Asking people to list Donna Karan’s “Seven Easy Pieces” is a bit like asking for the Eight Wonders of the World or even the Seven Dwarfs — they always seem to miss one or two, or throw one in that doesn’t belong. Of course, everyone remembers the bodysuit. Few forget the wrap skirt or the strong-shouldered blazer. But when it comes to pinning down the rest of the seven components, things get hazy.
The confusion is cleared up (somewhat) by Dawn Mello, who introduced Karan’s first collection in 1985 at Bergdorf Goodman and explains that there really is no right answer. “The fact is that Donna was insistent on having seven easy pieces and that’s all she wanted in the boutique. But it was seven that turned out to be 70,” Mello recalled, laughing heartily at the memory. “Donna loved designing. So after she finished the seven, she just kept on designing. When the clothes came in, we had to redesign the whole shop.”
The idea of the seven easy pieces was born in Karan’s first collection, which bowed in May 1985 to a lengthy standing ovation and glowing reviews. WWD called it “New York fashion at its most sophisticated” and “a collection that’s close to perfection.” Karan’s concept was to speak directly to women’s needs and to solve their problems through a system of dressing that merged the professional and the sensual into a chic, comfortable package. At its core was the bodysuit that snapped under the crotch and stayed put. Over that went the rest: tailored pants, a wrap skirt, a tailored jacket, wrapped cashmere knits, a robe-like coat and an eveningwear piece — all in luxurious fabrics, and able to be worn in countless combinations. Black tights and sleek matte gold jewelry from Robert Lee Morris completed the look.
“It really reinforced the modern concept of interchangeable separates dressing,” said FIT’s chief curator Valerie Steele. “Donna would never claim to have invented it, but she took it to a new level. Claire McCardell had done interchangeable separates, but that was more playwear. This was very soigné, very sophisticated.”
But it wasn’t only Karan’s mix-and-match system that was revolutionary. She also freed women from constructed, zip-up-the-back clothing. “This was the time frame when most of the clothes were very structured, tailored suits,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, where the collection was also sold. “These clothes moved with a woman when she walked. It was all about getting in and out of limos and going to the airport and board meetings. You could go anywhere with your seven easy pieces.”
In addition to selling the collection, Mello herself was a fan. “I wore nothing else in those days,” she said. “And customers just loved it. It had a wonderful look to it. She was encouraging women to feel good about their bodies.”
Although the actual seven easy pieces in their somewhat literal form lasted only a couple of years, the concept of it is a thread that the designer has woven through many subsequent collections. She practically credits them with the success of the company in the diary she wrote for the September 1996 issue of Vogue detailing her three-week tour to drum up interest for her IPO. On Day One she writes, “Instead of bar charts and graphs, I’ll show my seven easy pieces, the idea that clothing solves problems.”
And besides a slide show, Karan gives a lesson demonstrating (on herself) how garments like her wrap-and-tie skirt are revolutionary for women. In Karan’s characteristic self-revelatory style, on Day Eleven she writes, “A major realization: My system of dressing works. I’ve been wearing the seven easy pieces two-and-a-half weeks without change through 20 cities, worldwide — yet my luggage is so light.”
Today, the pieces have a solid foothold in fashion history. Steele featured a look in FIT’s 1997 show, “Fifty Years of Fashion,” documenting important moments from Dior’s New Look onward. In 2003, Karan even referenced herself for the fall collection that revived the fluid wool jersey, wrapped silhouettes and general urbanity of her early days, albeit with a fresh take. And although vintage dealers, like Keni Valenti, don’t usually get requests for it, they are still bullish on it. “It was amazing,” says Valenti. “All that wrapping! It was so fresh and modern.” He does admit that designers who venture up to his showroom on “inspiration” trips make a point of studying its construction.
Decades owner Cameron Silver even makes the case for a return of the seven. “I seriously think if she brought it back and updated those pieces, it would be genius,” he says. “She could put it all in a little travel bag. Women would totally buy it.”
“That’s what people buy — those basic pieces,” he adds. “I have my favorite underwear and Levi’s that I buy two and three at a time. At the end of the day, those great basics are hard to find.”