On a crisp afternoon late in September, Donna Karan is sitting on a Chelsea park bench overlooking the Hudson River in New York, reflecting on her spring collection—one of her strongest and most controlled in years.
“You are looking at the collection right now,” Karan says, wrapped in a cashmere scarf and gesticulating at the choppy seas. “It was the sky, the water, the environment. Where is that place you go to find the calm?”
Calm is a state of mind that Karan has pursued like fashion’s holy grail practically since she launched her own label in 1984, and this collection exuded the sentiment more so than any in recent years. A natural progression from her resort offerings, it was made up of stony, sandy grays and a deep sky blue that verged on slate, and Karan employed her signature draping and cutting, bringing a casual elegance to crepe jersey and washed linen.
Karan, who likes to collect rocks on the beach and take them to her fabrics team to find corresponding hues, typically spends time during the winter months at her home in Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos, but this time she also made it her summer destination.
“I really appreciated the place probably more than I had in the wintertime,” she says. “The water was so warm. You just float and look into the sky, and [there’s] that kind of feeling that reminds me so much of the collection.
“Then I thought, how do you hold onto that natural instinct, but yet bring it into that sophisticated, urban world?” she adds. “I was feeling that it was time to look at the urban sophistication.”
Karan often talks in abstracts, and over the years, she has been on so many spiritual journeys that one has almost come to expect it from her—even she herself sometimes takes a jab at her own wandering mind.
Karan has been juggling the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton–owned Donna Karan Collection and DKNY brands, as well as, more recently, her own Urban Zen stores and initiative. Then there are her social and humanitarian efforts. Karan has been instrumental in getting the ball rolling for several major projects, including the first 7th on Sale benefit to battle AIDS, and Kids for Kids, the carnival-type event that helps the Pediatrics AIDS Foundation. She also underwrites Super Saturday, the annual designer sale in the Hamptons that she started with Liz Tilberis in the late Harper’s Bazaar editor’s backyard to help fund the fight against ovarian cancer.
On this afternoon, less than a fortnight after her runway show, Karan makes crystal-clear sense—perhaps because the world is finally catching up to her ideas and ideals. Karan long has been speaking out about the flaws of the fashion industry, from a delivery season that is out of whack to a show system in overdrive that may help to hype fashion, but hurts it when the clothes actually hit retail months later. She also has been making a case for incorporating more of a social conscience into fashion, which seemed, perhaps, like esoterica years ago, but now has resonance and relevance.
The transformative financial crisis has much to do with sentiments shifting in Karan’s direction, but Karan isn’t one to feel a sense of vindication, let alone rest on her laurels. The economic fallout has become a new challenge for the designer, who considers it another addition to her list of causes.
“Now more so than ever before, I think that we are at a time of change,” she says. “But at the same time, I have a whole philosophy. I really do believe it’s about conscious consumers. We have to level it up beyond fashion. What is fashion right now? Not only that you are dressing yourself, but being prepared and aware that this industry is at stake right now.”
Karan admits that, in all of her extracurricular work, she never really considered the fashion industry as a philanthropic endeavor, until now. “It was always about how to engage the customer and how to talk to the customers on some of the major issues that we are dealing with, but I realized that the main issue we are dealing with right now is the fashion industry,” she says. “You think of all the millions of jobs that are at stake. I look at the sewers and I look at the fabric people. I look at the mills and I look at all of that which we are responsible for. And I always felt responsible for my people, but now this feeling is on a much higher level.
“This is survival—who’s going to make it, who’s not going to make it; how are we going to keep our customer?” Karan adds. “Being an optimist, I’m not going to say that it’s not going to recover, or ever be the way it was. It’s going to be different, and I think we needed that change, that wake-up call. We’re looking for new innovations, for new ways of thinking. You can’t just think about what’s going to go down the runway.”
Beyond the conscience, Karan says now is the time to shift fashion’s delivery cycle to bring clothes into stores in-season. She has been a relentless advocate of the move for years, which at times earned her the moniker of a “fashion radical.” The recent onslaught of early markdowns and the ongoing reluctance of shoppers to spend, particularly on clothes that may be marked down by as much as 70 percent by the time they should actually be worn, underscores Karan’s message.
“When I first started the company, prior to DKNY, fall and winter were always more luxury driven than resort and summer,” Karan recalls. “I wish summer was back again as opposed to two fall collections. With the overabundance of clothes that are out there, we have got to change the model. I think the stores are finally getting it. I say, ‘If we all get it, why don’t we just do it?’ How about no pre-fall? Pre-fall goes in during the summer. Get fall in when fall needs to be in.”
Karan is similarly outspoken about the hype of fashion shows and, particularly, recent moves by designers such as Alexander McQueen to live stream their fashion shows online.
“I don’t believe in it,” Karan says. “People are confused. All of a sudden, they’ll hear about my great spring line and forget about my fall line that’s just reaching stores? I don’t want her to hear about my great spring line yet. I want to discuss it with her, but let’s discuss it when spring hits the stores.”
A solution, she says, would be to strip the shows of their auxiliary hype, and make them a private affair for buyers and retailers again—further underscoring the point she raised years ago of creating shows closer to the actual season that target consumers and, ultimately, inspire selling.
“I mean, everybody thinks I’m being radical,” Karan says with a shrug. “Why do we do these big shows? We do a brilliant business with resort. We don’t do these big shows and it works as a business. Think about Azzedine Alaïa. How many shows does Azzedine have? And the clothes still sell. It makes it special. It makes it unique. If we really want to simulcast it, you do the show in season or closer to the season.
“We created this inappropriate hype that is opposed to the reality,” Karan insists. “We created this smorgasbord of ‘more is more is more is more.’ And guess what: We’re sick. I think we are in a new world situation. Fashion is important. It helps us feel good about ourselves, but I think we’re looking at a rebalance in everything. Communication is changing. The movie industry is changing. The food industry is changing. Everything is changing, so there is surprise that the fashion industry needs to change? Sorry, guys, we’re not out of this one. We are not that unique.”
Karan has been dabbling with these changes in the clothing part of her Urban Zen program. “The thing I love about Urban Zen is that it’s not about a fashion show, it’s not about a season. It’s just clothes that I do. It’s effortless, timeless, seasonless clothes that I wear day to night and don’t have to think about too much.”
Urban Zen and the humanitarian programs that come along with it have taught Karan the importance of being in the moment. “We all have learned the humbleness of getting together, that it’s not about the ‘I’ but it’s about the ‘we,’ and how we all could make the difference,” she says. “There is so much consciousness in the world today that the only way change is going to occur is when the collective group creates the change. It’s a new way of looking at things. It’s breaking barriers. It’s saying, ‘OK, we want to change fashion. Let’s all get together and change it.”
Karan may already be on to her next radical idea. At Urban Zen, she is supporting the work of recent Parsons The New School for Design graduate Bessie Afnaim, who is, quite literally, recycling clothes by redesigning unsold merchandise into new apparel—a move that could perhaps one day be a way to circumvent the pressures of marking down merchandise too early.
Karan’s goals for next year say more about the mind of the designer and her journey. She hopes “to have a dream and see it manifested, and I have lots of dreams that I want manifested. I’d like to see an end to the chaos, but the chaos keeps me stimulated. There is no question about that, because if there weren’t a problem, I wouldn’t need to find a solution.”