DONNA’S HOT WHEELS
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — Leave it to Donna Karan to find symbolism in a broken knee.
Almost a month after the designer took a serious tumble on a Sun Valley, Utah, mountaintop, shattering the tibia plateau of her right leg, she took her first steps on crutches on Tuesday, limping into her Madison Avenue flagship. The expression on her face said that each one of them was excruciating, and, after a few minutes, she was back in a wheelchair.
“I’m tired, and that doesn’t make sense to me,” said Karan, who is so accustomed to a work-hard, play-hard mentality that when “some guy” had suggested heliskiing to her during a week-long vacation, the 53-year-old was on a chopper up the mountain that same fateful day. “It’s very rare for something to stop me, and this stopped me,” she said. “It’s been a gift in an odd way, telling me that I needed to stop. I look at a broken leg and I see symbols — I really needed to stop before I took the next step forward.”
Karan had been taking a lot of steps, quickly, in the past couple of years — some good, some bad and some in between. Following the hastily negotiated, $643 million deal she made in December 2000 to sell the publicly traded company Donna Karan International and her separately owned trademarks in Gabrielle Studio to LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Karan has faced some unexpected criticism over the financial condition of her business and rumors that she was being forced out of the company by new ownership. Last summer, she also lost her husband and business mentor, Stephan Weiss, who died shortly before the deal he helped negotiate to save the company was realized, leaving Karan to face a difficult transition on her own.
She is now paying tribute to Weiss’ impact on her life, having just made a $1 million endowment to Parsons School of Design to fund a visiting lectureship under his name on business strategy and negotiation, fittingly at a time when she is looking to his teachings for the strength to literally get back on her feet.
“There’s a lot of interest in what’s going to happen from both sides, mine and LVMH,” she said. “The one thing that everybody wants to see happen is for the investment to turn into their dream, my dream — our dream — of a world-class, luxury brand.”
However, she dismissed rumors of her imminent replacement as a misinterpretation of long-known facts, that Karan herself has made no secret that she needs to name a design director to replace Andrew Comley, who is moving to London. Within the company, speculation for a replacement has centered on Jane Chung, executive vice president of DKNY design, but there were also rumors that LVMH wanted someone with a higher profile to step in at the helm of the designer collection.
“A designer today can’t do their job without a design director,” Karan said. “I’m looking at many different options. I’ve wanted Jane to move over to Collection for years now. They’re not trying to get rid of me.”
She confirmed that former Daryl K designer Daryl Kerrigan has interviewed seriously for the job, adding that she has talked to a number of candidates. Not quite so serious was Karan’s own approach to fellow LVMH designer Hedi Slimane, whom she called something that sounded like “Heidi Shulman.” “Everybody is a possibility,” she said. “You see, I’m not afraid to say that because I have no ego. It doesn’t have to be about me designing it. I’m proud to say that Jane has done the job she has done. I’ve done this for 30 years now, so why wouldn’t I want to name a design director? Anne Klein named me when I worked for her. Believe me, I wish Jane had more visibility.”
Still, Karan doesn’t always give a straight answer on her future at the company, wavering between the commitment she made to her late husband and her own visions of a life of exotic travel or starting a new company. “Maybe it’s the Jil Sander thing that has everybody up in arms,” she said. “Yes, I am going through a lot right now. I’m not going to deny that. Maybe I do want a little time off, but I’m never not going to work on my collection. I love what I do.
“But yeah, I love traveling, starting new businesses and I am passionate about life,” Karan said. “But if I didn’t design, I wouldn’t know whose clothes to wear. I think Stephan would be really upset with me if I left, and there are three things I promised my husband. One was to hold our family together. Two, hopefully I will establish something in his name that will live on forever, and, three, to help realize the dream we shared for the Donna Karan company.”
Karan is in the middle of the second stage of what her doctors call “six, six and six,” or six days in the hospital following surgery, six weeks before she can put any weight on her leg and then six months of rehabilitation. A week after an operation at Beth-Israel Medical Center, during which a steel plate and six pins were implanted into her knee, Karan checked out and headed to her home in East Hampton, where she spends three or four hours a day in therapy, and the rest of the day on the phone talking to her office, coordinating fittings for her resort collection with the samples and models commuting to her, rather than her going to Italy as she had planned. Karan came back to the city this week to see her doctor, Norman Scott, who also treats the New York Knicks, hoping to get clearance to fly out to Los Angeles to host a birthday party for Barbra Streisand. The answer was an obvious ‘no.’
