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," in Interview, September 2001.***
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
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 International Inc.
Donna Karan has earned a reputation as an innovative marketer and world-class fashion designer with her label Donna Karan New York. Formerly a co-designer of Anne Klein, her small start-up company expanded into a fashion empire during the 1980s.
Donna Karan was born Donna Faske on October 2, 1948, in Forest Hills, New York. Her mother was a model and her father a clothes retailer. As a youngster, Karan became obsessed with fashion and attended Parson's School of Design. She left the school without graduating to take an assistant's job at Anne Klein, however, and in 1987 she received an honorary fashion degree from the school. In addition to overseeing designs for many years, she also handled the financial duties of her growing business. Karan married Long Island retailer Mark Karan in 1974, and together they have one child, Gabrielle. The couple divorced in 1978, but have remained good friends. In 1983, Karan married sculptor Stephan Weiss. They maintain homes in Manhattan and on Long Island, New York.
After being hired for a summer job at the Anne Klein Company, Donna Karan obtained permanent work as an associate designer for the firm. Japanese fashion financier Takihyo Tomio Taki, who was managing the company after the founder's death, recognized Karan's talent and drive. He named her and Louis Dell'Olio co-designers and together this team garnished many industry awards for their sporty womenswear collections. In 1982, the company introduced the successful Anne Klein diffusion line. Shortly thereafter, Karan left to found her own company with husband Stephan Weiss. They headquartered the new firm in New York City.
The first Donna Karan Collection, launched in 1985, received critical acclaim. The following years brought an expansion of offerings: swimwear in 1986, a hosiery collection in 1987, the DKNY bridge line in 1988, and, in 1991, the DKNY menswear collection. The following year, Karan founded the Donna Karan Beauty Company, a fragrance and cosmetics division. Since then the company has evolved further, introducing lingerie and a children's line, DKNY Kids. The Karan empire is now global, with over 300 foreign accounts, including 27 freestanding Donna Karan stores. With a strong following in the Far East and Japan, the company opened an 8,000-square foot flagship store Queen's Road in Hong Kong. Other recently opened international locations include Kuwait City, Rome, Geneva, Moscow, Shanghai, Johannesburg, Stockholm and Amsterdam.
The fashion industry has consistently recognized Karan's expertise. She has been the recipient of numerous COTY awards (1977, 1981, 1984, 1985), several Council of Fashion Designers of America awards (1985, 1986, 1990, 1992), a Fashion Footwear Association of New York award (1988), and a Woolmark award (1992).
The 1990s presented Karan with difficult business decisions in her role as chief executive officer (CEO). One of her more controversial moves was a plan to take the company public with a stock offering. The first obstacle towards this goal was the company's rapid expansion, which left the firm with more debt than warranted by its cash flow. With late deliveries and unexpected demands that the company could not meet, the financial outlook worsened. Karan herself described these times as a "vicious cycle." It soon became obvious to Wall Street that the firm was not strong enough to proceed with the initial public stock offering. Meeting the challenge head-on, Karan restructured the company's debt so that growth could continue. New products were added to the beauty and home lines, increasing sales. In addition, a licensing contract was signed for jeans aimed at the baby boomer population. The stock offering at $24 per share took place in 1996, and expansion continued. The cost outlay for the growth eclipsed sales, though, and the company was again in turmoil. Other issues complicated the tenuous situation. The sale of the fragrance and cosmetics division took longer than expected, and there were problems with the jeans licensing agreement. Conflicts over production schedules and product mix kept the company from pursuing this lucrative market. At the 1997 stockholder meeting, the company estimated $100 million in lost revenue due to the collapse of the deal. The result was a fall in the company's stock price that left investors demanding the imposition of more cost controls.
Karan once again acted decisively by restructuring her role in the company. In a move hailed by Wall Street, she resigned as chief executive officer and named former Polo Ralph Lauren group president, John Idol, to the post. Significantly, he reports not to Karan but to the board of directors. With his previous background in licensing, Idol brings the expertise needed to expand market share. In this way, Karan successfully split her managing and designing duties, while retaining the title chairwoman of the company.
In recent moves, the company segmented DKNY Women's and its $311 million sales volume into five separate labels, all at different price ranges. They are D, priced between designer and bridge; DKNY, for wide distribution to department stores; DKNY Classics, which focuses on casual dress; DKNY Active; and DKNY Jeanswear. The segmentation of the men's bridge line is planned for 1998.
