It was a perfectly clear day in September 1988 when DKNY was born. The streets of Manhattan were blanketed by Donna Karan’s new brand, as taxi drivers, messengers and paperboys wore T-shirts bearing the new logo. The sky over Seventh Avenue was clear — and it’s a good thing, because it cost the company $5,000 to write the DKNY logo in the sky.
The first DKNY presentation was made in the designer’s showroom in a gallery-like setting, as models stood on raised platforms wearing such ensembles as the navy blazer paired with baggy jeans and the denim signature bodysuit with classic trousers. This launch was the beginning of something big, and everyone knew it.
“It was like nothing I had ever seen, literally everyone — retailers, customers, editors — everyone was so excited about this line. I was there for six-and-a-half years, and it was one of the most exciting times in my career,” said Denise Seegal, who was executive vice president of sales and marketing for DKNY at the time of its launch. Today, she is president and chief executive of Sweetface Fashions, the master licensor for JLo by Jennifer Lopez, but at DKNY, she was largely responsible for the brand’s initial success. “These were clothes that were missing from the customers’ lives. They had their work clothes, but they didn’t have the perfect pair of jeans that fit so well into their lifestyle.”
The excitement, said Patti Cohen, executive vice president of global marketing and communications for Donna Karan, was generated by a new brand of clothes to fit the lifestyle of a busy, young New York woman and according to her, the brand has always been based on the items that Karan herself thought were AWOL from her own closet.
“Donna couldn’t find jeans that fit her right,” Cohen recalled. “And [her daughter] Gabby was also always borrowing her clothes at the time, so she saw this as an opportunity to start a new brand. From the start, DKNY was to be a completely separate brand from Donna Karan. It is not a watered-down version of collection.”
That is why, to this day, the company holds separate runway shows for Donna Karan and for DKNY — to keep their identities independent. And while DKNY launched as a full line of casual clothes to include jeans, basic T-shirts, jackets, dresses and blazers, today the DKNY line is more defined and segmented into categories like DKNY Active, DKNY Jeans, DKNY Juniors and City DKNY, all of which are now licensed to Liz Claiborne Inc. Seegal left Donna Karan to take a new post at Claiborne and brought the DKNY license with her, to take advantage of Claiborne’s expertise and infrastructure in better-priced markets.
The brand has remained true to its roots, revolving around the white T-shirt. Karan predicted the first season would bring in $45 million in wholesale volume. Today, sources estimate retail sales of Donna Karan International to be approximately $700 million, with about 75 percent of that volume, or $525 million, coming from DKNY.
“I wanted to do what was missing,” Karan told WWD just before the launch of DKNY. “I wanted the perfect jeans, the perfect leather bomber jacket — clothes that my customer needed for her total lifestyle.”
After launching in Manhattan the company took the city on the road and launched in markets including Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago.
“We had events in seven major U.S. cities and brought New York on the road,” Cohen remembered. “We held events and had hot dog carts and popcorn machines. DKNY represented the energy and spirit of New York — it was fast, fun and real. It fit a broad range of lifestyles and we wanted every city to feel that energy.”
DKNY launched at a time when these types of clothes were needed to reenergize the bridge arena. Seegal added there really was no other brand doing this.
“Donna was so into it and involved in every part of the line. She loved going into the stores and talking to the customers,” Seegal laughed. “I remember at one store event, when we were launching the men’s line, she walked up to this man who was dressed conservatively in a pressed shirt and khakis. Somehow, she convinced this man to buy a pareo. A pareo — a skirt for a man. And she convinced him to buy it. It was the funniest thing. His girlfriend just stood there with her mouth open. But that’s how much Donna believed in her product.”
While the pareo didn’t exactly take off as a big men’s wear trend, DKNY was thriving.
“The stores wanted this line like you wouldn’t believe,” Seegal said. “But we were really careful to keep a hold on the distribution. We knew what we were able to ship, so we didn’t let ourselves get in over our heads. We launched with Saks Fifth Avenue and from there we went into select doors. We only launched in 320 doors.”
Today, DKNY is sold in department and specialty retailers across the country, and while it has expanded into several categories outfitting several customer lifestyles, the brand faces competition as never before. At the time of its launch, DKNY dominated the bridge area in department stores. Today, the label competes with such brands as Theory and Elie Tahari, but it also faces competition in other arenas — DKNY Jeans competes in the junior area with Guess, Polo Jeans and Tommy Jeans and DKNY Active competes with Nike, Adidas and Puma.
“As a trendspotter, I see that Theory has become the new DKNY in some ways,” said Marian Salzman, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide. “There are so many brands out there now competing for the same consumer.”
But that doesn’t mean DKNY is past its prime.
“I thought that Banana Republic was dead and it just had its best quarter. I thought that J.Crew was finished and its merchandise looks better than I’ve ever seen it,” she said. “I think that’s what’s so exciting about it. Donna can be that way too — get a new young designer in there, or maybe Gabby can get more involved. I just think that the brand has become too accessible to too many people. When you do that, it’s easy to lose your brand in the mix.”
But Karan believes that her DKNY brand is doing just fine the way it is.
“DKNY is like Coca Cola. Every-one knows it, yet look how many people still crave it,” Karan said, “because it never fails to satisfy an awful lot of people all of the time. That is how I have always wanted DKNY to be — familiar but never boring.”