled of me to be given a gift and not use it. Dressing people and helping them, it’s just part of who I am.…It’s never about me; it’s about the we. My relationship with Peter [Speliopoulos, senior vice president of design], my relationship with Jane [Chung, executive vice president of design at DKNY], my relationship with Patti [Cohen, redheaded right hand]. It’s been so many years. This goes back to Anne Klein, that’s the weird part about the whole thing. Jane has been with me since she was in Parsons School of Design and she didn’t get my award.
WWD: Who got your award
D.K.: Oh my God, Isaac Mizrahi.
WWD: Isaac! But back to the show. Do you find it difficult to stay focused on a collection?
D.K.: Me? Why would you say that?
WWD: I’m serious. There are some rumors flying around.
D.K.: OK. My situation is a very clear one. When I’m on, I’m on. When I’m off, I’m off.
WWD: That’s direct.
D.K.: When I’m thinking Donna Karan, I know exactly what I have to do there. I’m in the zone. Otherwise I couldn’t have done DKNY and Donna Karan with two completely different philosophies and kept them both alive. Most designers just don’t do one thing now, do they?
WWD: Increasingly, employee designers tend to do one thing now. Not all, but most. Karl Lagerfeld is an extreme exception.
D.K.: But I’m not an employee.
WWD: You are in a demanding partnership.
D.K.: When I go to Donna Karan, I am Donna Karan. When it comes to Urban Zen, I’m Urban Zen. It’s like I have eight grandchildren. I keep saying to Gabby, “Can you get pregnant again, please?” I need a little one; they’ve gotten too big for me. I want to get them before they hit the computer.
WWD: Donna, let’s get back…
D.K.: Yes, here we are.
WWD: Talk about your early insecurity through the design process.
D.K.: I did not love this collection.
D.K.: I wish I could explain this one. I loved the leathers and suedes; I got very, very excited about those when I was in Italy. We were having a problem with the length. I wanted a pant collection, I was feeling very, very strongly for pants, and skirts were a problem. Dresses were the biggest problem.
D.K.: Because when you’re not feeling drape, you’re feeling structure. In a structure collection, you’re structured, and there’s not that many places you can go that you haven’t gone to before. Been there, seen it, done it.
WWD: Why were you feeling for structure?
D.K.: Because the fabrics talked structure. I flipped for them. When you see the fabric you think, “Oh my God, what I can do with this, what I can do with that….” I wasn’t feeling liquid. That was a struggle for me, like saying, “You can’t wear flats.”
There’s a crossover between last season and this collection. I was evolving it, and that’s when I get nervous. I was taking it to the next dimension. Then, I started doing the skirts, then I fell in love.
WWD: What changed?
D.K.: That was the last part of the equation. And the evening. I said, “OK, we’re not going liquid.” It was that constant balance between liquid and structure, liquid and structure. Once you get into structure, it kind of puts you into a structure. I’m not the most, how do you say, structured? How do you stay within a structure? The yogi in me [loves liquid] and the mobility, but I wasn’t feeling it. So I couldn’t go there even if I wanted to. I was loving jackets, I was loving tailored, I was loving that whole thing. But this little voice in my head kept going, “Donna, where’s the draping?” I knew that’s what the retailers would say to me: “Where’re my jersey dresses?”
WWD: The structured tiers—so beautiful. Your strapless dresses were interesting.
D.K.: It all started with the element of the cummerbund. The Asian influence, definitely that feeling of geometry. The first piece that came out, the strapless piece that was all done in sections. That, for me, defined the show, once we got the fabric to wrap the body in a geometric form.
What I wanted to say was New York—which you saw in the background, the lights of New York. I’d traveled all over the world; I’d taken people on journeys and taken them to the body. Last season, last fall was the movement of the body; this was about the structure of the city.
WWD: It’s quite a process.
D.K.: How can I explain what talks to me and what doesn’t? But that’s how it happens. And then, when you put the brocades and the layering on it. From here, everything else fell into place. That defined the collection.
WWD: Was there an “aha” moment?
D.K.: Once we got the angles, then came the sheer. But it’s not a fluid collection. It’s a very strong, direct statement of power. It was very defined. My husband was a sculptor. It reminded me of Stephan. You know, it was all of that when I got into structure.
WWD: Was it a more emotional collection for you than usual? Or are they all emotional?
D.K.: I knew it was good. Let’s say that. I knew it was really, really good. But I didn’t know what the response would be to it. I’ve never showed a bad collection. I always expect to be at a certain level. I think maybe it’s experience, the understanding of draping, the understanding of the body. There is something to be said for experience.
