Donna Karan On Her “Journey” To The Top

By Gouri Shah
Mint, New Delhi

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Fashion designer Donna Karan on her life, career and of course fashion! As one of the great women in business, Karan shares her thoughts on business, family and the struggle for the elusive “work-life balance.”


Fashion designer Donna Karan, known best for her Essentials line of seven easy pieces that could be mixed and matched to create a comprehensive wardrobe for the working woman, talks about her journey from being a new mother entrusted with the responsibility of a fashion label to doing what she loves best–working with communities and propagating conscious consumerism.

Q: How did you get into the fashion business? Was it something you always wanted to do?

A: Actually, I did not want to do it. My mother was in fashion, my father was in fashion, so I sort of grew up on Seventh Avenue (New York City), so the last thing I wanted to do was to be in fashion. I wanted to be a singer like Barbra Streisand, a dancer, and then I wanted to be an illustrator and I went to Women’s Wear Daily and showed them my illustrations and they said, “I think you should be studying design.” So I went to Parsons School of Design.

And from there Anne Klein chose me to work with her in my second year at school, and she was like, “Why are you going back to school when you can design?” And unfortunately, a few years later she passed away. I was having my child Gaby, and I got a call in the hospital, and they said when are you coming back to work.

So I said, would you like to know if I had a boy or a girl? By the way, I had a little girl! And they said, that’s good, but we have a collection to do. Anne is in the hospital and you are in the hospital, but we need a collection the next day. So, I asked the doctor when I could go back to work and they said, in about a week. And they said, “we’ll bring the collection to your house”. And they did bring the entire collection to my house and sure enough, I did it. And the next thing I know, unfortunately, Anne Klein had died and I was thrown into a situation, within one week of going back to work. I think the shock was so big, I knew my responsibility. Looking back on it, I don’t understand how I did it all.

Question: You’ve had an interesting year. In 2015, you stepped down as chief designer of Donna Karan International and DKNY was reinvented, naming two younger designers. Did you feel a sense of loss?

A: I think it was a difficult decision to make. I started Urban Zen some 10 years ago. I was bifurcated in so many ways and I had to make that decision. It was difficult. And I kept on saying, this is my last collection, this is my last collection, and people would joke, “Right! This is your last collection.” When it turned 30 years, I decided THIS is the last collection, and I still didn’t do it. But I waited one more year and this past year was my last collection.

Question: Any regrets? Do you ever wish you hadn’t sold your company?

A: Of course I do (have regrets). There’s part of that too… but as you grow a company, it gets bigger than you. The same thing that happened with Anne Klein and that’s why I did Donna Karan. And all of a sudden it exploded, and it became a business I had to deal with. At first, I wanted to keep it small, like a mom-and-pop business.

It’s very difficult keeping up as a designer in this day and age; the calendar, the quantity of clothes, particularly in the US–we do four collections in a year and that’s a lot, a lot of design, design, design. And, generally speaking, the runway shows we do are not where the money is placed. It’s in the pre-fall and resort collection, because it’s a long sale period. It’s very frustrating, to spend so much time and energy to design these shows which don’t really have the financial support.

Question: How did the legendary system of dressing–the seven easy pieces–come into existence?

A: I had been designing Anne Klein, I wanted a small company for me and my friends. I was into yoga, bodysuits, leggings, scarves and that kind of thing. Unfortunately, or rather, fortunately, the stores said “Donna you couldn’t do anything small if you tried to.”

But I wanted to keep it intimate and I went into Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus and of course everybody wanted the collection when they saw it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Then came DKNY because I needed a pair of jeans, so it was very selfish, the way I was designing for me and my friends. Fortunately, I had more friends than I had anticipated (laughs).

Question: What were the seven pieces? Why was it such a runaway success?

A: It was bodysuit, blouse, a wrap-and-tie skirt, a pair of trousers and a blazer and a coat and an evening piece. There was nothing like it at the time. Either you were wearing a suit with a tie, as a woman, or you were wearing a cocktail dress during the day.

As a woman, and dressing women, I felt there needed to be a wardrobe in which women feel sensual, comfortable and something that would take them from day to night. And there was nobody doing it, so off I went.

Question: What need were you hoping to fill with Urban Zen?

A: Urban Zen for me was the balancing of philanthropy and culture. It was not just about dressing people, but also addressing them (and their issues). In three areas. Preservation of culture, which is a passion of mine, healthcare (and education).
Where is the care in healthcare? Having my husband die of cancer and (I realized) that they were treating the disease and not the person. So we have Urban Zen therapists trained in 500 hours of in-bed yoga, reiki, aromatherapy, nutrition, palliative care and meditation. We brought it into hospitals and have proven how much we can save; we saved $900,000 on just one floor of the hospital. Patients were calmer, did not need medication and enjoyed it better.

I believe in education, and in education, we bring yoga and meditation to schools. Everyone is so hyper and on the go, so how do we bring calm in that chaos? I also have a collection of lifestyle products from all over the world, that I make in India, Bali and a lot of work in Haiti with preservation of culture.

Question: What are your thoughts on new technology and the effect of social media on fashion?

A: I think it’s one of the biggest problems the fashion industry is faced with. As I said, the consumer is seeing it in (real) time. They are seeing images and news about fashion shows and they are expecting to go out and buy it immediately! They are not ready for the fact that they have to wait six to seven months to get their hands on these garments. Particularly in design, it takes time. Especially when other people are knocking it off, quickly–in China and Vietnam and wherever else they are knocking it off.

It is a very challenging time for the industry. To my mind, it’s more like in the movie industry. The people don’t get to see the movie till it is ready to come out. Yes, there are some people who see it before as private screenings, and we will always have to show to the press, but they cannot put it out there, the minute they see it. Everyone wants instant gratification (snaps her fingers). So, we have to shift the philosophy of all of this.

Question: What to your mind is the future of luxury?

A: I think women are never going to stop dressing. Once you have experienced quality, it is very hard to go back. Even though the design maybe the same, the feeling is not. We are going into more artisan work, we are going into more unique things, there is a collaboration between the two worlds. And the woman has her wardrobe.

When I started, there was no real wardrobe there, so she was putting things together each and every season. Now, she has so much that she’s picking out the item as opposed to the entire look. And at Urban Zen, I don’t change the clothes that often, that much.

Question: If there was someone you wish you had dressed, who would it be?

A: Who haven’t I dressed? I really, really need to think about it. I think I have touched a lot of people’s lives, in one way or the other. Either in their pantyhose or otherwise, let’s just say I’ve dressed them inside and outside.

Question: What made you write your book, ‘My Journey’?

A: I wanted to experience my life. I wanted to review it because I was going through a life change. And I wanted to write it down, register it and have it all down for my friends and family, before I forgot, for people, educationally, not seeing just the name but knowing the person. But I hadn’t realized that the last chapter would be the last chapter of my working at Donna Karan when I was writing it.

Question: If there was one piece of advice you would give working mothers, what would it be?

A: Give yourself time to be with your family, spend that time, because at the end of the day that is what is most important. I think we are so conditioned to our work and the responsibility we have at work, that we miss out on the smaller more important things in life–like breathing and sitting still and looking at a rock. We have lost that ability.

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