The daughter of a tailor and a clothes model, Donna Karan began working as an intern for the renowned designer Anne Klein in 1968 while studying at the Parson’s School of Design. In 1974, after Klein was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she tapped 25-year-old Karan continue her work as design director. She quickly built a reputation for designing clothes for a range of body types, geared to career women unsatisfied by women’s versions of men’s suits. In 1985 she launched her own Donna Karan New York line, followed in 1988 by DKNY, which featured more affordable clothes for younger women. Both brands have become household names around the world, and Karan’s designs have regularly won awards.
On the color black: I find it very seductive, yet calm. When you don’t have architecture as the focus, it is the perfect answer. It covers a multitude of sins, if you know what I mean.
(Karan, Gabrielle. “Black.” New York Times Magazine, October 24, 1999: 95.)
Not just an ordinary fashion designer, Donna Karan has proved she is an extraordinary New York designer. She has stretched her role as “artist” in the high-paced designer world to include aspects of life far beyond the typical wardrobe. From lingerie to café-bar, retail stores to accessories and home collections, her vision has remained broad and her look urban, countered by her predilection for all things Zen.
From the onset, what fascinates the outsider is the perfectionist, overachieving manner with which Karan translates her ideas into reality. Clearly running on New York energy, Karan wields her creativity masterfully and then packages her work in cashmere and silks to seduce her customers into a den of urban luxury. Her better collections reveal a basic philosophy cultivated from her travels to the East and lifestyle changes she has made over the years in her personal life. Her many followers are treated to this inner space that she expresses visually, tactilely, and with clear attachments to a mixture of eastern and western spiritualism, dressed in the austerity of the all-encompassing color black.
Unlike her confident media persona and edgy New York-style designs, Karan’s formative years were shadowed by insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. Donna Ivy Faske was born on October 2, 1948, and she and her sister Gail were raised primarily by their mother Helen (Queenie), in the only two-family home in affluent Five Towns, Long Island (“the Jewish Greenwich”). Karan’s father Gabby Faske, a menswear tailor by profession, died when she was three, but her mother continued to support the family as a fit model on Seventh Avenue and later as a salesperson.
Karan often claimed that having a working mother at a time when most women stayed at home generated cravings for a more conventional nuclear family. And having a demanding and hard-to-please parent may have equally shaped her passive-aggressive drive to excel and her pattern of doing it on her own terms. Inevitably, the subtle clues point to Karan’s creativity and ingenuity as subliminal recoil to a modest upbringing on Long Island, where she envied and fantasized about being one of the affluent.
Education and Career
Whatever the impetus for her later success, her acceptance to Parson’s School of Design in 1967 and a summer internship with Anne Klein in 1968 sealed her fate. The position became permanent in 1969 and Karan left Parson’s only to return decades later as a lecturer and critic. Her whirlwind success in the industry was just beginning. She met and married Mark Karan and had their first and only child Gabrielle in 1974, during the most crucial time in the company’s history. Saddened by the loss of Anne Klein to cancer at the very same time she was beginning a new role as wife and mother, Karan was hastily promoted from associate designer to design director to complete the collection on which they had both worked.
Louis Dell’Olio arrived a year later to co-design and partner the responsibilities of an established fashion house. The fashion press, however, credited the success of the company primarily to Karan and her vision of a new emerging and very successful working woman who happened to be a woman much like Karan herself. Not the typical size four, assumed by the fashion community as the rule of thumb, Karan’s designs related to career women of all sizes who needed image-conscious wardrobes that identified their strengths and abilities in a male-dominated business world. Yet her greatest contribution to the Anne Klein company was the unveiling of the Anne Klein II bridge line in 1982, which changed the process of designing for women both by observing lifestyle and by bridging the price gap between designer and moderate price structures in the retail marketplace.
By the late 1970s Karan had divorced and subsequently married her soulmate Stephan Weiss, a sculptor whom she had met socially prior to her first marriage. With the business management support of her new husband and the economic backing of Takiyho, Inc., Donna Karan New York was launched in 1985. The year was also marked by one of her earliest and most successful advertising campaigns. Hired to identify and graphically communicate the Donna Karan brand, advertising maverick Peter Arnell delivered the memorable DKNY photo cutout of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty, which came to symbolize DKNY as a New York landmark in its own right. By the 1990s, DKNY had become a worldwide household brand.
During the last twenty years of the twentieth century, Donna Karan grew as a designer/artist and savvy businesswoman. Her fashion philosophy has included “a modern system of dressing …based on seven easy pieces, where a handful of interchangeable items work together to create an entire wardrobe that goes from day to evening, weekday to weekend, season to season.” But her company also creates variously priced men’s, women’s, and childrenswear lines, accessories, and home furnishings. In 1991 she launched a fragrance and cosmetic division, partnering with Estée Lauder to manufacture and distribute DKNY products. Working with leading architects, she designed ten floors of pure entrepreneurial devotion to contain her expanding empire and has opened various company stores and vanity café-retail establishments in various capitals around the globe.
In 2001, after a long battle with lung cancer, Karan’s husband Stephan passed away. Karan reflected on this time in her life: “On June 10, 2001 when Stephan died, the call to create became all the more urgent. I had a purpose: to change the health care system into a well-being system, integrating Eastern and Western practices. A philosophy of living emerged with three components: preservation of culture, integrative healthcare, and integrative education.”
Inspired by her late husband, Karan started Urban Zen, a lifestyle brand and philanthropic foundation, in 2007. In 2015, she left DKNY to work full time at Urban Zen. The foundation has initiatives in healthcare, education, and cultural preservation.
Karan’s professional career has been distinguished by the various awards she has received in the fashion industry, including the Coty American Fashion Critics Award (1977, 1981, 1984–85) and the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (1985–86, 1990, 1992). She and her company have championed a variety of causes related to the cure for AIDS and raised awareness and money for The Ovarian Cancer Research Fund when her good friend Liz Tilberis, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, was stricken with the disease.
Donna Karan remains one of the most important American designers of the twentieth century. On a par with the legendary Coco Chanel, Donna Karan changed the way women dress their bodies and promote their image in a fast-paced, successful, ever-changing woman’s world.
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