WWD: Can you define for me where you are right now as a designer?
D.K.: I can. Reflective and moving forward.
WWD: Where are you as a company principal?
D.K.: As a company principal, somebody who is passionate from the past to the future. I think the new people aboard are great, I’m very exited about Caroline [Brown, ceo, Donna Karan International] and Pierre-Yves [Roussel, chairman and ceo of LVMH Fashion Group].
WWD: What is your relationship with Pierre-Yves?
D.K.: Very good. I feel that they’ve embraced me…Now, I feel more integrated. I like Caroline. Partners in crime are great to have.
WWD: Do you feel you connect with her?
D.K.: I like her as a woman; I think her strength is there. She’s a strong businesswoman. She has a strong point of view. I think she’ll look at something with a fresh eye and I appreciate that. Do I see what I see? Yes I do. There’s no question I have a vision of what I see for the company.
WWD: Do you think you share a vision?
D.K.: It’s interesting. We’re dating. It’s a getting-to-know-each-other. As a woman, I think she’s really nice. I like dressing her. It’s nice to have… I feel more like an equal. Woman to woman. A real woman-to-woman discussion about reality.
WWD: LVMH is quite proactive with its American brands these days.
D.K.: Coming into the picture, Caroline has a fresh eye; I think Pierre-Yves has a fresh eye. They’re young, they’re energized, they’re excited. They love the brand, which I find very exciting. Pierre-Yves respects design, which is unusual.
WWD: It shouldn’t be.
D.K.: It’s beyond the respect. I think it’s innate in his DNA, so to speak. Do I have my vision? Without a doubt. I’ve never sat here and said that I don’t see what I see for the future of this company. And it’s been frustrating for me, beyond belief.
WWD: Go on.
D.K.: It’s been frustrating to see the potential of a company [and to] not reach its potential.
WWD: What were the issues?
D.K.: It’s hard to say, “the issues.” It was the whole strategy of the company…
The concern was obviously DKNY, DKNY, DKNY, because the scope of it, the intensity of it…You have to build a company here and here. [She indicates high and low with her hands.] You have to grow the high end, you have to grow the bottom.
WWD: There’s considerable musing about changes at DKNY.
D.K.: You know what? I hope there’s big change for the future because what’s happened there, respectfully, I have not been a fan of.
D.K.: Listen, I think DKNY has a mark that’s strong and unique. My vision for DKNY has always been the street scene of New York City. It has never changed. I want the mother, I want the father, I want the daughter, I want the baby, I want the child. I want it as her lifestyle. The lifestyle is my dream of DKNY. It was about being on the streets of New York City. When that poster came down, I was devastated. You know the big DKNY poster. I mean, it was iconic to New York.
[A huge mural of a view of Manhattan through the cutout letters DKNY, the Statue of Liberty in the foreground of the K, graced the corner of Broadway and Houston from 1992 until 2009.]
I think Jane Chung is a genius. I love her to death. She’s my family; she’s a part of me. She’s my other side. She is somebody I started a brand with, birthed the brand…
WWD: Is there a search on for a new creative director for DKNY?
D.K.: Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve heard a lot of rumors. Who’s taking my place? If I could think of a designer to take my place, there are two: Rick Owens and Alber Elbaz.
WWD: You’ve had a series of ceo’s, yet not much happened. What’s different now?
D.K.: I think a reality hit and somebody said, “You know what? This was a good investment. The Donna Karan Company, Donna Karan New York. I think it has a position.” We’ve kept to our brand [identity]—I don’t think we’ve disappointed from a design point of view. Did it grow where I wanted it to grow? No. I think when you’re with a partner, an owner, there’s vision.
WWD: Are you prepared to do things differently?
D.K.: This is a very hard discussion for me right now because we’re right in the birthing stage where everything is happening. New people. New everything.
WWD: You’re in the birthing stage, but you’re 30 years into it.
D.K.: Oy vey, I’m exhausted. Can you imagine—68 and having a baby?
WWD: Do you want to continue designing?
D.K.: When I look at my future, I’m saying, “Here I am, Donna Karan.” Do I still want to design? I love designing. I love fabrics. I’m a designer. You can’t walk away from that.
WWD: What if Caroline and Pierre-Yves came to you and said, “You have so much going on, we want to bring in a designer. You can do Haiti, you can do Urban Zen, you can consult here and represent the house as its founder, inspiration and guiding force.” What would you say?
