As a fledgling style critic headed to my first New York fashion week in 2003, there were four designers on my "must-see" list: Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan.
Karan has always shown two collections at fashion week, her contemporary DKNY line on one afternoon and her more upscale Donna Karan Collection the next, so I always felt doubly blessed to see the designer in action each season (hard to believe it's been close to 50 shows in all).
Karan always thrilled the audience with her audacious ability to create sexy, powerful clothes that make a woman look good — no matter her size or perceived flaws.
While her designs occasionally bordered on the unusual in recent years, Karen always thrilled the audience (which usually included pals like Bernadette Peters and Susan Sarandon) with her audacious ability to create sexy, powerful clothes that make a woman look good — no matter her size or perceived flaws.
Earlier this year she had handed over creative duties for the DKNY collection to Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, founders of the hot street smart label Public School. But this week's news that she also would no longer design her Donna Karan Collection and is leaving the design house that bears her name came as a shock.
In 2001, Karan had sold her business to the French luxury conglomerate LVMH for a reported $243 million, but had remained actively involved in the label until now. The fall 2015 and resort 2016 collections will be shipped to stores, but after that the flagship label will be suspended while the company concentrates on eyewear, perfume and the DKNY brand, which accounts for most of the profits.
Fashion week highlights
Over the years, Karan's New York shows, held most of the time in a converted Chelsea performance center so packed to capacity that you wondered if fire marshals would shut it down at any time, were always a highlight of fashion week.
Karan, who launched her company in 1984 after a long stint at Anne Klein, revolutionized the way women dressed, with "Seven Easy Pieces" that could be mixed and matched. Her comfortable, body-conscious clothes in luxurious cashmere and jersey fabrics exuded power and no-nonsense femininity — a potent combination for executive women who were beginning to make a mark in the workplace.
Karan, who launched her company in 1984 after a long stint at Anne Klein, revolutionized the way women dressed, with "seven easy pieces" that could be mixed and matched.
She practically invented bodysuits and leggings and created jackets with bold shoulders and dresses with exposed shoulders, worn by such celebrities as close friend Barbra Streisand and Hillary Clinton. Karan called it the “cold-shoulder” dress because even after other body parts are no longer perky, a woman’s shoulders always look toned. "You never gain weight in your shoulders," Karan explained.
In recent years, her collections veered according to her passions. She became obsessed with the plight of the people in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and featured a collection of tribal prints, mask totems, necklaces and wrist pieces made by Haitian artisans as singer Wyclef John sat on the front row.
Last year, she accessorized graffiti-scribbled outfits with Dr. Seuss-like toppers that rose several feet high. For her 30th anniversary collection, she updated her body-conscious styles with see-through chiffon dresses, body suits in illusion tulle, and swirling evening gowns with plunging necklines and high slits.
Energy at DKNY
Increasingly, though, Karan's contemporary DKNY line, which the designer launched in 1989 as a lower-priced alternative, seemed to be more infused with energy. Her DKNY shows were always a paean to her beloved New York. The most recent show in February featured an oversized electronic screen that asked "What is New York?......" and featured tweeted replies like "......grit and glamour, glitter and guts."
One season, she featured several hip-looking real life New Yorkers as models; another time singer Rita Ora closed the show.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, she paid tribute to the city's resilience in program notes for her DKNY collection and walked the runway to "American Woman," stopping to pick up her granddaughter, at the close of her show.
The DKNY collection almost always featured lots of separates — boyfriend jackets, funnel neck sweaters and suits in menswear fabrics — that continue to sell well and caught owner LVMH's attention. The French company has been on a consolidation tear recently, folding the Marc by Marc Jacobs line into the pricer Marc Jacobs collection, which is being streamlined.
The makeover of the two famous brands indicates how fashion is changing, with new contemporary brands like Tory Burch, Alexander Wang and Rag & Bone taking up the slack, and such designers as Jason Wu, Michael Kors and The Row's Mary-Kate aiming for the affluent fashion-driven customer, along with the European luxury houses, like Dior and Chanel, that continue to boom.
Karan will devote much of her time to her Urban Zen lifestyle brand, which offers "soulful objects of desire."
And, of course, Lauren.
Of the big four fashion masters I longed to see a dozen years ago, only the iconic designer, now 75, continues to actively head up his brand, which is now America's most prosperous and most famous.
Karan, 66, says she's not leaving fashion entirely. She will devote much of her time to her Urban Zen lifestyle brand, which offers unique and luxurious women’s ready-to-wear apparel, artisan jewelry, handcrafted leather pieces, globally inspired furniture and home décor, as well as "other soulful objects of desire" developed in partnership with artisans from around the world.
Karan recently launched an Urban Zen e-commerce site, with stores in New York, Aspen and Sag Harbor. Profits go to her Urban Zen Foundation, which aims at inspiring change and raising awareness in the areas of preservation of culture, well-being and education.