It’s not every day you get to sit down with fashion legend Donna Karan, who has no doubt created two versions of the New York woman with Donna Karan and DKNY, two brands we love to shuffle between. Karan has encompassed New York with her collections for three decades now, and she’s also created a third customer with Urban Zen (the consumer conscious probable yogi looking to be both elegant and comfortable while also looking to give back). Urban Zen is hosting a marketplace on 711 Greenwich Street this month; a curated plethora of artisanal goods from around the world where a portion of the sales will benefit Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation.
We spoke with Karan on style from the nineties, Paris dinners with Anne Klein, a perpetual love of yoga and why being a successful brand means being associated with a lifestyle, not just a collection. Read through it multiple times if you like; we know we did…
TNP: What would be your ideal food day?
DK: I get up every morning and have my protein drink from We Care. In the afternoon I have to have soup and salad, usually a green soup. I also like green juices. I love Italian food, especially Tutto il Giorno and Bar Pitti. Anything that I don’t have to get dressed for, or put on makeup, I love.
TNP: There are so many different tiers to your brand, but if you could define “the Donna Karan woman,” who would she be?
DK: Nuts. (Laughs) She’s the woman who’s constantly going. She’s an executive, generally speaking. There’s also a difference between the Donna Karan woman and the DKNY woman. The Donna Karan woman is established as an executive woman, confidently on the go, constantly traveling, really not having time to figure out, “What do I wear from the minute I get up in the morning until the minute I go to bed at night?” Her life is really complicated. The Urban Zen customer is a little bit more yoga-minded; she likes her body and movement, she’s downtown, and a little bit more bohemian. The Donna Karan customer is more into fashion.
DKNY has a much larger base of customers because it’s much more affordable, and it’s much more lifestyle. DKNY is for the family. When I started it, I needed a pair of jeans; I needed a t-shirt. As DKNY progressed, it became a younger generation of women who were constantly on the move, constantly looking for jobs – an urban person who likes fashion.
TNP: How has New York influenced you?
DK: New York has been my inspiration. Because of the craziness of New York, I started Urban Zen to find the calm in the chaos of the city we live in and love. Being down here, in this loft at Urban Zen, is sort of an escape. I also live on the park, so in that sense, I make sure that I have nature around me. I have to be in nature, because if I’m not I get really nasty. At the Donna Karan company, my office faces 42nd street and 7th avenue, so it’s all the lights of the city and all that kind of action, which I’m always amazed at.
TNP: What’s your best memory from fashion in the nineties?
DK: I think as a designer, through all of the years I’ve been designing, I don’t see the change. If anything, it’s become more international, and more handbag and shoe-orientated, no question about that. There is much more of an individualized sense of style. Also, things I’ve been talking about my whole life – which I picked up in the eighties – like stretching and yoga, really have become the norm now. I find that my clothes have a lasting appeal. I don’t put a period behind them, but I’ve always been inspired by culture from around the world, and that’s why I travel as much as I do. The fabrics for me are the most important part of fashion, because it all starts with fabric. Whether I travel to Africa, or India, or Haiti, travel is always an inspiration to me for every collection.
TNP: So it’s the story that you fall in love with.
DK: I think that when you buy something and it makes a difference in somebody’s life, it has a different energy to it. If something is handmade or hand-knitted there is an artisans hand that goes along with the product. I think that is something I developed from my husband, who was an artist in everything he created. I think as a designer, I’ve always been one to drape. So for me, it’s always been a sculptural effect. I never realized the similarities between my husband and I until I really looked at his work and had a show on his work.
TNP: So that conscious consumerism is really important isn’t it?
DK: In the world we live in today, you hear of a disaster every five minutes. How do you live with yourself if you’re just going out and buying for yourself and not thinking about another human being? The biggest callout is community consciousness. Creating a community that wants to make a change in the world, whether it be in the preservation of culture, or putting the care back in health care, or in education and what we want for our children. How do we make a difference in helping other people of the world?
TNP: So what’s your advice when you think about the woman getting up, looking in the mirror and getting dressed in the morning?
DK: There’s not a woman I know who says “My body is perfect. What am I going to wear?” She wants to feel good about herself. So it’s about, “How do I feel sensual; how do I feel comfortable; how do I feel empowered?” I think comfort level is really important. It’s not putting on something that doesn’t belong to you. You have to be comfortable in your clothes. If things are comfortable and sensual, that for me makes a garment. It can go from day into night. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t want to think about what they can wear during the day, take off a layer, and/or add a layer for night. Women think about having to go to work, having to travel, and constantly being ‘on’. I think it’s very hard for women today. I don’t think it’s easy, because they don’t have time. When I started Donna Karan, most women were out shopping, and it was part of life. Now I think shopping is ‘How do I do it that it makes sense?’ There’s nothing more loving than getting something that feels good, looks good, and you feel empowered in, so I don’t think fashion’s dying in any way shape or form. There’s not a woman whose ego does not say “Oh, how am I going to look tonight?”
TNP: You said you like draping and layers; do you find yourself gravitating more towards fall and winter?
DK: For the summer, I just put on a bodysuit and wrap or tie fabric. I did a collection last year for Urban Zen that was all scarves. I think all you need is a scarf. It is the most important thing we own, because we can wrap it, we can tie it, and we can add to it. It’s like a piece of jewelry. It’s personable.