D.K.: Probably not. I don’t know what I would say. I think they really like me. It’s hard for me to say that. I think they really respect me, as a designer…
We’re romancing each other; we’re getting to know each other. They’re getting to know me; I’m getting to know them. I like them, I really do. I have a tremendous respect for them; I think they’ll take care of the company, which I care about.
WWD: You’ve had a series of ceo’s who didn’t leave significant imprints. With Caroline, and Pierre-Yves in his role as president of fashion brands, that seems sure to change.
D.K.: There’s no question about it, I think change for the better. I think we all have to agree on something. As I said, we’re dating. I’m married to my company; I’ll be married to my company whether I’m there or not there. I love the company, it’s my baby. Am I still going to design there? I assume so. I’m working on resort right now; I’m working on next spring. Resort is coming in June and we’ll be saying, “What do you think of the collection?” It’s pretty, you’ll like it.
WWD: You’ve always had a strong point of view. What would you tweak if you could?
D.K.: Do I believe in a closet that is holistic? Absolutely. Today, if I could do it all over again, would I put DKNY and Donna Karan together? Probably.
WWD: That’s being done elsewhere within LVMH.
D.K.: I think it’s great. I think Marc [Jacobs] has a great opportunity. It’s refreshing and exciting.
WWD: Would it work here?
D.K.: Jane and I have talked about this so many times, about if we could, we would. From a business point of view, the way Donna Karan and DKNY are set up, I don’t think it could be done at the moment. I think DKNY has such an established market place. I would love to do a store that mixes DKNY and Donna Karan. But it would be a different store than DKNY and Donna Karan because that’s what’s in my closet. I’d call it My Closet.
That’s where I started. I needed a pair of jeans, I needed outerwear, I need my T-shirts. Of course I think it can be combined. Ralph does a magnificent job at it, brilliant. If there’s anybody out there that I can say hit the nail on the head, it’s Ralph Lauren. What that man has done.
WWD: Remarkable. His favorite line is “I do what I do.” He’s stuck to his vision, expanded and deepened it.
D.K.: Ralph continues to be relevant. The new [Polo] store on Fifth Avenue—it’s evolved. It’s clean and fresh and has a purpose.
WWD: What’s next for Donna Karan, the designer, the person, the company? Donna Karan the designer first.
D.K.: I will always design. I will always be inspired. My dream is a motorcycle diary. I want to get on the back of a motorcycle and create in Third World countries. That’s my dream. I’m 60-how-old?
WWD: You’re young at heart.
D.K.: I say, OK, my clock is ticking. How do I get done what I want to get done? Is this going to be a dream in this lifetime or a dream in the next lifetime?
WWD: The next lifetime—another interview.
D.K.: I haven’t seen enough of the world yet. I’m affected by the world and there are a lot of places I want to go. I really want to continue that work.
Can I do it and do my job at Donna Karan? I think the beauty of what I’m able to do, and similar to that of Karl, I can multitask. Do I have to be there 24/7? I don’t think so. Because of the way the schedule works, I’m able to do my work and able to live. If it was at the point where I had to be at that office 24/7, no I couldn’t do it. Do I love Urban Zen? Absolutely; it’s a very important thing for me.
Do I love my company? Absolutely, I adore my company and I want the best for it. Are there designers I think are just absolutely fantastic out there? [Yes, but] I worry about the representation of a name, a label, a company that I hold close to my heart. I want to be able to be proud of it for the rest of my life.
WWD: Donna, I asked you what’s next for Donna Karan the person and the designer, and you said you’d like to get on a motorcycle and do design projects in Third World countries. Can you see how those whose primary interest is growing the company—Pierre-Yves Roussel, Bernard Arnault— might—
D.K.: They’ll get a little bit nervous? But I’ve been doing it. I’m doing it right now. I did deliver a collection that you loved. I’m saying that I can do both worlds. I don’t have to live in this singularity of the world. I’m established enough as an eye, a draper, a critic, as a designer, that I’m multifaceted. I’m able to do it.
WWD: You said earlier that it’s “about the we.” Do you feel confident that you can work with the business-side “we”?
D.K.: I really do like Caroline and Pierre-Yves. It’s a mutual respect, which I think is unique. Has it been there before? Not necessarily. Is it there now? I do believe it is. I care about what happens here. I think the mark that Donna Karan has made is something that can live on for many years.
WWD: And you’re as passionate about your involvement as ever?
D.K.: That is my name that sits on that door. It always will be.