Last Thursday our ever-so-cultured friends at the 92nd Street Y welcomed us to observe the third in their series of iconic interviews conducted by Fern Mallis, who is highly regarded in the fashion industry for being the creator of New York Fashion Week (aka Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week). Now running her own consulting firm here in New York, Mallis delved into the world of her longtime friend Donna Karan for an evening of reflection and inspiration.
With a background that might be surprisingly similar to your average girl-next-door, Donna Karan has persevered to create an empire that is altruistic at heart. Getting her start in retail at the tender age of 13, Karan made her design debut working for Anne Klein and quickly proved to be a key player on the team. By the time Klein passed away with cancer in 1974, Karan had worked her way to the top and immediately took over the reins — despite the fact that her daughter Gabby was born the same week. Executing a successful spring line under tremendous pressure, it was a turning point in her career.
By 1983, the success of the classic Anne Klein line gave way for a new collection of sportier, more everyday clothing. This “bridge collection” was the first of its kind in the industry, and helped catapult Donna Karan to her next big thing: creating her own company.
“New York meant everything to me.”
Introducing her own line designed out of her Manhattan apartment, Karan’s focus was on color and the feel of the fabric she used. If it didn’t feel good for her to wear, it didn’t pass the test. From there, expansion was the next step as Donna and her friends wanted a casual collection of jeans, tees and yoga gear that they could all wear. This DKNY brand was named based on Karan’s mindset that “New York meant everything to me.” Staring at a shoebox on her living room floor branded with ‘Paris and Milan’ gave her the idea that New York could become just as big a player on the fashion scene. Just another example of her visionary insight!
As the company grew, her success parlayed into designing couture items for the world’s most famous faces, including Barbara Streisand’s wedding gown and President Bill Clinton’s inaugural suit. The company could seemingly do no wrong, as Karan’s husband and business partner introduced fragrances to the brand. Their vision for a ‘lifestyle’ brand gave way to the first store front on Bond Street, with the clothing upstairs and a healthy café downstairs. The theory was that if people came to enjoy the nutritious food downstairs, that they would come back to shop. It worked, and the company soon went public. Eventually it was bought by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy).
Sadly, Donna’s world dramatically changed at the death of her husband and soul mate, who battled cancer for many years. Through their holistic approach to healing, Donna came to believe in the importance of her daily yoga, meditation, and green juices as a way of life. She is currently sharing this belief in Haiti, where she travels almost every month. She has a strong connection to the people and their artisanship, which inspires her in many ways including her designs.
Donna Karan’s legacy is her desire to dress the person on the inside, not the outside. She is planning to open a hotel that she calls “a 24/7 urban zen headquarters” where she can continue sharing her love of yoga, a healthy diet, and an emphasis on holistic living with the world that inspires her. She is indeed, an icon.
Photo credit: Joyce Culver for 92nd Street Y
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