Donna Karan, fashion's greatest champion of women, steps down

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

Donna Karan is leaving women on their own — to fend for themselves in a fashion industry that all too often does not have their best interest at heart.

Seventh Avenue's greatest advocate for professional women announced Tuesday that she is leaving her signature collection to focus on philanthropy, health care and cultural awareness through her Urban Zen Company and Foundation. The fall 2015 and resort 2016 collections will be the company's last under Karan's creative direction. It is, by at least one measure, bittersweet timing. Fall is her best collection in recent years, in which she celebrates a sophisticated and confident woman in an urban landscape dominated by black and gold.

Karan will have no successor. The Collection will be suspended while the company reorganizes.

"I have made this decision after much soul-searching," said Karan, 66, in a statement. "I have arrived at a point in my life where I need to spend more time to pursue my Urban Zen commitment to its fullest potential." Urban Zen has Karan frequently traveling abroad, particularly to Haiti where she has worked to help artisans there build self-sustaining businesses beyond their borders.

A generation of young designers who aspire to dress women of substance owe a debt to Karan. Men such as Joseph Altuzarra and Jason Wu borrow from her lean, office-ready tailoring. The Row's Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen use similarly lush and tactile fabrics in which to swaddle the body. Her point of view will endure.

But with Karan's departure, there is no other American woman of such stature to fill her place in the Seventh Avenue triumvirate known as Ralph, Calvin and Donna. There is no woman whose work is so firmly grounded in luxury sportswear. There is no woman who aims to speak so directly to professionals, 9 to 5'ers and those whose lives are a busy, wonderful mess of children, board meetings, yoga and a great martini. There is no other woman.

And while there is nothing that says men cannot speak just as intimately and profoundly to their female customers on matters of aesthetics, they do not know what it is like to have size 12 hips in an industry that calls them plus-size. They cannot serve as reassurance that, in fashion at least, the glass ceiling has been shattered.

When Karan launched her fashion brand in 1984, the industry was at odds with the needs of professional women. Designers spent a great deal of time creating clothes for the cocktail hour, for partying at night clubs and for formal galas. They offered up simple separates for career women, but those tended to require that women banish their femininity and sensuality from the executive suite.

Karan wasn't a problem-solver because she didn't see women's hips as something that needed to be fixed, only flattered. She was a niche-filler. What do women need? In her no nonsense conversations with customers, she developed a rapport with them, a girlfriend-to-girlfriend relationship. She excelled at personal appearances and trunk shows because she could be down-to-earth and blunt. She was not an elongated, sparrow of a woman. She was a Long Island girl with qualms about her own hips and she had no hesitation in sharing that with her customers.

Karan began her career at Anne Klein, where she was the sportswear designer's young assistant, pregnant and questioning whether the fashion industry was for her. Klein schooled her in the beauty of American style and the expanding role of women in the corporate world. When Klein died in 1974, Karan was asked to lead the company.

"I didn't choose to be a designer. I was born a designer," Karan once told The Washington Post. It was the family business: Her father was a garmento; her mother, a showroom model.

"I wanted to stay home and be a mom," she said. "But that's not what the world served me."

She had not wanted to hang out her own shingle; she didn't want to leave Anne Klein. But Karan was nudged along by her original investors, Frank Mori and Tomio Taki, who believed that she had something important to say to modern women, something that was both unique and universal.

Karan debuted her signature collection with her acclaimed Seven Easy Pieces. It wasn't merely a modern mix-and-match system of dressing — a way of getting out the door in a flash. It was much more. Using yards of cashmere and jersey, Karan acknowledged women's curves; she celebrated femininity. Her clothes were sexy but always powerful. There was nothing else like them. And over the years, through financial ups and downs, the essence of the brand remained true.

"I don't think I have ever, ever left who I am. I know what it is that makes a Donna Karan garment different from everyone else's. It is about the body," Karan said in a 2003 interview with the Washington Post. "That is always a signature I try to stand by."

Then first lady Hillary Clinton wore one of Karan's most famous designs in 1993 at a White House dinner. Karan had dubbed it the "cold-shoulder" dress and noted that she'd been inspired by the realization that a woman's shoulders always look terrific — no matter her age or size. Women do not over-think and obsess about their shoulders the way they have fraught relationships with their legs, arms, stomach, neck and virtually every other body part.

It was a surprisingly progressive choice for an aesthetically conservative first lady. But Karan's point of view was so rooted in that place of overlap between a woman's power and her sexuality that she could connect with women of substance and clout — political women who would normally shy away from anything overtly Fashion. It was Karan, after all, who in 1992 commissioned an advertising campaign centered around the first female commander-in-chief. The series of photographs even included a swearing-in ceremony. The ads might have been drawn from pure fantasy, but they also looked believable. Karan was making clothes that one could imagine in the Oval Office.

Since 2001, Donna Karan International has been part of the LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury group. With Karan's departure, LVMH will focus on the brand's licensing business, as well as its less expensive DKNY division. Karan will have an advisory role. And DKNY will be overseen by Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osbourne, who are also the designers of Public School.

"Donna Karan is a visionary designer who changed the way women dress by redefining power and sensuality," said Caroline Brown, CEO of Donna Karan International, in a statement. "Her influence has been extraordinary and will continue to inspire for years to come."