Born: Donna Faske in Forest Hills, New York, 2 October 1948. Education: Studied at Parsons School of Design, New York. Family: Married Mark Karan, 1973 (divorced); married Stephan Weiss, 1977 (died 2001); children: Gabrielle, Lisa, Cory. Career: Assistant designer, Anne Klein & Co., and Addenda Company, New York, 1967-68; designer, Anne Klein, 1968-71; designer and director of design in association with Louis Dell'Olio, Anne Klein & Co., 1974-84; launched Anne Klein II diffusion line, 1982; designer, Donna Karan New York (DKNY), from 1985; added swimwear line, 1986; introduced hosiery collection, 1987; established DKNY bridge line, 1988; introduced DKNY menswear collection, 1991; founded Donna Karan Beauty Company, fragrance and cosmetic division, New York, 1992; introduced lingerie and children's line, DKNY Kids, from 1992; took company public, 1996; introduced new fragrance, Chaos, 1996; opened stores in Berlin, 1997; licensed DKNY Kids to Esprit, 1998; licensed timepieces collection and debuted fragrances DKNY Men, DKNY Women, 1999; introduced DKNY swimwear and Donna Karan Home, 2000; opened 10,000-square-foot DKNY store on Madison Avenue, 2001. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1977, 1981, 1984, 1985; Fashion Footwear Association of New York award, 1988; Council of Fashion Designers of America award, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1996; Honorary Degree, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Parsons School of Design, 1987; named to Fashion Designer Walk of Fame, I. Magnin, 1991; Woolmark award, 1992. Address: 550 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10018, U.S.A.
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Donna Karan can be considered the designer who has made it fashionable to be voluptuous. She has based her corporate philosophy on clothes designed to hug a woman but also hide bodily imperfections. "You've gotta accent your positive, delete your negative," she declared in a press release, emphasizing the fact that if you're pulled together underneath, you can build on top of that. Karan firmly relates designing to herself and her role as a woman. She sees design as a personal expression of the many roles she has had to balance, being a wife, mother, friend, and businessperson. She believes her sex has given her greater insight into solving problems women have with fashion, fulfilling their needs, simplifying dress to make life easier and to add comfort, luxury, and durability.
Originating as a womenswear label, the Karan company also produces menswear, childrenswear, accessories, beauty products, and a fragrance that perpetrate the lifestyle and philosophy instigated by the womenswear line. Donna Karan stresses that she has not drawn the line there. "There's so much to be done. DKNY underwear, swimwear, home furnishings…the designs are already in my head, it's just a matter of getting them executed."
Karan was born and raised on Long Island, New York. Both her mother and father were involved in fashion careers, so it seemed inevitable she should follow in their footsteps. After two years studying fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York, she was hired by Anne Klein for a summer job. She later became an associate designer until Klein died in 1974. Her next lucky break was to shape the rest of her career. She was named successor to Anne Klein and together with Louis Dell'Olio, who joined the company a year later, designed the Klein collection.
Shortly after the launch of the diffusion line, Anne Klein II, in 1982, Karan felt ready to go it alone. Together with her husband, Stephen Weiss, she launched the first Donna Karan collection in 1985 and since then the company has grown at a dizzying pace. Karan is inspired by New York; she believes its energy, pace, and vibrance attracts the most sophisticated and artistic people in the world, the type of people and lifestyle for whom she has always designed. Her principle is that clothes should be interchangeable and flexible enough to go from day to evening, summer to winter. Fashion should be a multicultural language, easy, sensuous, and functional, a modern security blanket. Perhaps this explains why her fundamental trademark items, the bodysuits, unitards, black cashmere and stretch fabrics and sensuous bodywrap styles owe great allegiance to the innate style and taste of the artist.
There is a great sense of urgency about Donna Karan; to say there are not enough hours in a day would be an understatement. Her interviews are always frenetic, emotionally charged yet human and blatantly honest. When asked by journalist Sally Brampton to describe her life, she replied, "It's chaos, C.H.A.O.S." Karan's magic touch is a combination of creative flair and marketing know-how. She designs for human needs, people who live, work, and play. She conceptualizes a customer and wardrobe and can then merchandise a line, applying her designer's eye for color, proportion, and fit. In many ways she is like a contemporary American Chanel in that she analyses women's needs with a question to herself: "What do I need? How can I make life easier? How can dressing be simplified so I can get on with my own life?"
In 2000 and 2001 the life of Donna Karan, as a designer and as a woman, changed dramatically. Negotiations with LVMH to acquire a controlling share of DKI (the conglomerate that includes DKNY, Donna Karan, and her widely popular brand of sportswear and jeans) brought immense scrutiny from the entire fashion universe. At the same time, Stephan Weiss—the sculptor, mentor, husband, and friend with whom Karan launched her own design company in 1985—was dying of lung cancer. His death in June 2001 seemed to have galvanized Karan into her finest and most spectacular display of creativity. A new space on Madison Avenue, which had been under construction for three years, was opened to extended accolades from architectural critics as well as the fashion press.