Social and Economic Impact
Karan has left her mark as a businesswoman, marketer and designer in the fashion industry. With annual sales in the hundreds of millions, the Donna Karan Company is one of the world's premier fashion retailers. By presenting interchangeable designs, she has appealed to the casual, work, and designer markets. She has stated that if one has the fundamentals underneath—bodysuits, unitards, bodywrap styles and stretch fabrics—these basics can be put together in endless ways. In addition, many see her clothes as neither specifically day nor night, summer nor winter, which adds to consumer appeal. Her launch of DKNY, the casual line of lower-cost clothes, brought her designer name and styles to working women looking for affordable but fashion-conscious clothing. In the early 1990s, she also incorporated urban trends and put together the Essentials Collection that sold well and prompted a similar men's line. Her Woman to Woman marketing campaign won acclaim for appealing to stylish, elegant working women.
Karan is a well-known celebrity with many fans in the entertainment and political worlds. President Bill Clinton often wears her suits, as does singer/actress Barbara Streisand and other Hollywood stars. Karan has offered couture lines with women's dresses at $2,000 and men's suits at $2,500. And, for those inclined to spend more, there is the Donna Karan Collection—a limited edition signature label. Items include luxurious detailing and hand-painted or hand-dyed fabrics, beginning at $6,000.
Chronology: Donna Karan
1966: Joined Anne Klein and Company as designer.
1974: Named co-director of design of Anne Klein and Company.
1982: Launched Anne Klein II diffusion line.
1985: Founded Donna Karan New York (DKNY).
1986: Added swimwear line.
1987: Added hosiery collection.
1988: Introduced DKNY bridge line.
1991: Introduced DKNY menswear collection.
1992: Founded Donna Karan Beauty Company (fragrances and cosmetics).
Karan has said that she sees designing as an extension of herself as a woman and that clothes should be simple. They are, she says, an expression of the many roles she has had to balance: wife, mother, friend, and businesswoman. Her goal, she emphasizes, is to simplify dress to make life easier and to add comfort, luxury, and durability.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Donna Karan International Inc.
550 7th Ave.
New York, NY 10018
Business Phone: (212)789-1500
"As Holders Moan, Donna Paints Bright Picture." Daily News Record, 13 June 1997.
Byers, Paula K. and Suzanne M. Bourgoin, eds. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
"Donna's Global Agenda." Women's Wear Daily, 8 October 1997.
Martin, Richard, ed. Contemporary Fashion. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Pendergast, Sara, ed. Contemporary Designers. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
Donna Karan (1948– ) was born Donna Ivy Faske in 1948 in New York City. Her father, Gabby Faske, was a custom tailor who died in a car accident when Donna was three years old. Her mother, Helen Faske, had been a showroom model turned fashion sales representative. Helen's second husband was Harold Flaxman, who was also involved in the garment business. The family moved to Long Island after the marriage. By the time Karan finished high school, she had already staged her first fashion show. She attended the Parsons School of Design for two years, leaving at the age of nineteen to work for the ready-to-wear designer Anne Klein. Klein fired Karan in short order, but rehired her two years later. When Anne Klein died of cancer in 1974, Karan was put in charge of Klein's Seventh Avenue sportswear company at the age of twenty-six, just days after having given birth to a baby girl.
During Karan's decade-long tenure as head designer, she built Anne Klein into the most profitable sportswear company in the United States. She launched Anne Klein II, a so-called bridge line of clothes priced slightly lower than the signature collection and meant for the working woman. So successful was the concept that the company's financial backers, Tomio Taki and Frank Mori, invested $10 million in working capital for Karan to start her own collection. She turned over the reins at Anne Klein to her assistant, Louis Dell'Olio, in 1984.
Long since divorced from Mark Karan, the father of her ten-year-old daughter, and remarried in 1983 to her business partner Stephan Weiss, Donna Karan set out to "design everything I needed, so I wouldn't have to think about it anymore" (Agins, p. 145). To this end, she devised a sophisticated twist on the mix-and-match concept and called her line Donna Karan Essentials. It consisted of a bodysuit, tights, dress, skirt, jacket, pants, and accessories—"seven easy pieces" meant to be replaceable with minimal updating. It was a modern way of dressing designed to go from day to evening, pack easily in a travel bag, and be ready to wear at a moment's notice.
"I don't like fashion," Karan once said. "To me, it's the woman, the body." She described herself not as a fashion designer but as a "doctor for women's problems." She added, "In all the chaos I live in, I always want to create calm." In the 1980s, a time when many professional women in the United States were dressing in pinstriped power suits and collared silk blouses with bows at the neck, Karan provided an attractive alternative. Her system of dressing was based on a cashmere bodysuit, on top of which could be layered silk body blouses, sweater-like jackets, unconstructed blazers, and easy-fitting skirts or trousers. "I have seen women transform themselves when they put on her clothes," said Kal Ruttenstein, fashion director of Bloomingdale's department store. "They make you look sexy and strong, a rare combination."
In addition to answering her own needs and those of many other women, Karan drew inspiration from the pace and attitude of New York City, naming her collection Donna Karan New York. Soon the label included fragrance and beauty products, a men's collection, a children's line, and a home furnishings collection. In 1989 she launched DKNY, a casual line of less expensive, more youthful fashions. Designed by Jane Chung but overseen by Karan, DKNY also quickly expanded to include a wide range of licensees.
