Donna Karan as a student at Parsons The New School for Design.
Think of the last time you watched a look glide down a runway and thought it seemed just tailor made to fit your life. The kind of look that seemed luxurious yet, attainable and something that could add to the lifestyle you already had. It wasn’t a look that only worked in some exotic resort or a super sporty youth centric piece, but an elegant, refreshing look that made you glad you were a working woman with a social life of her own. A designer that made you feel glamorous in your own right, that made you feel that your immediate life is something to dress up for. That’s what Donna Karan did for women in the late ‘80s, throughout the ‘90s and into the 2000s.
Last Tuesday Karan announced that she would be stepping down from Donna Karan International; her iconic company was bought out by LMVH in 2001. It seemed common knowledge that Karan was not seeing eye to eye with her corporate overseers and her brands had been under-performing. The Business of Fashion speculates that it’s in part due to the amount of product released, ending up in outlets and robbing the brand of the edge it once had. LMVH has not announced a successor for Karan but the Donna Karan International line as well as the Donna Karan New York line will continue. Karan’s signature line has been suspended.
Karan is a powerful woman, just like the women she dressed from Hilary Clinton to Liza Minelli and a slew of Hollywood starlets ranging from the 1980s up to present day. In 1984 when Karan first established her brand, she already had years of design experience under her belt. Following an internship with Anne Klein and three years as an associate designer, Karan became the head designer of the brand following the passing of Klein in 1974. Always looking to grow and reach out to her audience, Karan would go on to create a more affordable bridge line called Anne II in 1982.
By her first collection in 1985, Karan already had her woman all figured out. Her Seven Easy Pieces collection was the foundation for her whole philosophy of dressing, a philosophy she would expound upon throughout her illustrious career. Karan introduced stretch fabrics to her collections during the ‘80s, something designers weren’t doing at the time. She made pieces women of all body types could wear and she still had shows at NYFW where Linda Evangelista and other supers strutted down the runways, her easy aesthetic straddled the best of both worlds and she did it authentically.
The women who wore her clothes felt empowered, because it was so obvious in the caress of the curve-hugging fabric, and the tailoring of a pant, that these pieces were made for them. There’s a level of unattainability in fashion, which has its own place, to maintain a brand’s mystique or exclusivity, but the balancing act Karan was able to maintain for so long is one that has yet to be duplicated, and there is much doubt expressed by critics as to whether LMVH will be able to carry on DKI and DKNY without Donna Karan.
(L) Donna Karan with Iman at Anne Klein. (R) Tatjana Patitz for Donna Karan, 1985.
(L) Backstage at Donna Karan, 1985. (R) Donna Karan ad imagines the first female president, Photo by Peter Lindbergh, 1992.
(L) Donna Karan Resort, WWD archive, 1985. (R) Mariel Hemingway wearing Donna Karan, photo by Patrick Demarchelier for Mademoiselle, September 1985.
(L) Cheryl Ladd wearing Donna Karan, Photo by Paul Amato for Harper's Bazaar, September 1985. (R) Rosemary McGrotha for DKNY, Photo by Peter Lindbergh, 1989.
(L) Tyra Banks wears Donna Karan, Photo by Paolo Roversi, Harper’s Bazaar, Fall 1992. (R) Cindy Crawford for Donna Karan, 1991.
(L) Gilles Bensimon for Elle magazine, Clothing by Donna Karan, September 1992. (R) Christy Turlington wearing DK Cold Shoulder dress, Harper's Bazaar, September 1992.
(L) Hillary Clinton wearing a dress by Donna Karan at the White House, Photo by Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times, 1993. (R) “Donna Karan’s New Age”, Photographed by Herb Ritts, Model Nadja Auermann, Vogue US, September 1995.
(L) Esther Canadas for DKNY, Photo by Mario Testino, 1997. (R) DKNY 1998.