Photographed by Arthur Elgort, Vogue, June 1994.
On June 6th, Donna Karan was presented with the Founder’s Award, in honor of Eleanor Lambert, at the CFDA Awards; it was given to her by her friend Calvin Klein. The recognition arrives just one year after Karan stepped down from her namesake brands, Donna Karan and DKNY, to focus on her philanthropy-based lifestyle-cum-fashion collection Urban Zen. There, Karan’s mission is to “dress and address” her customers with an in-season clothing line, health and wellness initiatives, and partnerships with artisans around the world. To those paying attention to Karan’s career, though, this has been her goal all along.
Look back on Karan’s five decades in the business and you’ll see countless ideas intended to make women’s lives simpler and more beautiful. In 1985, she introduced Donna Karan to the world with her Seven Easy Pieces—bodysuit, skirt, tailored jacket, dress, something leather, white shirt, cashmere sweater—intended to take a woman from day to night, office to party. “Every woman was dressing like a man. She was walking down the street in a shirt, tie, and suit because that’s a ‘businesswoman.’ I said, ‘That’s not a woman.’ A woman is her body, her sensuality, and her tailoredness, so I combined them together,” Karan says. The crux of the collection was the bodysuit, a garment lifted from Karan’s own yoga practice, and the point was to make women’s lives easier and more comfortable. By the ’90s she was using real women in her fashion shows and had an ad campaign depicting the swearing in of the first female President. There was also DKNY, a younger-minded line founded on denim; countless fragrances with bottles designed by her late husband, Stephan Weiss; and a whole lifestyle concept that showed women to be mothers, leaders, workers, glamazons, and icons.
Ask Karan today if she thought she was a trailblazer at the time, and she’ll demur. “I didn’t think I was. I was honest with myself. I never thought about what other people were doing, because I was, personally, doing it for me,” she says in her light-filled Urban Zen studio in New York City’s West Village. “At Anne Klein, I was doing it for the large audience she had created. That’s why I wanted to do something I wanted—because I only like seven easy pieces!”
Here, Karan reflects on the seven pieces overall that stand out in her fashion history.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, April 2011.
“It started out because I was a yogi. I’d wear a bodysuit every day, and then take the bodysuit and just put on a jersey wrap and tie it. Having done Anne Klein and Anne Klein II, I wanted a simplified wardrobe for me and my friends that really wasn’t about fashion,” Karan explains of the origins of the staple piece of her first collection. “I think I was the first person to really get stretch into the world, so the body was really very important for me.” Karan first fell in love with the bodysuit when she started doing yoga at age 18—keep in mind, this is well before there were yoga studios on every corner of Manhattan—and she continues to practice every day. “There was Donna Karan, the New York designer, putting out ads with the first woman President, and then Donna Karan the barefoot yogi,” she says, laughing. “I don’t think it was a matter of either/or; it was and.” Since her initial bodysuit in 1985, Karan’s styles have been worn by celebrities and real women in multitudes. Here, Rihanna wears a long-sleeved version in Vogue.
(L) Donna Karan 1985 (Photo: Getty Images). (R) Hillary Clinton, 1993 (Photo: Suzanne DeChillo / The New York Times / Redux)
The Wrap Skirt
Also introduced as part of Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces collection in ’85 was the wrap skirt, a masterfully draped number with a high slit—no matter that Karan famously failed draping while a student at Parsons School of Design. “I had to go to summer school!” she proclaims. The teachers, perhaps, just didn’t understand her methods. “Fabric talks to me, so the fabric tells me what to do. I drape it on myself, I drape it on models, that’s how I get all my different lines,” she explains. The wrap skirt was as integral as the bodysuit in the first collection, being the piece that proved that a simple, streamlined garment could work both at the office and at play.