The company was publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange for the first time in 1996. In April 2001 Donna Karan New York was acquired for $643 million by the French luxury goods conglomerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH). What was then known as Donna Karan International had over eighty freestanding Donna Karan and DKNY retail locations worldwide, including the original two stores in London and three in New York City. Karan has been a six-time winner of awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Agins, Teri. "Woman on the Verge." Working Woman, May 1993, p. 145.
Horyn, Cathy. "Review/Fashion; Up Close and Personal: Karan, Kors, Rucci." New York Times, 25 September 2001.
Karan, Donna. DKNY: Soul of the City. New York: Universe, 1999.
Singer, Sally. "Love Story." Vogue, September 2001.
Sischy, Ingrid. Donna Karan: New York. New York: Universe Books, 1998.
KARAN, DONNA (1948– ), U.S. fashion designer. Karan (born Donna Faske) was raised in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, n.y., to parents already immersed in the fashion business. Her father, Gabby Faske, who died when she was 3, was a custom tailor in New York City. Her mother, Helen, was a showroom model and sales representative. Karan – who got her surname from her first husband, Mark Karan – would become one of the best-known businesswomen in the U.S., head of a publicly owned company, her name on everything from apparel to accessories, from fragrances to furnishings. She designed her first collection while still in high school and staged her first fashion show while an undergraduate at Parsons School of Design in New York City. In 1968, she dropped out of school to become an assistant to Anne *Klein, a popular women's sportswear designer known for skirts, blouses, sweaters, and jackets that could easily be mixed and matched. Klein, who had become Karan's mentor, unexpectedly died of cancer in 1974. The 26-year-old Karan, who had given birth to a daughter only two days earlier, took over the line with co-designer Louis Dell'Olio and built it into a highly successful business.
In 1984, Karan, who had been divorced a year earlier, launched Donna Karan Co., her own business, in partnership with her second husband, sculptor Stephan Weiss, and Takihyo, a Japanese company that owned the Anne Klein firm. Her approach to dressing was geared more to practicality than to "fashion." Just as Klein had promulgated a wardrobe of interchangeable parts, so did Karan. She identified with urban women who worked for a living and did not necessarily look like runway models or wealthy matrons, and they identified with her. Her design concept was based on a handful of interchangeable items that created a complete wardrobe able to flow from day to evening, and from weekday to weekend. It was distinguished by its use of black cashmere, leather, stretch fabrics and molded fabrics, and silhouettes that wrapped and sculpted the body. In short, clothes that were comfortable, flattering, and easy to organize. Karan called the jacket the foundation of a woman's wardrobe, and advocated versatile blazers that were equally appropriate for home, business, or leisure. She took the concept a step further in 1985, when she launched dkny, a subsidiary label that was a less expensive version of the Donna Karan collection. With its nod to city life, dkny emphasized bodysuits and active sportswear, often accompanied by loose, easy garments. Karan also returned to school at that time, earning a B.F.A. from Parsons in 1987. By the early 1990s, she had branched into men's wear and introduced a fragrance and a skin-care line. In 1996, the company made a heavily anticipated public offering, becoming one of the few firms on the New York Stock Exchange to be headed by a woman. It opened its first dkny store in 1996, on New York's Madison Avenue. Karan's husband, Stephan, died in 2001, the same year her company was acquired by lvmh Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, a Paris-based fashion conglomerate, for $243 million. Karan remained as artistic director, in control of all creative aspects. By 2004, the company – since renamed Donna Karan International – boasted 70 company-owned and licensed Donna Karan Collection and DKNY stores worldwide, including units in London, Manchester, and Tokyo. In 2004, it generated some $1.4 billion in retail sales and employed 1,600 workers.
Karan was named Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1985, 1990, and 1996, and men's wear Designer of the Year in 1992. The Fragrance Foundation saluted her for Best Fragrance of the Year in 1993.
That same year, she was honored for humanitarian efforts by the Design Industries Foundation for aids. In 1996, she won a Fashion Critics Award from Parsons. Karan was named Intimate Apparel Designer of the Year in 1999 and in 2003 she became the first American designer to receive a Superstar Award from Fashion Group International. She was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the cfda in 2004, the same year she got an honorary doctorate from Parsons. As a board member of the cfda, Karan headed its Seventh on Sale fundraiser for aids awareness and education. She was a co-chair of New York's annual "Kids for Kids" events for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric aids Foundation, and co-chaired an annual flea market and barbecue to benefit Ovarian Cancer research. In 1999, she and her husband established the Karan Weiss Foundation to benefit children's causes, medical research, and the arts.
New York Times Magazine (May 4, 1986).
[Mort Sheinman (2nd ed.)]