Donna Karan

A conversation with Donna Karan is never linear or, goodness knows, dull. Though the main purpose of this interview to discuss slower fashion in the post COVID-19 world, Donna started elsewhere, with her early academic challenges — she failed typing and draping. Yes, the Jersey Queen failed draping. But she didn’t linger there, moving on through assorted digressions, including these tidbits.


God Save Their Queen

“I was a kid at Anne Klein when I met the Queen of England in Bloomingdale’s, in the summer with my winter clothes on. She was coming to New York and she came to Bloomingdale’s. I almost had a heart attack. I had to go and practice with Calvin and Ralph: ‘It’s so nice to meet you, Your Majesty.’ I will never forget that as long as I live. When she came up, we weren’t allowed to look at her until she put her hand down. We had a complete practice to do it. I was in the subway in a blue suit and a hat and gloves because I had to wear gloves. I had to go on the subway because I didn’t want my clothes to get wrinkles. So this guy says, ‘Hey lady, you look like you’re going to meet the Queen of England.’ I said,’ Um-hmm, we are.’ I swear to God.”

Bright Lights, Chic City

“After Anne fired me, Patti Capalli hired me. [Donna would return to Anne Klein and stay for years.] I must have been about 21. She said, ‘Get your passport; we’re going to Paris.’ I go, ‘What?’ I’m a kid from Long Island. I didn’t know about this world. I lived by the railroad tracks. There I am, going to Paris. My face goes numb. She takes me to St. Tropez, we get in a convertible car and everybody’s topless. And I’m taking off my top and being the cool thing and whatever. So they kept on calling me, ‘Marisa, Marisa, Marisa!’ They thought I was Marisa Berenson. In Paris, I’m being inspired. [Back in New York] it was a lot of us. So I was the low one on the totem pole. All I did was sharpen the pencils.”

Two Kleins Walk Into an Elevator

“When I was working for Anne Klein, Calvin worked on top of me [at 205 West 39th Street]. The dress code was this: Calvin was neutral, my people wore all black, and then when I went to the Ralph building, which was 550, they were all in colors. So this is how we knew where the people belonged when we saw them in the elevator. There was a definition of brand, is what I’m saying. Anne died, and I said, ‘Calvin, why don’t we join the Kleins?’ I said, ‘Who wants to design, design, design, design? You could do one season; I could do another.’ He said, ‘No. I will never leave design. I love design; it is my favorite thing in the world.’ I go, ‘Calvin, what are you, crazy? I mean, hemlines go up and down. Give me a break.’ He didn’t join my posse. Meanwhile, he’s in California but I’m here, designing.”

 A Hot Sweater

“I get a call one day that says, ‘Barbra Streisand needs clothes to go with the fur coat of yours she bought at Bergdorf Goodman.’ I thought I would die. I mean, she was my idol, my dream. I’m meeting her for the first time. Anne had died, so it was me and Louis [Dell‘Olio]. I had done these chenille sweaters that were on the cover of Vogue and Harper’s. Everybody loved them, but I caught on fire because they were flammable. So I’m sitting at my shrink’s office [smoking a cigarette], and my sweater goes on fire. So Barbra walks in; of course, she wants the chenille sweaters. I said, ‘no, not even a maybe.’ They’re all laid out because we’re taking them back from all the stores. We can’t sell them. Barbra says, ‘I want the sweaters.’ I said, ‘You can’t have them.’ You don’t tell Barbra no. No does not exist in her vernacular. After all these years, she’s like my sister. But then it’s the first time I’m meeting her. Can you see it now: ‘Barbra Streisand Goes Up in Flames in an Anne Klein Chenille Sweater.’ She calls the next day. ‘It’s Barbra. I’ll give you a legal letter. You won’t be responsible.’ I go, ‘Nope.’ Two days later, it’s ‘Just give me the yarn supplier.’ Still no. So after, I open up my new Vanity Fair, and there she is, in my chenille sweater, off the shoulder, exactly the way I do it, the leg up, the hat. And she wore it in a movie, ‘The Main Event.’ I’m like, ‘How the hell did she get it?'”

A Cold Assessment 

“So [at Donna Karan] I did the Seven Easy Pieces collection, which was the bodysuit, the wrap-and-tie skirt, the da-da-da, all of which was supposed to be at the Met this year. I was really honored that they wanted the Seven Easy Pieces. So I’m redoing the bodysuit, the ‘Cold-Shoulder’ that, God bless you all [at WWD], you killed me for.”

“I know, Donna. I wrote the review. You remind me constantly.”

“Sorry! I didn’t know it was you.”

“Yes, you did.”

“And then Liza [Minnelli] comes in and gets a Cold-Shoulder, and then Hillary wears it to the [second] Inauguration. And I’m still wearing the Cold-Shoulder. Why? You never gain weight on your shoulder. I don’t care who the hell you are.”

Donna’s Alternate Political Universe 

“I had this idea that, what if we don’t have one president? We have five as a group, a collaboration. It was the mayor, Bloomberg; it was Oprah for communication, or somebody of that nature; it was a tech person, because technology is super-duper important — Bill Gates, because he’s so g-ddamned brilliant and he saw this [virus] coming. That’s three. A young Republican from Texas. I don’t know one at the moment. You put a group of people like that together, and you say, ‘OK, we’ve got a problem; we’ve got to come together and do this.’ In all honesty, that’s my biggest fear right now. How do we come together to deal with the crisis at hand? Who is going to be taking care of our government? Who is taking care of us?”

Donna was a little vague on that pesky matter of the Constitution, and on the fifth spot on her presidential team roster, maybe New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Or Joe Biden. “That’s why I said pick five. Put [him with] the other four, please God. You’ve got to help the man.”