The Harmony of Donna Karan

The Japanese believe the void is a crucial element. Like earth, wind, fire and certain colors and numbers, the void is essential to life. It happens when something is removed from a place. But it also happens when something has yet to exist in a place or in a particular way. Some believe it represents the sky, for all its openness and possibility. The void allows for new things to happen. The void is not a vacuum, it’s the domain of opportunity. It is a pure, empty space—physical, spiritual or metaphysical—from which energy can spring. It’s a chance to fix a problem. It’s where life and ideas and love can begin spontaneously and germinate new things.

The thing about Donna Karan is, she’s always looking for voids to fill, to challenge her, to inspire her with the simple possibility of, “What could this be? What could go here?”

The international fashion mogul created her empire out of a void, first with Donna Karan and again with DKNY, establishing fashion aesthetics that are at once unique, singular in their respective approaches and motivations, yet so relevant and accessible that everywhere in the world people love to wear them. The same happened when she realized the Hamptons summer scene, a lightning rod for fashionistas, was missing a shopping event with a purpose. Her Super Saturday just celebrated its 16th year, having raised over $3.5 million for Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.

But when a person—an artist, bon vivant and tough business gal from Long Island—is compelled to do things, big things, this isn’t going to be enough.

When she lost her husband Stephan to lung cancer she found that people experiencing loss at this level didn’t have access to programs promoting physical and spiritual wellness, the very things that brought her comfort through her trials. In 2007, she created her Urban Zen Foundation to develop a companion system to conventional medicine. As part of its focus, in 2009 she introduced Urban Zen Integrative Yoga Therapy Program (UZIT). It provides patients and loved ones with in-bed yoga, reiki and services that offer care and relief, but also encourages patients to self-care. The idea is to treat spiritual or emotional vulnerabilities as well as physical needs to address the receiver wholly.

After the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Karan saw another void. Inspired artisans had products, ambition and drive, but no outlet. They had traditional crafts, skills, ideas and know-how, but no way to get them to market to generate the income they need to support their families. She stepped in as a liaison to empower these craftspeople, bringing their wares to the rest of the world by way of The Haiti Artisan Project.

But it’s her designs that we come back to: The way her garments drape against the body so gracefully, the way she effortlessly blends casual, wearable clothing with elegant forms, the way she elevated jeans to such a level no wardrobe is complete without them. She started at Anne Klein when luxury sportswear was priced at $50 but in 1985 she started Donna Karan. She wanted her little label to fix the problem that she and her friends were having: Not being able to find clothes that suited their lifestyles. Another void. The same thing happened soon after. In 1989 she started DKNY in response to her teenage daughter not having fashion to suit her lifestyle. She was among the first designers to create a full style universe, showing clothes, handbags and shoes together in one department. She’s gone into dressing men with the same approach. There is eyewear. There are home goods. All working together but separately, linked by her emphasis on clean lines, a feeling of immediacy and being in the here and now.

This fall, as always, Donna Karan will fill some voids. The style arbiter’s new line is out and features some surprising silhouettes. The inventor is bringing new fabrics and textures into her works to create designs that are true to the modalities of her sense of city chic, but still reflecting some of the unpredictable shapes and patterns found in the clothing worn by people in far-flung places. Her wanderlust has taken her to the far reaches of the planet, inspiring her designs, her spirit and, well, her need to fill voids…


Runway photos courtesy of Donna Karan International

Nada: What’s new this fall for your line?
Donna Karan:
Fashion-wise, it’s definitely the cape. I love, love, love scarves—always have—and for fall we played with the cape. It’s stylish, dramatic and I love its movement. We made tunic capes, skirt capes, dress capes and traditional capes to wear over jackets. I love when one piece can shift the whole look and attitude of a look.

imageNM: What’s derivative from previous cycles?
Every collection is ultimately an evolution of our Seven Easy Pieces. This collection more
than ever. You start with a body jersey foundation—the bodysuit, the skirt, the pants, a bodyjacket—and you add the personality from there. In addition to the cape, we have curly-haired cowls and cuffs, collage vests, metallic tweeds, leather jackets. You dress it all up or down as desired.

NM: How does/n’t this fit into the collective fashion dialogue for fall 2013?
I design for my customer, her personal style needs and her evolution as a woman and the many roles that includes. This collection speaks to her creativity. Her need to personalize her look—for her life, for her style, for her moods. It’s an expressive collection of pieces that she can mix, match and make her own.

