Donna Karan is really an accessories designer who also happens to dabble in apparel. Perhaps that’s the most common misconception among consumers, and it’s one that both mystifies and amuses the designer.
“People always come up to me and say, ‘You make the best tights,’” she told WWD in February. “But then I always have to remind them, I make clothing, too.”
Other than the much-touted hosiery collection with Sara Lee, Karan has arguably not had the kind of accessories impact of some of her European contemporaries, but the category, nevertheless, has been a crucial ingredient in her “total concept” look from Day One.
WWD’s first Donna Karan cover in April 1985 pictured a model in a black wool jersey tunic and a matching jersey slim skirt. A timeless outfit, it became a chic fashion statement of its time with a bold gold belt, chunky gold bangles and a black hat.
Over the past 20 years, Karan has became as well known for her black bodysuits as she did for her bold black sunglasses, wide crocodile belts, crocodile-skin day bags, organic-shaped gold bangles and, of course, those ubiquitous black opaques — in other words, a New Yorker’s complete wardrobe.
“For me, accessories was the most important aspect of what I considered was a basic group of black outfits,” Karan said. “These clothes become the background to how she personalizes the clothes. The foundation is the clothing, accessories is the fashion.”
Because Karan always insisted that retailers sell all of her categories in one location, in an in-store shop, accessories were always part of the mix. Bergdorf Goodman was the first to embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly.
“When we launched her collection at Bergdorf’s, she insisted that we have all categories of merchandise in this shop,” recalled Dawn Mello, who was the president of Bergdorf’s at the time. “She wanted shoes, handbags, hosiery in one place. The space was very small….Just to try to create the appropriate selling situation was quite a challenge, but we did it and it worked.”
Mello particularly praised the hosiery for its texture and fit, and said that legions of women rushed to Bergdorf’s to meet the designer when she visited.
“When the hosiery was introduced [in 1987], I remember Donna taking her pantyhose off and giving it to customers so that they could try it on and get the overall effect of her head-to-toe design,” Mello said. “It just wasn’t about the clothes, it was about the total presentation. It was something so fresh and so accepted by customers.”
Robert Lee Morris started designing jewelry with Karan in 1983 at Anne Klein, and the relationship continued well into the designer’s signature career. Morris made jewelry and hardware for her belts and bags, as well as zipper pulls. Most iconic, perhaps, was the sea-buckle belt, which Morris designed in the late Eighties, and the body pin, which offered a solution to Karan’s fluid designs.
Morris explained, “I watched her trying to find a way to keep that famous stretch jersey wrap and tie skirt together, so I created the body pin, which was this curved sculpted gold pin that echoed the knotting and wrapping of her collection.”
Accessories also played a key role at DKNY, where the launch collection featured sneakers, baseball caps and men’s ties worn as belt pulls; rubberized leather handbags, totes and duffels, and pins in whimsical shapes such as manhole covers, planes, people and fire hydrants.
However, the company’s focus on getting DKNY off the ground shifted the attention away from the main collection’s accessories business and, in 1998, Karan decided to close the accessories division.
“At the time, we were putting all of our energy into DKNY and, as a result, Donna Karan accessories took a hit,” Karan told WWD in 2000. “I just wasn’t happy with the designs and felt it was better to halt the collection and come back to it later with a more focused eye.”
In 2000, she relaunched the collection with distribution intended for freestanding Donna Karan stores and limited specialty stores. The real push, however, will begin this fall under the auspices of accessories powerhouse and DKI parent LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The plan is to make accessories into a significant business, accounting for at least 45 percent of Karan’s total net sales in five years.
In her runway presentation for fall, the designer boosted the presence of accessories by showcasing several handbags, fur collars, jersey gloves, blown-glass dress fastenings by contemporary glass artist William Morris (no relation to Robert Lee) and fur shrugs.
In addition, the company is bringing back signature belts that were created in a collaboration with Robert Lee Morris, including the conch, the slice, the lock and the circle belt.
“I started with the bodysuit and whatever you add to it gives you personality,” Karan said. “These accessories become the way that you personalize the clothes.”