The people charged with creating advertising for Donna Karan International have never had to look far for inspiration.
Season after season for the past two decades, the animating spirit behind the company’s marketing message has been Karan herself — her life, her travels, her passions, her personal relationships and her deep attachment to the city she calls home. Perhaps more than any other designer, she has cultivated an emotional connection with her customers, encouraging them to think of her stylish yet accessible persona as synonymous with her products.
“So many people now talk about emotion in communications and advertising,” said Trey Laird, president and executive director of Laird+Partners, which handles all advertising for DKI. “Donna’s been talking about that for 20 years. The emotion is so much more important to her than the clothes.”
The company’s marketing strategy first took shape under the direction of Peter Arnell, a former architect who ran a print design firm in SoHo along with partner Ted Bickford. In 1983, Arnell was introduced to Karan by Bergdorf Goodman president Dawn Mello, a mutual friend. “I had never been so excited by a dialogue in my life,” recalled Arnell of the meeting. “I felt like I had met the woman version of Peter Arnell — excitable, optimistic, naïve, knowing how to listen.” When he showed her the logo he had created for her new company, “Donna started crying,” he said.
Besides crafting the logo, Arnell designed the blueprint for the company’s personality-driven marketing approach. His ambition, he said, was “to hold up a mirror to her and basically angle it toward her.”
But before introducing his main character, the stage had to be set. Arnell eschewed images of models and clothing for a period of one year, focusing instead on scenes of New York shot by Denis Piels. “I knew it was probably more important to show where, as a company, we were coming from than what we make,” he said. “We were basically grabbing the culture of the greatest place on earth and we were going to harness it and present it as our own.”
Arnell’s decision to show no products was also inspired by the famous photo of the riderless horse in John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession, an image that impressed on him the power of absence. “What’s not there is what’s important,” he said. “What’s not there, people desire.” Over time, he would return to this approach — for instance, creating an eight-page gatefold ad that showed no hose to promoted the fall 1987 launch of Donna Karan’s hosiery line.
When the time came to put a person into the picture, the person selected was model Rosemary McGrotha. Dark-haired and relatively full-figured, as fashion models go, she was depicted in the fall 1986 campaign riding around town in the back of a limousine, boarding an airplane laden with bags or dressing herself in a messy bedroom with a baby nearby. The idea was to create images that would reflect Karan’s own glamorous but hectic life, said Patti Cohen, DKI’s executive vice president of global marketing and communications.
So successful were the ads at channeling Karan, said Cohen, “a lot of people thought Rosemary was Donna.” McGrotha also starred in 1992’s spring campaign as a female presidential candidate — an idea that came to Karan in a middle-of-the-night epiphany. Not surprisingly, Karan mentions the presidential ads when asked about her favorite campaigns.
The next major phase in the company’s evolution came with the 1989 launch of DKNY, Karan’s more affordable weekend line. The most famous piece of DKNY advertising is Arnell’s mural, at the intersection of Broadway and Houston Street, featuring the logo and New York skyline. It remains in place 15 years after it went up.
In 1994, Karan took her company’s advertising in-house, saying that the Arnell Group had become too expensive. She hired Laird, formerly an employee of Arnell’s, to be creative services director. (Laird started his own agency in March 2002, signing Donna Karan International as his first client.)
Laird’s fall 1994 campaign for DKNY represented a significant break with the brand’s past, most notably in its use of abundant, vivid color. The campaign, shot by Peter Arnell, looked at New York through the eyes of a younger person — a place of exuberant energy and possibility. “If the Collection was Donna in the limo or in this amazing apartment on Central Park West, then DKNY was out in the streets, interacting with the city,” explained Laird. One image, a young man in a suit inline skating down a busy avenue, was inspired by the late John F. Kennedy Jr.’s commuting habits.
In another departure, McGrotha, until then the exclusive face of the Donna Karan Collection, was joined in the fall 1994 campaign by other women including Linda Evangelista, Isabella Rossellini and Benedetta Barzini, an Italian journalist. Since then, a number of other celebrities have been featured in the company’s advertising, including Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons and Gary Oldman. Most recently, ads have featured actress Cate Blanchett, who was signed to a three-season deal. A pregnant Blanchett will star in the fall 2004 campaign, whose theme of rebirth corresponds to the company’s 20th anniversary.
Meanwhile, DKI has been developing new channels for its marketing communications. In spring 2001, it published the first issue of Woman to Woman, a magazine sent to selected customers and distributed through stores. Karan uses the semiannual publication to communicate with readers about the latest developments in her life, from her travels in Southeast Asia, to the marriage of her daughter, Gabby, to the death of her husband, Stephan Weiss, in 2001. Though it might seem strange for such a powerful person to share these intimate details of her life, it’s perfectly in character, said Laird. “Everything that’s personal with Donna is open. She’s never hidden anything about her.”
“What’s going on in my life affects my state of mind — I think that’s part of the creative process,” said Karan. “I don’t separate church from state.”
More recently, DKNY has tapped the power of film with two shorts, “New York Stories” and “Road Stories.” The films, which were distributed on CD-ROM and made available on the DKNY.com Web site, mark the culmination of Karan’s long-standing interest in using advertising to tell a story. “She always responds to stories,” said Laird. “She loves cinematic pictures that aren’t just fashion poses.”
“For me, it’s always about the cinematic,” agreed Karan.
But Karan’s advertising has not always lived up to the uniqueness of her vision, said Marc Gobé, president of brand design consultancy Desgrippes Gobé. “If you look at some of the recent advertising and take the name out,” he said, “you can’t differentiate one from the other.”
Gobé added, however, that the films mark a return to form for a brand with a history of distinctive, high-impact campaigns. “This is very innovative,” he said. “They’re using print advertising to lead people to the Web, where they can view film and videos about the brand. It’s a powerful way of engaging with people.”
There are certain limitations involved in creating advertising for a brand that is so intimately bound with the identity of its founder, acknowledges Laird. “Whenever we’ve moved away from a personal connection to Donna’s life and gotten too much into the fashion of the season, those are the times it hasn’t felt right to me,” he said. At the same time, however, when ads are rooted in the emotions and experiences of a real woman — particularly a woman as vibrant and expressive as Karan — the potential exists for words and images to take on a power that ordinary advertising could never achieve. “It’s not made up. It’s not something that was created on a whim,” said Laird. “It is telling a story that’s very true. It’s her life, her inspiration.”