Nice, warm & fuzzy article from the Sunday Style section:
Donna Karan Reshaped Fashion, as Well as Herself. Are You Next?
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2003; Page D01
One day, designer Donna Karan walked into her Madison Avenue boutique -- a shop so grand that it wraps around a small pond -- to check on a display of merchandise. She bumped into a customer who took advantage of the serendipity to aggressively declare herself a devoted fan. Karan was with her daughter, granddaughter and stepson, and it was one of those moments that Karan says exemplify how difficult it is to maintain "that kind of balance." Right there on the sales floor, all aspects of her life converged, she says, and the designer had to juggle an over-excited customer and a fussy grandchild who was demanding a bottle.
Karan, 55, does not claim that she is unusual in feeling the pull of both the business world and domesticity. But she is unique in that, for a time, she was able to make a convincing argument that personal tumult, gender inequity and working-mother guilt could all be lessened with a few yards of luxurious black cashmere.
The woman, Karan recalls, was a "definitive size-12 customer," which in the dimensions of designer garments means that her figure was significantly flawed. She was also from Detroit, and in the fashion industry, that is the equivalent of being from the middle of a cornfield.
With the kind of instant familiarity evidenced on "Oprah" and "Dr. Phil," the woman began to pepper Karan -- who recently lost a significant amount of weight -- with questions about her fitness routine, her eating habits, her well-being. She also wanted Karan's opinion on the wardrobe that she had just purchased from the fall collection.
"She puts on the clothes, and I have to tell you I did not like her in them at all," Karan says. "I said to her, 'This is going to be a little risky, but I'm going to do a complete changeover on you. Are you prepared to handle this? I think you're buying all the wrong clothes for your body.'
"I'm going to give you a body dress, a cashmere body dress," Karan told her. "Everything else that will go over it is going to complement it. And this is going to be your uniform right now. I said, 'Pick up your skirt. Let me see you from your knees to your toes. You have brilliant legs, and all you're doing is hiding your body.'
"In 25 minutes, in all my years, I have never seen such a transformation," Karan says. "I wish I had a video camera for the before and after. . . . She went from a very nice lady to a hip New Yorker.
"If this doesn't explain Donna Karan, nothing will."
The Warp and Woof
The designer's message and her method used to be that simple all the time. But such clarity is now rare. The Donna Karan New York label was founded in 1984. Karan had been chief designer at Anne Klein and launched her company with the backing of Anne Klein owners Frank Mori and Tomio Taki.
The first collection was premised on the idea of "seven easy pieces" as a formula for dressing. The garments were aimed at making busy working women look effortlessly fashionable while feeling cuddled and comforted by their clothes. Based on black cashmere and stretch jersey, the line celebrated the curves and the voluptuousness of the female form. And if any one item defined the designer's sensibility, it was the bodysuit -- essentially a blouse that snapped under the crotch. It was sexy, understandable, distinctive, practical. Karan's ideas trickled down from the designer salons to the racks of mass merchants.
"Donna Karan really was a unique brand in that it was started to design clothes for the contemporary woman. The bodysuit? That was something that really resonated with women," says Michael Appel, a garment industry consultant with Quest Turnaround Advisors. "She really did something significant when she started that label."
More than simply making clothes, the designer exalted authoritative, ambitious womanhood. The collection was positioned as the wardrobe of a modern feminist. With advertising that once depicted a female president of the United States, the brand's message was aimed at female executives who felt comfortable accessing their femininity and their intellect in the workplace. In the 1990s, Hillary Rodham Clinton wore Donna Karan. So did Murphy Brown.
Karan could be as inspiring as her advertising. She was the rare female designer building an empire. She offered herself up to her customers freely, giving them friendly bluntness punctuated by her nasal Long Island accent as well as empathy for the pear-shaped hoi polloi. She announced her size -- 12. She admitted her guilt over not spending enough time with her daughter, Gabrielle. She gushed happily about her romance with her husband, Stephan Weiss, explaining that her signature fragrance smelled like Casablanca lilies, red suede and the nape of his neck.
Karan created a cult, a brand and a business, with secondary lines, accessories, menswear, fragrances, lingerie, children's wear and home products that had sales in excess of $600 million.