TNP: Do you see similarities between the food world and the fashion world?
DK: Yeah, are you kidding? The fatter you are, the more you want to cover yourself up. (Laughs) Food and fashion: what are you, crazy? “I’m on a diet, I’m not on a diet. Yeah I can eat that, no I can’t eat that.” Food and fashion are so connected. In fashion, why is everybody juicing today? Why is everybody thinking more consciously about food? Isn’t the new ‘club’ a restaurant?
TNP: What’s a memorable meal in your career where you were sitting at the table looking around, and thought, “Whoa”?
DK: I’ll give you one. When I was twenty-four years old I went to Versailles with Anne Klein and we were at a ball. Every time you hear the word ‘ball’ you kind of think about what is going to be for dinner. There were twelve forks, twelve knives, dishes, and all these glasses and I go, “Now what do I do?” All of the sudden this bowl came with lemon in it – and of course it was for washing your hands, in the middle of the meal. My husband thought it was soup. So he was drinking it! It was really funny. We were starving after that ball. We had to go to a restaurant to eat.
TNP: What makes a great brand?
DK: A great brand has a story behind it that has authenticity. When people think of Donna Karan, they think of New York. And that’s why I put the name New York into it. When they think of Urban Zen, they think of the calm in the chaos, philanthropy and commerce. When they think of DKNY, they think of the streets of New York, uptown, downtown, where anything can happen. When you think about Ralph Lauren, you think of the horse, more proper dressing, that kind of thing. It’s so funny, because Calvin [Klein], Ralph, and I really were the three main designers in New York [in the nineties]. Calvin was minimalism, I was into black – there was not ever enough black – and Ralph was sort of tartan plaid, blue and gray. I don’t think things change really.
TNP: Did you find that different areas in New York gravitated towards each of you (uptown to Ralph, downtown to you, etc)?
DK: I don’t think it was the areas as much as the customer. Because I think you have customers uptown and downtown. I think we’ve spread so much.
TNP: What advice do you have for brands trying to make a lower line?
DK: Keep it on brand, but it has to be separate. You, as a customer, don’t want to feel that those clothes are just knockoffs. It has to have a reason for its being, because you don’t want to put your original brand in jeopardy. If you’re giving them the same thing at a lower price then it’s a knockoff. So I think you have to have your own point of view with why you’re doing it. When I did DKNY, I started out with a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and an anorak, I knew the clothes I personally needed when I wasn’t designing and that’s what I was looking for. All of the sudden, I realized I had another customer. It wasn’t about price point. It was about the fact that I wanted a pair of jeans. I wanted to do jeans, sweatshirts, t-shirts, sweats, everything like that.
I really feel that whether I was at Ann Klein, or at Donna Karan, or DKNY, each brand had its own philosophy. And I think that’s very important to a brand, to create a philosophy.
TNP: When you started DKNY, what was the philosophy and how it related back to Donna Karan?
DK: It was her alternative wardrobe. I was taking care of her work clothes, but I needed to make her play clothes. I needed street clothes. It was seven easy pieces of play clothes. And I wanted to do men and children at the same time, because I wanted it to be about the family.
TNP: Do you have a favorite collaboration you’ve ever done?
DK: Oh my God, yeah, I have so many. My favorite collaboration was with my husband. He did the fragrance bottles. He was my partner in business, and here I am sitting in my husband’s studio. It’s pretty extraordinary. He created Donna Karan with me. He was an artist, and he was a sculptor. The last thing I would have thought was that he was into fashion, and then he ended up creating all the fragrances and the fragrance bottles. I didn’t expect that from my husband. It was quite surprising.
TNP: What’s a trend you wish would come back?
DK: Putting fashion in the right time of year is my dream. I feel there is too much communication going out to the consumers and confusing them about fashion. I’m really obsessed about this. I would like fall in fall, spring in spring, and summer in summer. I think it is confusing the consumer like crazy. She’s getting too much information like, “Why would I want fall when I see spring?” So I think that’s got to stop. I’m a very big proponent of that. I want fashion back on track.
TNP: Did it used to be on track?
DK: Yes, it used to be much better. Everybody knew that August was when the fall clothes would come in. They didn’t come in June and July. These pre-fall things, I think, are monsters.
TNP: Are you on social media?
DK: I personally love it, because it’s a personal way for me to communicate to people that isn’t corporate. It’s creating what I want to say, not what you want to say for me, or what my company wants to say for me. I’m very personable. And I talk with my grandkids through social media!
TNP: Were you really involved in the DKNY PR Girl process?
DK: No. I didn’t understand it. I am the most computer ill-technological person you will ever meet. The fact that I am now on Instagram, I credit to my assistant who taught me Instagram. That’s as far as I go.
TNP: Can we get some of your favorite restaurants?
TNP: Our last question is always, in the same vein as what is the new black, what is the new potato right now?
DK: I would think yoga. I started doing it when I was eighteen years old, so I started at a very young age. It was something that I felt comfortable with. I love being on a mat; I love having a teacher; I love going inside, because I’m constantly outside. I like being in a group, and I like going on yoga retreats. I don’t know if it’s old or new, but it’s certainly out there now, with people who I never thought would be doing it. It’s common. It’s like the potato. Everybody does yoga.
*Donna Karan, photographed at Urban Zen in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann.