NEW YORK — “I wanted to be like Barbra Streisand, but I couldn’t sing,” said Donna Karan to a packed audience full of students at Parsons The New School for Design during a Q&A with the school’s dean of fashion, Simon Collins. “But then I went into design here at Parsons and I burned my dress with an iron.”
Karan discussed her career path from her beginnings as a student at Parsons “who failed typing and draping class” to launching her main line; contemporary brand, DKNY, and shifting into philanthropy with her charitable effort, Urban Zen.
Today, Karan’s charitable efforts through the Haiti Artisan Project have provided employment for local artisans in Haiti.
“This is the answer for the entire world: We have poverty and artistry and we can go in and make a difference,” she said. “Be inspired and make a difference in the world. Dress people and address them. I love making a difference in someone’s life.”
Karan said she made her mark with stretch pants and the bodysuit.
“For me, the body was very important — and clothing with the comfort and the fit,” she said. “So thank God for stretch. I was the first person to put stretch into fabric. I was, like, this cashmere is really pretty but doesn’t go anywhere. Can you put stretch Lycra in this fabric? Everyone thought I was a person with three heads — which is no different from today, people still do.”
For the bodysuit, she said, it was for a selfish purpose: She couldn’t find a uniform to move around in during her yoga classes.
“The great thing about being a woman designer is you can be selfish and design for yourself,” she said, laughing. “When I did Donna Karan my daughter was stealing all my clothes and they needed clothes and I needed jeans that I couldn’t find in the market. I put a blazer with a pair of jeans because I wanted to see what else there was to wear with jeans.”
So DKNY was born in 1989, to appeal to the contemporary market.
Now in its 25th year, the brand competes alongside a very strong — and quickly growing — fast-fashion industry.
“People are doing cheap and deep and doing really good stuff,” she said. “At the same time, you’re not going to replace that of a collection. When you see it, feel it, touch it, you know why you’re paying a price for that. I’m not denying fast fashion’s importance. It’s like pizza and caviar. Caviar is for some people and pizza is for everyone.”
Another phenomenon absent from 25 years ago: the Internet.
“Like I said, I failed typing. I’m afraid one wrong push of the button and something will be gone forever,” she said of the Web. “Getting fast information is great, but when shopping online it’s a different experience. The idea is great, there’s no question about it. But every garment looks the same. And guess what happens? You get the garment [in the mail] and you touch it. What happens to the visceral experience? How does it fit me? The question now is how much is being bought on the Internet and how much is being returned on the Internet? With every exciting solution, there’s a problem that comes with it.”
A problem Karan doesn’t have: wearing black. It’s her signature color — synonymous with her Collection line — she’s rarely seen without.
Of other designers she loves, she referenced Rick Owens.
“I always thought if someone would be me it would be Rick Owens,” she said. “When I saw his first clothes, I was like, ‘That’s weird, that’s like me’ — but he does me better than me. I also love Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. Also I respect what Ralph [Lauren] has done. He, Calvin and I are partners in crime. Giorgio [Armani] — just look what that man has done. And Karl [Lagerfeld].
“As a designer I appreciate what they do,” she explained. “Would I wear it personally? No.”