But the cult has dissipated and the fashion industry has changed. High-end fashion companies are increasingly focusing on the benefits of vertical organization, creating corporate synergy and raising the stock price. Nowhere has that transition been rockier than at Donna Karan International. Where Karan once spent her time talking about the soothing nature of cashmere, her relationship with her customers and her problem-solving approach to design, she now is most often quoted defending the company's management style, its awkward growth spurts and the distance it has traveled from its roots.
Like so many other large fashion concerns, DKI went public. Its initial public offering was in 1996, after an aborted 1993 IPO. The stock opened at $24, spiked to $30, and then steadily slid to as low as $8.50. The stock decline ignited a series of staff cutbacks and restructuring.
In 2001, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the French conglomerate that controls Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Christian Lacroix and others, bought the Karan company, as well as the trademark, for $643 million. LVMH invested in DKI believing that it could be transformed into an international brand with the stature and profitability of a label like Giorgio Armani. LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault gave himself a five-year window to see if this could be accomplished.
Since the sale of the company, there have been four chief executives. They have all been charged with controlling costs, improving the timeliness of merchandise deliveries to stores and reigning in distribution so that the label isn't watered down through discounters and outlets. And they have sometimes done that in spite of Karan.
Her deliveries are better organized and have been praised by retailers as more timely. But Karan complains that they're not timely at all but instead are ridiculously early. "It burns my butt to go into a store and it's just turning cold and there are barely any winter coats left," she says. "I have a firm belief that the customer is not served properly. The shipping philosophy is wrong."
In all of the tumult, the designer's creative voice has at turns seemed muffled, distracted or just plain odd. As a businesswoman, what has Karan learned from her experiences dealing with Wall Street and now with a conglomerate? "The jury's still out on that," she says.
Still in Charge, by Design
Today, Karan will have an opportunity to do what she has had increasingly little time to do in the past few years: meet her customers and help them select a wardrobe. She will present her spring 2004 collection at Saks Jandel in Chevy Chase as part of a fundraiser for the Harvard AIDS Institute. It is her first formal presentation in the Washington area in a decade.
She will fly in from a yoga retreat in Parrot Cay, in the Turks and Caicos. Instead of an enormous production in front of cynical industry reps in New York, she will have an opportunity to present an intimate show in front of about 175 customers -- women who still appreciate her sensual, sophisticated clothes. Although Karan no longer owns the company that she founded, she remains its chief designer. And her Saks Jandel appearance will be an opportunity for fans to get a measure of her devotion to the label, to suss out whether she might walk away in a huff like Jil Sander after she sold her company to Prada, or fade into the background and count the millions like Calvin Klein after his sale to Phillips-Van Heusen. (Sander recently returned to the label she founded.)
"She doesn't need to work," Appel says. "Economically, she doesn't need to do it." The only compelling reason to stay, he says, is pride in the brand name.
Karan says that's reason enough. "I will be doing other things, but it's not leaving the company. It's not 'either-or,' it's 'and.' Will I always be involved in designing? Absolutely. Will I always care about my company? Absolutely. It's my child."
But she realizes that ultimately someone else controls the company and that working relationships can change: "If somebody puts me in a box here, no, I'm not going to stay in a box."
Karan began her brand after she had looked in her closet and found the contents lacking. "I see a void in the market. I see what the void is and I try to correct it and change it," Karan says.
"Why do I do a belt bag?" she says, grabbing at a rectangular, furry black satchel around her waist. "I can carry my bag and wear a belt. It does two things at once. It makes sense."
Karan has never been the sort of designer inspired by a film or a particular television show. Instead, her inspiration comes from her closet and her friends' closets, as well as her own sense of what's reasonable, what's practical, what's alluring. And as a result, every revelation about her personal life -- from her leisure pursuits to her decorating style -- has been used as a tool to interpret, applaud and criticize what she puts on the runway.
The designer's Seventh Avenue headquarters are predominantly black and white, and her office might be called spacious were it not for the collection of rustic wooden stools and tables that crowd the space. Even on the 15th floor, one can still hear the traffic of the Garment District honking and screeching below. But that is only right. The street sounds are the perfect background music for the designer who has always sold the excitement, sophistication and chaos of Manhattan along with her clothes. The walls are covered with black-and-white photographs, the most prominent of which is a portrait of her husband, who was a sculptor and her business partner. Weiss died two years ago of lung cancer.
