NEW YORK — Lynn Kohlman, a model and photographer who also served as Perry Ellis’ muse and in creative roles for Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger, died Sunday morning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center here.
This story first appeared in the September 15, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Kohlman, who was 62, had been battling breast and brain cancer for more than five years.
“Lynn was edge,” said Karan on Sunday. “She was the first model I ever used at Anne Klein, after Anne passed away — that’s how I met her. We remained great friends. She was the fashion director for DKNY, and she set the tone for Urban Zen. She was my inspiration.”
Karan wrote the foreword for and produced a book with Assouline about Kohlman’s life, “Lynn Front to Back,” a frank autobiography chronicling the model’s years in front of and behind the camera, her roles at fashion houses and her health struggles. Karan and Kohlman appeared together on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to discuss the book and how to survive various situations.
Kohlman’s fashion career began in the Seventies. After being rejected by Eileen Ford of Ford Models as being “too eccentric looking,” she was picked up by the Wilhelmina agency and modeled for numerous European fashion houses, including Yves Saint Laurent, Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes and Bill Gibb, as well as publications such as Vogue, Vogue Italia, Harper’s Bazaar, Harpers & Queen, Mademoiselle and Elle.
Perry Ellis called her for a go-see, the two hit it off, and he asked her to collaborate with him. As she wrote in her book, she was wearing a white oversize linen suit when they met, and Ellis did a whole show around that suit, in which everything was oversize. She modeled for him for years, but in the Eighties realized her modeling career was drawing to an end and Ellis encouraged her to pursue photography professionally, according to the book.
Karan said Kohlman “loved fashion, music, photography and whitewater rafting. One of her goals was to take a photo every day.”
She photographed numerous celebrities and fashion figures, including Karan and her family, Ellis, Calvin Klein, Patty Hansen and Keith Richards, Jeffrey Banks, Peter Lindbergh, former NFL quarterback Joe Theisman and Fran Lebowitz. She came to the attention of Andy Warhol, and shot for his Interview magazine.
“It seemed as though photography was always a part of her life, on both sides of the camera,” said Ingrid Sischy, a contributing editor for American Vanity Fair and international editor for its European editions and a former editor in chief of Interview, “perhaps most hauntingly when she got sick — she was very daring with her camera. She was a model of someone who wanted to lift the veil on this kind of suffering. It’s stunning, the way you see her journey, from the early days to the last days.”
Kohlman’s portfolio also included dramatic landscapes shot on wilderness treks and rafting trips to places like the Arctic Circle and British Columbia.
In 1988, Kohlman joined Donna Karan International and became a vice president and corporate creative director, where she spent 11 years and was instrumental in the development and evolution of DKNY.
“The iconic DKNY looks — the masculine-feminine, the sporty looks — that was Lynn’s style,” Karan said. “She brought that to us and to Perry. Just before she died, we brought the [spring] collection to show her in the hospital, and she was very specific about what she liked, and gave us a thumbs-up.”
After DKNY, Kohlman spent a year from 2000 to 2001 as executive vice president and global creative director of women’s at Tommy Hilfiger to implement corporate consistency across all women’s categories and product lines.
Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys New York, met Kohlman at a yoga retreat many years ago.
“She was amazing, charismatic and full of energy,” Gilhart recalled. “She knew the fashion business so well, having done so many campaigns with great designers. She always had style and was happy every day because she was alive. Even though she made her career as a model, she taught me that beauty is a facade. And even though her body had been ravaged by the cancer, which took away what we typically think of as beauty, her beauty came from the inside.”
Kohlman graduated summa cum laude from Oberlin College with a degree in art history, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She met her husband of 25 years, Mark Obenhaus, a documentary film producer and director, while they were Oberlin students.
“She was the model for a set of photographs of the typical type of woman who would be at Oberlin,” Obenhaus recalled Sunday. “We knew each other, but re-met years later through a mutual friend, which is when we got together.”
Kohlman is also survived by their son, Sam.
“The life expectancy for people with Lynn’s type of cancer is usually months,” Obenhaus said, “but she survived five years and a few months — and was able to see Sam graduate from Colgate this spring.”