The new store, a three-story brownstone built in 1852, provides over 10,000-square-feet of retail space for Karan designs, which has come to include home accessories. Karan never hesitates to acknowledge her debt to and her admiration for other designers. The first floor of her new Madison Avenue shop is a domestic paradise where DK designs for the home are discreetly arranged among shawls and scented candles and dozens of one-of-a-kind items she has discovered and offers to her customers. She explains that "the first thing I hope people see when they walk in is objects of passion, objects of desire."
Karan has moved from designing the feminine, comfortable clothes that have defined and improved the life of her clients to designs for these customers' homes, and finally to suggesting possessions that appeal to their souls. All the Karan lines, whether for the woman or for the home, respect the busy and chaotic nature of contemporary life. She has never been interested in quantity but now even more emphasizes the choice to live with and dress only in those things of the highest quality that make one utterly happy. Karan's clothing designs (supplemented by accessories, fragrance, and makeup collections) reflect the image of a New York woman; her home furnishings provide a glimpse into a New York lifestyle.
updated by Kathleen Bonann Marshall
"Karan, Donna." Contemporary Fashion. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/karan-donna
"Karan, Donna." Contemporary Fashion. . Retrieved September 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/karan-donna
Sometimes called the queen of American fashion, Donna Karan (born 1948) has earned a reputation as a world-class designer as well as a strong business-woman in charge of a large retail corporation.
Donna Karan built her enormous fashion empire in less than a decade on one extraordinarily simple idea: If she needs a particular item of clothing—a bodysuit, a wrap skirt, a chiffon blouse, a longer jacket— then every other woman needs it too. This theory of visually inspired instincts made her one of the top fashion designers in the world. In 1992 Donna Karan New York, then totaling 14 divisions including fragrance, body care products, accessories, lingerie, and mens, womens, and childrenswear, grossed $275 million.
Karan was born Donna Faske in 1948 in New York and raised on Long Island. Her mother was a model and her father a haberdasher. Karan was fashion-obsessed from an early age, attending Parson's School of Design, which she left, without a degree, to take an assistant position at Anne Klein, one of the top design firms in the country.
She and Louis Dell'Olio became co-designers of Anne Klein after the designer's death in 1974. Jointly, they received many awards for their sporty, sophisticated womens-wear. Japanese fashion financier Takihyo Tomio Taki had taken financial control of Anne Klein upon the founder's demise and his first gamble on Karan's genius was to appoint her to fill her boss's rather impressive pumps.
Earned Reputation as Versatile Innovator
Karan struck pay dirt in 1983 when she launched Anne Klein II, the first exciting "bridge" line priced between couture and affordable clothes for average women. The bridge line subsequently became a retailing phenomenon, creating a whole new shopping world for fashion-conscious yet budget-cautious women. Many other designers, from Calvin Klein to Geoffrey Beene, followed her stylish suit. In 1984 Takihyo, with his business partner Frank Mori, backed her first line on her own, called Donna Karan New York, pouring $10 million into the fledgling company. Her first collection was a retail hit of body-conscious but comfortable elegant jersey/wool clothing for the upscale working woman. Black predominated in her separates, designed to make life, work, and getting dressed in the mornings (and making appearances from office to evening affairs) much simpler.
But it was her launch of DKNY, a casual line of lower-priced clothes ($90 bodysuits, $300 blazers) in 1989 that made her ideas and her designer name vastly more accessible to working women wanting to don a designer name but unable to afford her couture prices. The philosophy was one of simplicity. She offered her version of wardrobe basics, which made dressing for any occasion easy.
In the early 1990s the DKNY line represented an estimated $285 million of projected total sales of $365 million. The line prospered by staying current with street fashion ideas incorporating the teenage grunge look (a mismatched sloppy style adopted by the youthful 90s counterculture) for mostly mainstream and older audiences.
In 1992 Karan came up with another idea: a basic line called Essentials—a capsule collection of blazers, pants, wrap skirts, and bodysuits that sold $15 million the first year, prompting her to add a line of Essentials for Men.
Her couture lines for men and women were decidedly high stakes, ranging up from $2,000 women's dresses and $2,500 men's suits. Essentials, only slightly lower-priced, was still a bit too costly for most fashion consumers. And yet, by the mid-1990s she sensed another opportunity for those seeking greater exclusivity—this time at top price points under a limited edition label with her signature. Called the Donna Karan Collection, it was distinguished by more detailing in luxurious, hand-painted or hand-dyed fabrics and retailed for up to $6,000.
Real Life, Real People Inspired Design
From the start, Karan was a designer's designer, using her own closet as a testing ground and inspiration for her fashions. For her youthful, funkier DKNY line, she looked to her daughter Gabrielle (born 1975). For suggestions for menswear designs, she used her husband and business partner, Stephan Weiss.
Her personal life also showed steady growth and determination. She married Long Island retailer Mark Karan in 1974 and had one daughter. While the couple divorced in 1978, they remained good friends. In 1983 she married Stephan Weiss, whom she had first met on a blind date ten years earlier. They lived in Manhattan and in a beach house on Long Island, where Weiss designed the home and grounds, leaving Karan to handle the interiors. Weiss, who was also a sculptor, designed the bottles for Karan's first signature fragrance, Donna Karan. The scent was a mix, in her words, of leather, cashmere, suede, and the "back of my husband's neck." But their minds haven't always met. Although she was the first American designer to suggest sarong skirts for men, her husband steadfastly refused to wear them.