Karan is dressed, as usual, in black: stretch pants, a sleeveless cowl-neck sweater and a pair of chunky clogs. She is no longer the fashion industry's most famous size 12. Through yoga and a rigorous diet, she has slimmed down and doesn't talk about her size anymore. After all, there is nothing particularly endearing about declaring oneself a svelte size 8 or 6 achieved through Herculean willpower, discipline and homemade diet cookies. Her brown hair with its golden highlights has been cut into a shag, and she doesn't take photos without a hair and makeup session. And as much as her voice continues to register raspy surprise, frustration and defiance, her face shows nothing more than expressionless calm. It is without affect even as her voice surges and dissolves. Karan, the designer as empathetic girlfriend, has turned glamorous.
She has also become less heavy-handed about her interest in spiritual pursuits, at least in the way those ideas are manifested in her designs. There was a time, in the late 1990s, when Karan had a reputation as the fashion industry's version of Shirley MacLaine. In a 1996 interview in New York magazine, she discussed her belief in reincarnation and how she'd undergone hypnosis to regress to past lives. She presented a collection in April 1998 to a soundtrack of 13th-century love poems by the Persian poet Rumi. The works had been edited by Deepak Chopra, and she gave everyone in the audience a compact disc of the ancient verses. Her designs took on a more ethereal tone with devore velvet, ravaged chiffon and leathers that appeared to be almost torn or gnawed. By all appearances, she had moved as far as possible from the urbane, aerodynamic silhouettes that she had initially championed and the Type A businesswomen she had rallied behind. The company suffered losses in the tens of millions of dollars. But she doesn't regret being so public about her philosophical wandering.
"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," she says. "That is always a signature I try to stand by."
Besides, her critics define her aesthetic too narrowly, she says. "It's black or gold and body conscious. . . . If I put it on the runway in high heels, they love it. If I put it on with flats, they freak out: 'She's in Zen mode.' I'm in my spiritual mode if I'm in flats. It's so weird.
"If somebody wants to know Donna Karan, Donna Karan gets up every single morning and does yoga. It is my way of life. Call that spiritual, call it whatever you want to call it," she says. "I'm about the body. I work with energy. That's who I am.
"What person has not questioned their life? That, to me, is when you're reaching on a different level. Call it what you want: voodoo, hoodoo. It's crazy to put a word around finding what the meaning of life is. It's whole. It's one. I don't separate it."
In recent collections -- those since the LVMH buyout -- the mood has been less "woman in meditation" and more "woman as dealmaker." Karan says that she feels "more creative than ever," and recent collections have been more successful with customers. One of Karan's most influential collections in a long time was for spring 2003. She calls it the "polka-dot collection" and it was dominated by retro-style dresses in flirtatious prints. One of the signature pieces was a red-and-white polka-dot day dress.
"I think the collection was very signature, and it took her to the next step," says Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the Tobe Report, a retail consulting firm. "It was just a fabulous collection and a much-welcomed new style for her, away from Zen, gongs and robes.
"That was the first major designer dress collection that was visual enough to make people say, 'Hey, maybe we can make dresses that will sell,' " Rolontz says. "It was the precursor of all the little dresses that people are wearing now."
But Karan is quick to say that she is not trying to create more commercial collections to appease retailers or the brand's new owners. She is not kowtowing to anyone.
"It has nothing to do with that. I've never felt anyone telling me what I have to do," she says and chuckles at the thought of someone trying. "I'm the creative head of this company. That has never changed. Whoever has come in or out has been here to support the brand and the creative vision of the brand. If that changes -- well, it's always a dance."
But as long as she senses a little give in the fashion system, as long as she feels able to dance outside the box, she seems resigned -- happily, restlessly, obstinately -- to continue.
"I didn't choose to be a designer. I was born a designer," she says. "I wanted to stay home and be a mom. But that's not what the world served me."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman -- Coco Chanel
Thanks for the article, tealady.
Donna Karan is a pillar in the industry. This is a well written article, which I know I'll get from Robin Givhan.
Interaction with customers is good business.
Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman -- Coco Chanel
I liked older Donna Karan things, still wear some stuff from the late 80s, early 90s. But she lost me when she went new-age/boho, etc. It was a good article, though.