The Cold Shoulder Dress
Karan’s 1992 cutout shoulder dress—nicknamed the Cold Shoulder Dress in the press—might be the only thing Liza Minnelli and Hillary Clinton have in common. The former wore it first, to the Academy Awards in 1992. “Liza was the one who found it in my closet—it was a discard,” says Karan, noting that on the runway it was shown under a jacket on Linda Evangelista and then summarily panned by Women’s Wear Daily. Nearly a year later, in 1993, Clinton bought the dress to wear to her first state dinner as First Lady. “When Hillary Clinton wore it to the first White House state dinner, I didn’t know that she had it,” remembers Karan. “That was pretty amazing.” Clinton seemed to agree, with her press secretary at the time, Lisa Caputo, issuing this quote from the First Lady: “I love the way it feels. And when you feel good, you look good.”
Donna Karan Spring 1992 Ad Campaign (Photo: Courtesy Donna Karan)
The Menswear-Inspired Pin-striped Suit
Karan’s father, Gabby Faske, was a menswear tailor, so the designer’s penchant for a double-breasted blazer is somewhat innate. The idea to stage her Spring 1992 ad campaign as the inauguration of the first female president was decidedly more impromptu. “Originally I was shooting it as an executive woman of power. The night before the shoot I call Peter Arnell, and I say, “Peter, what about a woman running for president?” And he did it in one day, put that whole thing together,” says Karan. “This was a collection that was probably one of my most masculine-feminine collections—it wasn’t one of my favorites, I have to tell you. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t as liquid or jersey or anything, it was very, very straight.” Fast-forward to January 1993, and Karan is outfitting the actual President, Bill Clinton, at his inaugural ball in a black tuxedo. Asked if she hopes to dress the first female President again, she responds, “God, I hope so.”
(L) Shalom Harlow for Donna Karan F/W 1996 (Photo: FirstVIEW) (R) Demi Moore & Donna Karan at the 2001 Met Gala (Photo: Getty Images)
The V-Front Jumpsuit
“Bodysuit becomes jumpsuit, obviously,” riffs Karan. This deep-V style from Fall 1996 features a front zip, making it easy to put on and take off, and was sported on the runway by an angelic Shalom Harlow. “The plunge neck is something that I always love because it elongates you,” Karan explains. The piece showed its full potential in that year’s ad campaign, worn by Demi Moore, who leapt and crept through Peter Lindbergh’s pictures like a glamorously clad acrobat. “I met Demi and Bruce [Willis] in Sun Valley [Idaho], where we would go skiing, and I just said to them over dinner one night, ‘How would you like to do my campaign?’” remembers Karan. “Demi said, ‘Great!’” And thus, a little fashion history was made.
The Dévoré Velvet Dress
Also from Fall 1996 is Karan’s golden dévoré velvet dress. On the runway it was backless and slinky, the perfect melding of the era’s grunge obsession with velvet and Karan’s own love of the body. “One of my absolute favorites,” the designer intones. “This was from the Body collection, and it was really about liquidity and the body.” Demi Moore wore the backless version in Karan’s ad campaign in ’96, choosing a different take on the dress for the 2001 Met Gala.
Donna Karan & Robert Lee Morris Collection, 2003.
The Robert Lee Morris Collection
In 2003, Karan teamed up with jeweler Robert Lee Morris—whom she’s known since her Anne Klein days—for a collection adorned with metallic accents that hugged the body. “I wanted luxury, but at the same time I wanted wearability and identity. And with all the black, I needed a little bling,” says Karan. Vogue praised the collection at the time, writing, “Altogether, it was a solid defense of Karan’s signature thesis—that power dressing and sex appeal can, like Dharma and Greg, go hand in hand.” If the early-aughts TV reference goes over the head of younger fans, the dress won’t: It was worn in the ad campaign by Cate Blanchett and on the red carpet at this year’s Met Gala by Karan herself. “I had seen that dress at the shoot we did for the CFDA Journal, and I tried it on and it fit me—so it fit Cate and it fits me,” says Karan. “That was, for me, a great thing. I think the beauty of my clothes is that whether you’re short or tall, whether you’re a size 2 or size 14, the clothes work. I truly think I understand the female body because I’m a woman.”