The Donna Karan Interview
New York fashion designer Donna Karan changed the way modern women dress thanks to her 1985 ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ Collection that featured a carefully edited wardrobe of essentials that could be mixed and matched depending on your needs and mood. She suggested a woman invest in a bodysuit, skirt, tailored jacket, dress, something leather, white shirt and cashmere sweater which would work from day to night, office to party. “Every woman was dressing like a man,” she said at the time. “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.” It caused a global sensation selling out in department stores in days.
In the following years, Karan would incorporate cashmere into every collection because of its comfort, ease of travel and versatility. It was no surprise that when it came time to launch her first fragrance in 1994, it would be called Cashmere Mist. The soft floral-woody-musk eau de parfum would blend notes of bergamot, suede, lily-of-the-valley, jasmine, cashmere musk, sandalwood, amber and vanilla – all housed in a sculptural bottle crafted by her then-husband Stephan Weiss. It is best described as caressing, sensual and comforting – just like slipping on a cashmere sweater.
And while Donna has officially retired from her signature brand, she is still dabbling in design, most recently reworking military uniforms into fashion pieces in support of the charity Veteran Services USA. Standout pieces included a camo ballgown and embellished flight jacket. The funds help provide therapy to veterans who are struggling with PTSD and suicide.
Scent Lodge is pleased to share this interview journalist Dave Lackie did with Donna on the 25th anniversary of her first fashion collection. It’s heartwarming, fascinating and honest – just like Donna herself.
Donna Karan: In Her Own Words
How I design
“I start every day with yoga then I stand before a mirror with a fit model and some fabric. The fabric just talks to me and tells me what design suits it best. I can’t explain it. Fabric just communicates with me.”
My experience with cancer
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Anne Klein. I didn’t plan on being a fashion designer. Yes, I had a job as a fashion assistant, but I wanted to stay at home with my baby. I was in the hospital at the same time Anne was there dealing with cancer. After I gave birth, the company executives called and asked when I was coming back. A collection was due. They didn’t even ask me if it was a boy or a girl. That was the biggest lesson I’ve learned: how to deal with cancer, and death and responsibility. Both Anne and my husband died of cancer and when I went looking for a charitable organization that cared for the mind, body and soul of patient, I couldn’t find one. That’s why I’ve created the Urban Zen Foundation in collaboration. It’s goal is to bring this support and approach to hospitals.”
The allure of the colour black
“For me, black is a like a palette. It allows me to go from day to evening. You’ll notice the collection is sculptural this season. It allows for some breathing room around the hip for all of us women who aren’t sticks. Every woman should own a pair of black bias cut pants. I guarantee they will make you look slimmer. It’s a trick designers use.”
The accelerated fashion cycle
“The accelerated fashion cycle today nauseates me. I mean I hate to say that. There’s been good news and bad news about the fashion industry. I think when I started 25 years ago, I don’t think we were an international world of fashion. It was New York fashion. There was Paris and London. Now I think we live in an international world of fashion. That’s why I used the name Donna Karan New York because I felt New York spoke of the world. Now it should be DKNY China but that’s story. (laughing). There was not an international flavour and the calendar was at a much more reasonable time. Twenty-five years ago I showed in May. Now, I show the same collection in February and December. I think it’s crazy and I think the clothes are being shipped to the stores far too early for the consumer. So I think we should go back to where we were 25 years ago. That’s my honest feeling. From a fashion point of view, I think fashion has evolved. I think the world of fashion is more personalized. I think it is more individualized that you find out who you are and what you want to express. There’s no boundaries. You’re not told you have to wear this. I think it has given people empowerment to express who they are.
Too much fashion information
“There’s too much fashion information today. If it was pared down to getting fashion information in season, we’d all be better off. Consumers don’t need to know about the fashion shows. We are giving them far too much information particularly with the web. I’m not in favour of showing consumers about spring when I have to get them excited about fall. The positive aspect of the “Fashion’s Night Out” program is we’ve reengaged customers in season about a season.
Successful fragrance franchise
A successful fragrance can help even out the ups and downs of the fashion industry. The original philosophy of launching Cashmere Mist was to touch more customers. It was something everyone could wear if they liked it. I created it as an ode to my husband. It’s something we worked on together.
Advice to young designers
“The first thing I say to a young designer is work in retail. You’ve got to know your customer first before you start designing. Of course, you can still design. But unless you actually see the customer in the body, don’t get swayed by the hyperness of an industry. I think we’ve got to get to reality of who is the real customer you’re designing for because one thing is the runway. The other is reality.
How my customer has changed
“I think my customers today are more secure with themselves. They are more adventurous now than when I started. When I started with a bodysuit and a wrap-and-tie skirt, they looked at me like I had three holes in my head. But it was an extraordinary success. They realized I was simplifying their lives. So I think they look to me to simplication, for a certain type of quality and we uphold these standards.
The new generation of designers
I think they are wonderful. I think Alexander Wang has really hit a nail on the head of comfort and ease. I see a lot of myself in it. Yeh, I’d wear that stuff. It’s great. I think it is a more difficult time for young designers. It’s not as easy as it was when Ralph, Calvin and I started. And there isn’t the support needed because you are now dealing on a world level. There are a lot more designers that you are competing against. And the retail atmosphere isn’t as strong so you aren’t as supported. Everything is leveled down and still the expense of creating a collection is so huge. I don’t think people realize what goes into creating a collection.
Social media and tweeting
Privacy is important. I think it is one thing to do your job, but also respecting one’s privacy. I think tabloids are unacceptable. If I could stop anything, it would be tabloids. A lot of my friends are actors and actresses. Give them downtime. We get so much inspiration from them, isn’t that enough?
The most interesting fashion journalist who interviewed me over the past 25 years
Carrie Donovan from the New York Times birthed me. She was like a mother. She really mothered and cared for me.
My favourite books
My Kabbalah books
Favourite music on my iPod
Bells, chimes. Anything that calms me.