“I am a little annoyed, right now,” Karan said. “I had just come from the Oscars. I was really feeling great. My skiing was fantastic, and some guy started telling me about heliskiing. My instructor said my skiing was brilliant and that I could do it, but it really was my new skis that made me look better than I really was.”
It was her fifth day on the slopes at Sun Valley, on March 29. After sticking to the advanced intermediate trails and a few expert runs, Karan boarded a chopper to the top of the mountain. “You feel like you are in the most beautiful place on earth,” she said. The trails were ungroomed, but Karan made four successful runs, admittedly showing off for Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, a friend who happened to be at the resort at the same time. “I was pushing it,” Karan said. “I was tired. I made a fifth run, and when I turned, I fell and I knew that something was really wrong.”
She had to be towed in a basket back to the chopper landing, then flown to a local hospital before returning to New York for surgery. It was during that time in a hospital that Karan’s mind naturally went back to the events of a year ago, when her husband and business partner, Stephan Weiss, who negotiated the deal with LVMH, died after a long battle with lung cancer on June 10.
“Stephan was always a teacher,” Karan said. “What he tried to teach me was to listen. ‘Listen and take notes,’ he said, because there’s always a solution. ‘No’ is not an acceptable answer — it does not exist. And never be afraid to lose, because you can never be a loser. Any path that you take, you’re a winner.”
By all accounts, Weiss was a master of negotiation, approaching the deal-making process as if it was an art form. “I think that making art, creating a business or structuring a deal requires nonlinear thinking,” he once said. “Out of creative chaos, I look to create harmony and order.” Weiss was also an accomplished sculptor and, not surprisingly, was most prolific in his last years together with Karan. As she sat in front of one of Weiss’ last works, a giant abstract sculpture of steel wires that looked as if they were an extension of the spokes and wheels of her wheelchair, Karan recalled how, upon going into Stephan’s studio to settle his affairs, she was struck by the resemblance of his wire sculptures to her spring collection, with its wire protrusions. He always inspired her, even when she didn’t realize it.
“Stephan had the idea of teaching artists the art of doing business,” Karan said. “I thought that was great, because it was just so much of what my husband was about.”
To honor that memory, Karan made the $1 million endowment to her alma mater to establish the Stephan Weiss Visiting Lectureship in Business Strategy & Negotiation. The school plans a twice-annual series of lectures, featuring fashion executives discussing their views on the art and craft of structuring a deal. The first speaker when the series opens on May 6 will be Yves Carcelle, chairman and chief executive officer of the fashion group at LVMH, who sat across from Weiss during the negotiations to buy DKI. The printed program for the inaugural lecture is a tribute to his skill, with testimonials from Bob Kerry, president of the New School University; B.S. Ong; Tomio Taki and Frank Mori. Carcelle writes that his negotiations with Weiss “were the highest quality I’ve ever experienced,” describing his calm demeanor as “the exact opposite of most negotiations, where passions flare, people jump to conclusions and the shouting begins.”
With typical synchronism for Karan, the series takes place during a week in which she will also host board members of the Whitney Museum of Art to a luncheon in Weiss’ old studio, and the “Madison Avenue: Where Fashion Meets Art” promotion takes place on May 2. “People ask me how I can get through this without my husband here,” Karan said, and points to her knee. “This is much tougher than I thought it would be.”
Life in a wheelchair has offered Karan yet another perspective on life, as well as the realization that most designer stores, let alone New York sidewalks, are not oriented to the disabled. When she decided to fill some of her time by painting portraits, for instance, she headed to a downtown paint store but couldn’t even get in through the front door. Then again, there’s not much in this world that could truly confine Donna Karan, whose good leg is at this point wrapped around behind her neck in a demonstration of her ability to maintain a solid yoga pose, despite doctor’s orders. (Yes, she’s even attempted a couple of handstands since the fall.)
“I’m so good now,” Karan said. “I’m going heliskiing again.”