Attempting to imitate all-American designer Ralph Lauren's lifestyle marketing ploy, Karan's "Woman-to-Woman" marketing campaign reflected her customer—a stylish, elegant, working woman. Striking a cord with independent career women, Karan explained, "I have hit upon a universality of design."
One of the Hottest Names In Fashion
Her connections to Hollywood and Washington, D.C., also helped to boost the designer's reputation. Singer/ actress/director Barbra Streisand wore Karan constantly, as did television's Murphy Brown character actress Candace Bergen. Donning her menswear were singer Michael Bolton and actors Larry Hagman, Richard Gere, and Warren Beatty. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton slipped into her suits and dresses (after she wore the "cold shoulder" black dress at an inaugural bash, it immediately was "knocked off"—that is, copied at lower prices by everyone in the fashion world) and President Bill Clinton campaigned in her stylish navy wool crepe suits.
A far cry from her initial snug, simple jersey separates, a later line for women incorporated longer sheer chiffon dresses, Edwardian suits, empire waist dresses, and monastic long tunics over bell-bottom slacks with shoulder-slung chunky cross accessories.
Her reputation and identity as a world-class designer established, Karan expanded her vision into home furnishings and a women's body care line (moisturizers, bath soap, and shower gels). By the late 1990s, Karan had amassed a global business empire that included childrenswear, fragrances, skin-care products, hosiery, and eye wear, as well. The company had almost 300 foreign accounts, including 27 free-standing Donna Karan stores, with strong followings in Europe, the Far East, and Japan. In addition to attracting the loyalty of consumers, she won recognition from the global fashion press and top designers who voted her Best Woman Designer in the World and Best American Designer to Emerge in 20 Years.
Tested Business Acumen
Meanwhile, she shook up the fashion retailing world by attempting to gain further control of her company by going public with her company's stock. However, Karan's road to success was not always smooth. The first hurdle came in 1992 when the company expanded too rapidly, taking on more debt than warranted by its cash flow. Then came late deliveries and the mixed blessing of more demand than her supply could handle. "We had a vicious cycle of problems," recalled Karan. On top of these problems, the darling of Wall Street came under intense criticism as it became clear that the company was not strong enough to proceed with its plans for a public stock offering. The solution was to restructure the company's debt so that growth could continue.
A corner had been turned; new products were launched in the beauty and home lines, a licensing agreement was signed for jeans aimed at baby boomer jeans wearers, and revenues soared. By mid-1996, the company was ready to execute the initial public stock offering (IPO). Once again, Karan was hailed by the financial as well as the fashion world.
The ink was hardly dry before danger signals appeared. Never one to cut corners, Karan simply spent too much money, and expansion costs were growing faster than sales. Other obstacles also interfered. A plan to sell the cosmetics and fragrance division took longer than expected, and disagreements over production schedules and product lines dissolved the lucrative licensing arrangement for jeans. The company's stock plunged. Investors were furious, and demanded that more cost controls be implemented.
Found Wisdom in Letting Go
A new chapter began in the summer of 1997 when the company announced the appointment of John Idol as chief executive. Formerly a group president at Polo Ralph Lauren, Idol brought badly needed expertise in licensing to the company. The key, however, laid in his reporting to the board rather than to Karan, who stepped down as chief executive but maintained her title as chairwoman of the company. The business of managing the bottom line was separated from the business of designing—and in turn was again hailed by Wall Street.
For further information on Donna Karan and the contemporary fashion industry see Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Designersby Valerie Steele (1991); Contemporary Designers, edited by Ann Lee Morsan, (2nd ed. 1990); and NY Fashion: The Evolution of American Style by Caroline Rennolds Milbank (1985). Articles in periodicals include: New York Times (July 29, 1997, May 28, 1997, March 6, 1997, April 29, 1997); Fortune (January 13, 1997); Town & Country (December 1996); Advertising Age (August 5, 1996, October 7, 1996); and Vogue (December 1995 and January 1996). □
"Donna Karan." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/donna-karan
"Donna Karan." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved September 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/donna-karan
Donna Karan, 1948–, American fashion designer, b. Forest Hills, N.Y., as Donna Faske. Daughter of a tailor and a garment saleswoman, she started to design clothes as a teenager and studied at New York's Parsons School of Design. In 1967 she began working for the Anne Klein womenswear house and became its chief designer on Klein's death in 1974. Karan launched her first collection under her own name in 1985 and five years later added a ready-to-wear line, DKNY. She became known for comfortable yet elegant apparel made particularly for professional women. Her signature business and sportswear lines included tailored jackets, scarf skirts, trousers, bodysuits, and coordinated accessories. In 1991 she initiated a menswear line, soon adding children's clothing, perfume, cosmetics, hosiery, and other products to her design empire.
"Karan, Donna." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/karan-donna
"Karan, Donna." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/karan-donna