NM: What signifies this as an evolution of the original Seven Easy Pieces?
: Seven Easy Pieces is a philosophy, as well as a way of organizing your wardrobe day into night, season into season. For Donna Karan’s first season, Seven Easy Pieces started as a literal system of dressing, but has evolved and expanded into a strategy of buying interchangeable pieces that take you anywhere you’re going. What makes it modern is its flexibility. Each piece wears more than one way, so you don’t need more pieces, just the right ones.
It could be a system based off the luxe tailored pieces of Collection or one focused on the street-smart style of DKNY, depending on who you are and the lifestyle you lead.

NM: What does it mean to have an urban vernacular as a designer?
I can only be who I am. And that’s a New York born and bred woman who is passionate, creative, loves the arts and lives on the go, traveling constantly. That’s who I am, how I think and how I design. When I first designed my collection, it was to dress me and my friends. Yet I soon discovered that women around the world related to our sense of urban sophistication, whether they live in a city or not.

NM: Do you ever feel like the job is done? When it’s time to finally close the chapter on a collection, how do you stop from going back and tweaking?
It’s never, ever done! That’s why I have “to be continued” written on the bottom of every press release. There’s always more to say, more to express, more to explore.

NM: Is fashion, as a form of expression, a symbol of a mind-body-spirit connection, or is it something else?
Fashion is creative. Because it’s so personal, it’s very much a form of self-expression. We all choose what to wear and how we want the world to see us. Yet unlike art, there’s a functional element to it—job appropriateness, climate sensitivity, flattering your particular body shape, day-into-night flexibility. I don’t view fashion as a symbol, but it definitely speaks a language of its own.

NM: Is it possible to run a spiritual business?
I’m a spiritual person. It’s simply a part of who I am and what I bring to everything I do. It’s not that business is spiritual, it’s the intention you bring to it that matters.

NM: What can be the most discouraging thing for you to witness (or have happen)? How do you get over it?
When the ego gets in the way of helping others. I always say it’s not about “me,” it’s about “we.” If we remember that, we can do a world of good.

NM: What about Haiti do you find most inspiring?
I’m in love with Haiti—its people, its traditions, its natural beauty, its colors, its vibrancy. I find Haiti’s spirit the most inspirational thing of all. In the face of all the hardships these people have, they are optimistic and forward-looking. You can’t help be touched on an emotional and visceral level.

NM: When you’re there, working with a women’s cooperative in some remote village, do they have a sense that “Donna Karan, the global enterprising fashion mogul” is among them, or do they think of you as just some nice white lady from New York?
If you only saw how I go around, “fashion mogul” is not the word that comes to mind! I am very hands-on in my work, especially in Haiti where I work with artisans. I’m the first to sit on the ground, get dirty and simply enjoy the many one-on-one interactions, especially with the children I meet. If there are any preconceived ideas before meeting me, they go away immediately.

NM: What about this is liberating?
Everything about what I do in Haiti and in other parts of the world is rewarding. I’m there to help and when you give to others—whether it be to your family or a village in Haiti—you get so much back in return. The joy and sense of making a difference is second to none.

imageDowntime for Donna

Childhood town: I grew up in Woodmere—it’s also where I was first married and had Gabby.

Favorite places to go on Long Island? The Hamptons.

What do you learn by traveling alone? Be open
and go with the flow. It’s the only way.

The best Saturdays are spent with my family at
the beach.

Go-to album? I love all kinds of music, but of course my best friend Barbra is my favorite of all.

Escape-to place? My home in Parrot Cay [Turks and caicos], which is my 3-hour Bali.

Favorite people to get lost in laughter or thought or dreams with: My grandchildren.

Eats too much dark chocolate.

Never leaves home without:
My journal, my camera, my iPhone, iPad, ipod.

Guilty pleasure: Taking time just for me.


Seven Easy Pieces

Donna Karan’s hallmark of the fashion industry focuses on the items that transition from day into evening with modern, urban style. While the actual pieces may shift according to season and look, the basic seven easy pieces are:

1) Bodysuit
2) Skirt
3) Pant
4) Tailored jacket or coat
5) Cashmere sweater
6) Something leather
7) An evening piece

nada marjanovich

nada marjanovich

Nada Marjanovich is Publisher and Editor of Long Island Pulse Magazine. Prior to founding the title in 2005, she worked extensively in the internet. She's been writing since childhood and has been published for both fiction and poetry.