Donna Karan likes to take a hands-on approach.
That runs from draping sumptuous matte jersey over a woman’s form, running a hand over a Balinese teak table or cozying in for a chat on a massive stone chair sculpted by Japanese artist Izumi Masatoshi in the garden of her Madison Avenue Collection store. Yet for a woman whose name is as synonymous with bodysuits as it is with spirituality, creating Zen-like retail environs hasn’t come easy.
In a world in which minions are dispatched to take care of daunting or tedious tasks, Karan is not one to leave others to sweat the small stuff, or the big stuff. Instead, she pours over blueprints, makes rapid-fire suggestions and obsesses about the details — down to which scent she wants to permeate her stores.
In short, Donna Karan’s serenity is hard-won.
“The thing about working with Donna is that you always get a very honest and very visceral reaction to things,” said architect Dominic Kozerski of Bonetti Kozerski, who helped realize the Donna Karan Collection stores, DKNY stores, as well as Karan’s apartment overlooking Central Park and her East Hampton, N.Y., home. “The challenge is to read correctly that reaction. Usually it pushes you to next the level.”
That next level manifested itself in Karan’s Madison Avenue Collection store, which is situated in a three-story Carrere & Hastings brownstone built in 1852. The 10,600-square-foot space opened in August 2001 and is a play on light and dark with rooms of white, accented with sleek and rough touches — like a liquid black bench by architect Zaha Hadid, burnished brass pieces, slabs of wood, ebony granite and roughhewn limestone. One of the store’s major draws, however, lies in the back courtyard, which was made into a garden replete with a black granite wading pool and the aforementioned stone chairs.
“There were several iterations leading up to this store,” said Trey Laird, president and executive director of Laird+Partners, who was Karan’s executive vice president and corporate creative director at the time of the store’s opening. “I think that what Donna always wanted to capture was a sense of sensuality and warmth. So much of architecture and fashion, for fashion designers, especially in the last decade, has had more of a cold sensibility, kind of an austerity. And sometimes it is quite beautiful and really impactful, obviously that being the point, but it was not really her.”
To properly capture Karan’s oversized personality and exacting demands, Kozerski and his colleagues began building mock-ups of the stores they were planning in warehouses using old theater techniques to show Karan how the stores would look and feel.
They used stretch fabric scrims and and made models of a little corner of the store so they could test things like hang-bar height, the relationship of a table to a wall and how merchandise would space out.
“With Donna being such a great retailer, it was always such a lesson in store design,” said Kozerski. “Where you thought something had to be a particular way because that was the rule of design, Donna would approach it from a very sculptural or merchant or practical and moneymaking approach — she’d always take a different tack and spin the idea in such a way that it became a richer one.”
To that end, traditional store setups were pushed aside, and instead of filling the ground floor with the bulk of the collection, the space was merchandised with the majority of the women’s collection featured upstairs, as a way to lure shoppers further into the store.
“The ground floor is very much centered around the garden and that approach is about bringing a residential concept into a store, and I think that was something quite fresh,” said Kozerski.
For her DKNY stores — of which there are two in New York, one on Madison Avenue and one in SoHo, both opened before the Collection store — Karan’s vision was different.
“Donna wanted the DKNY store to be interactive and fun,” explained Laird, of the Madison Avenue shop. “Not just like ‘here are these sweaters.’ She wanted it to be a little bit more of a futuristic version of a flea market.”
“I had this obsession,” Karan told WWD at the time. “I wanted to walk in and see every color. All of a sudden, my eye had shifted. When your eye shifts, your eye shifts. I said, ‘Let there be color in flowers, sweaters and furniture.’”
And there was. The 16,000-square-foot store, which opened in August 1999, was an exercise in nervy urban grit with a glass facade, concrete floors, steel and mirrors blasted with bright shots of color. Additionally, the store housed myriad colorful home items like lamps, vases and pillows, as well as notepads.
Yet Karan also wanted the energy and vibrance of New York City to come into the store. This effect was accomplished with a mirrored wall that allowed the bustling traffic of taxis and buses to be reflected into the space.
“When we opened that store, it immediately became a reference point for many other stores,” said Kozerski. “We saw that white box with the constantly changing interior proliferate across many brands.”
The DKNY store in SoHo opened in August 2001, just before the Madison Avenue Collection store. Yet this time, Karan opted for a rustic, urban warmth with exposed brick, a skylight, wooden timbers, a mobile of birch logs — all offsetting the sumptuous bed situated in the middle. There are now 28 DKNY stores around the world and four Donna Karan New York units.
“The important thing about working with Donna is the level of involvement she takes,” said Kozerski. “Each of her suggestions is always some very strong gut feeling. It’s probably one of the most enjoyable things about working with her and one of the most challenging, because the gut is the hardest experience to make tangible.”