Donna Karan rose to fame in fashion during the 1980s with her slogan of “Seven Easy Pieces” and the idea that women wanted a wardrobe that could easily mix and match. Since then, she has created a global empire with a diffusion line (DKNY), children’s apparel, undergarments, fragrances, and home collections. The company was bought in 2000 by LVMH, in a deal that was worth $645 million, and Karan stayed on as Chief Designer, maintaining a daily creative presence. The icon recently sat down with Fern Mallis at 92nd Street Y to discuss her career highlights and offer advice to those looking to emulate her success. Karan told the crowd, “My inspiration is the world.”
The evening offered some revelations. Karan shared stories of her time spent studying at Parsons in the late 1960s: "I had to go summer school because I failed draping. I showed them." She didn’t finish her degree at Parsons because Anne Klein hired her for a summer job in 1967, but was fired for lack of experience after nine months (she was only 18 years old at the time). Karan returned to Anne Klein a year later, and eventually became Head Designer when her mentor Klein died in 1974. It would be another decade before Karan struck out on her own.
The designer also spoke about some of her most successful launches. The infamous Donna Karan bodysuit was the result of Karan’s yoga practice, which she has been doing she was 18. Her iconic cold shoulder dress came about because, according to Karan, "The only place you will never gain weight in is your shoulders.”
As for how Karan decided to launch her diffusion line, DKNY, she said her daughter Gabby and her friends were stealing clothes from her closet and she didn't want them wearing her ready-to-wear collection so young.
Karan, who famously created an ad campaign featuring a woman president in 1992, also discussed her role in dressing the Clintons. Hillary Clinton wore the cold shoulder dress to the second inauguration of her husband, and it has since become a bestseller. Bill Clinton even called Karan four days before his 1993 inauguration to make him a tuxedo for the event.
Her advice for those looking to emulate her career: “If you want to be a designer, you must work in retail,” she said. Karan even lied about her age in her teens so she could get a job selling clothes at Sherrie’s in Cedarhurst, Long Island. She also advised, "Don't just dress people on the outside, but address them on the inside.”