NEW YORK — As Donna Karan slipped into a black gown trimmed with velvet stripes, then clamped a mortarboard to her head on Friday afternoon in preparation to receive an honorary doctorate in fine arts from New School University, the first thing she thought of was how much better that gown would look with pockets, or maybe if it was six inches shorter.
“I just felt like I have to add something to it, you know?” she said, hamming it up for the paparazzi gathered at a reception in the Club Room at Madison Square Garden here.
“What’s wrong with you?” she teased one of them, who laughed. “I’m a doctor! Or I’m about to be.”
Karan is arguably the most famous student ever to drop out of Parsons School of Design — now a division of the New School — and go on to become a successful designer. (Karan’s career is profiled in a Milestone supplement in this issue.) After struggling with her studies, Karan left Parsons in 1968 to work for Anne Klein, but it was not until she started her own business in 1984 that the designer completed the necessary credits for a bachelor’s degree, conferred by Parsons in 1987.
“For the girl who failed draping class, this is really something,” Karan said. “I had to go to summer school. I was told I’d never be a designer. I was told I should give it up and try something else. Now I’m a doctor.”
Karan was one of six recipients of honorary degrees at the New School’s commencement, staged at the Theater at Madison Square Garden for the eight divisions of the university with 2,383 graduating students. Theodore Sorensen, the former special counsel to John F. Kennedy; pianist and composer William Bolcom; artist Chuck Close; choreographer Katherine Dunham, and Peter G. Peterson, chairman of The Blackstone Group, also received degrees.
After discussing the fashion origins of the cap and gown at some length with New School University president Bob Kerrey —?Kerrey told her they’re Arabic — Karan gave a warm embrace to James Lipton, who is the outgoing dean of the New School’s Actor’s Studio and host of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” on PBS, and announced she had helped facilitate the recent appearance of her friend Barbra Streisand on his program.
“I’ve always felt I’m kind of like a doctor anyway,” Karan said. “I’m always walking up and down the halls of my offices and asking everyone if they’re OK.”
Chuck Close, whose honorary doctorate was also designated in fine arts, had a different take on the honor.
“I’ve always said, ‘Why don’t they give me a doctorate in gynecology?’” he said. “That would be more useful.”
— Eric Wilson