IN 1974, A 25-YEAR-OLD KARAN MUSES ABOUT THE BUSINESS, INSECURITIES AND GETTING CHIC.
Byline: Keitha McLean, May 1974
Fashion is not a glamorous profession. What can really be glamorous about a rag you put between your legs? Fashion’s a business,” says Donna Karan.
Donna, the late Anne Klein’s associate designer, who after four grueling years of back-breaking work became an overnight sensation; Donna, the 25-year-old working woman who also believes in marriage and motherhood. “Behind every great woman there’s a good man — that’s my slogan”; Donna, who covered Interstoff last November when she was seven months pregnant — “And that far gone and 45 pounds overweight, Berry Berenson, I wasn’t!”
Ms. Karan is the designer who last Thursday brought New York’s fashion industry to its feet with her first complete collection for Anne Klein & Co. And she’s already getting jittery about the next one.
“I almost wished the collection hadn’t gone so well,” she muses. “What if I can’t do it again?’
The show’s over now, the models gone and the accessories packed up, and Donna’s in the mood to talk — about everything from drugs on SA to the Coty Awards to the advantages to a designer of being a woman — and to celebrate her success at one of New York’s de rigueur luncheon spots.
In her design room, jammed with congratulatory telegrams and flowers, Ms. Karan, selecting colors for a new scarf, supervising the hemming of some pants, posing for a publicity photograph, seems the epitome of designer chic — black pants just the right length, silky ivory shirt with long black fringed scarf knitted just the right way, sunglasses pushed up into glossy hair. Central Casting would love her.
It’s an image she shatters immediately. “Lunch uptown? What do I know from the Flair,” she says with characteristic, wry self-effacement, referring to the Seventh Avenue coffee shop hangout for models and junior designers. “For four years I’ve wanted to go to lunch, and what do I usually get? An individual can of tuna at my desk.”
Donna races down to the street where her limousine-for-a-day is waiting. She hails it; it isn’t hers. “What do I know. How many limos do you see on 39th Street anyway?”
Her car finally arrives, but before the driver can move to open the door, Donna darts into the back. “Oh hell,” she says ruefully. “I do everything wrong.”
Playing with the fixtures that accompany such block-long vehicles, she continues, “Anne used to say she couldn’t take me anywhere. She said first she’d teach me designing; second, she’d work on me personally.
“Unfortunately, there was no time for the second part.”
Gliding uptown, Ms. Karan fills in her background and how it feels to carry on the Klein spirit.
“I felt I needed another two years to come into my own, and I told them not to try and make me into something I’m not. It shouldn’t have happened like this, so fast. “I had even planned to take some time off after I had the baby, but now there’s just too much to do.
“This season, if the collection showed some of my personality, it’s because there was nobody there to change anything. It was impossible for me to be recognized with Anne here because of her great stature. However, we had always bounced ideas off each other like rubber balls. Now I have to make the decisions.
“I’m more afraid today than I was at the show. That was my first effort, and I did the best I could at the moment. Now there’s the fear that people will find out I don’t have what it takes.”
It’s pointed out that most people involved in any creative effort suffer similar insecurities.
“Yeah, but I’ve always got to prove it to myself.”
After a pause, she adds quietly, “It’s the way I always had to prove it to Anne. At one point, I tried so hard, I couldn’t do anything right, and she fired me. ‘There’s nothing you can do for me here right now,’ is how she put it. It was the biggest blow of my life.”
By now, the long car with darkened windows slides along 56th Street to the restaurant’s canopied door. Inside, Donna lopes through the room, looking fidgety and a little embarrassed when people stop her to offer congratulations.
At the table, she whispers, “I’ve heard that in these places there are good tables and bad tables. Is this a good one?”
It is, she is reassured.
“Fabulous, I can never figure these things out,” she says with almost unbelievable naivete.
“What do I know? My husband and I are plain, simple people — the most expensive thing we own is the $350 tuxedo he bought for Versailles. We live in the suburbs, for God’s sake.”
Over veal piccata, Ms. Karan fills in more details.
“I was born in Forest Hills, and grew up on Long Island. My father, who died when I was very young, was a custom tailor — he made suits for gangsters. I was practically born with a blazer in my hand — I guess that’s why I related to Anne so well.”
After a less-than-brilliant career in high school, Donna edged into Parson’s “on trial,” and tried to land a job with Anne Klein as a sketcher.
“When I met her, she said, ‘Let’s see how you walk.’ I thought, so what does walking have to do with sketching, but I walked and she said I’d never make a model. When she finally looked at my portfolio, she hired me — I was a great pin picker-upper — and [I] stayed nine months before I was fired.”
For the next year and a half, Donna worked under Patti Cappalli at Addenda, “learning and growing. I thought I wanted to prove that Anne Klein had made a mistake+no, let me change that, I wanted to prove I could make it. Also, I was trying to get my head together.”
Does being a woman bring any advantages to her work?
“You bet,” she states adamantly. “I can relate to clothes, try them on, understand the problems.
“I’d always been skinny, but when I grew breasts with the baby, I really began to understand what dressing women is all about.
“In fact, there are several looks in the new collection inspired directly by my pregnancy. They’re looks designed to solve women’s problems, pregnant or not.
“Many of the male designers just create fantasy — just costumes; nothing you can really wear anywhere.”
“Too many designers design for impact instead of reality — that’s why SA is in trouble. Look how many Coty winners are going down. You see them failing right and left. A Coty award is not the ultimate; it’s simply recognition of a job well done. I’d like to win one so long as it didn’t interfere with business. After all, you’re only a Coty winner for an hour.”
Apart from her new collection, Donna’s recent high spot was Versailles.
“It taught me unhysterics, and how to really do my show. Naturally, while everybody else was doing a number, I was at the hotel in my jeans doing hems. And after literally months of planning what to wear, I couldn’t get my look together+I arrived at Versailles wearing a pony tail, if you can believe that.”
It’s now mid-afternoon and espresso time — and time to talk about the future.
“Oh, more work — I’m already getting excited about the next collection — and more children.”
She pauses, looks around the room at what’s left of the lunch bunch. “And I want to broaden out. I’ve been thinking fashion-only long enough…”
Then she grins, “Oh yeah, I want to get myself together, you know, get tres chic. Like, I’d never met a Catholic until I got to Parson’s — that’s the kind of Jewish neighborhood I grew up in. Or like the time when we arrived at the hotel in Paris for Versailles; there were hundreds of police and I thought they were for us because we were Americans — what I didn’t realize was that the president of Libya was arriving, too.
“And at Versailles, we were invited to a ball, and I figured a ball means dancing, right? So I practiced up on my dancing and then nobody danced. It was weird. But then, I’m from Lawrence, Long Island, so what do I know? That’s why I’m going to get chic.”
And with that, she shrugs on a little black cardigan coat over her ivory silk blouse and black pants and sweeps out of the restaurant, with as much tres chic as anybody could hope for.
More From Donna
“Your whole closet isn’t and shouldn’t be full of expensive clothes. Great pizza is still great pizza.” — 1985
“No, I’m not your typical ceo — far from it. But to take a company from zero to $700 million says something about how we operate. Do we do it by the straight and narrow? Of course not. we cut on the bias.” — 1997