Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

On Tuesday night, as New York closed and London slept, the American designer Donna Karan announced that after 31 years she would step down from her current role as Chief Designer of the LVMH-operated brand that bears her full name, rather than just her initials. There will be no replacement, and Donna Karan International will suspend its collections and catwalk shows (though not its licences). It seemed fitting that Karan, always the epitome of the working woman, waited until the end of the business day to hang up her boots.

I couldn't help but flashback to the Eighties, when Donna Karan – both the designer label, and the designer herself, a ballsy broad from Queens with a deep tan and a rictus grin – were New York fashion's success story. Former assistant to the American sportswear designer Anne Klein, Karan was so driven that, two days after giving birth to her daughter Gabby in 1974, the entire Klein studio was uprooted to her bedside so that she could continue designing. Within a matter of days, Klein died – and Karan succeeded her.

A decade later, Karan launched her own label – clothes designed for ambitious women, just like her. In 1985, she created a collection she called "seven easy pieces" – although "easy" is a word you seldom hear fashion designers use. Those pieces included the "body", those sweaters that popper under the crotch so that they never ruck up; a jersey sarong skirt, to wrap around them; a big cardigan, to throw over the top. It was fashion for women who didn't want to care about their clothes so much, Karan said at the time, for women "doing more than one thing in their lives". Something other than looking pretty, that is. And it was sort of revolutionary.

 

I've always thought that Donna Karan wears Donna Karan best. Each time I met her, slouched as she invariably was on some piece of low-slung furniture like a piece of limp asparagus, studded with gargantuan slabs of polished mineral and wrapped in bits of jersey that threatened to malfunction at any time, she looked fantastic. She generally talked lots of New Age mumbo-jumbo, long after it ceased to be fashionable, frequently at the expense of discussing her clothes. And she is a true believer: eschewing fashion, she's planning to pursue her commitment to Urban Zen, a foundation that supports cultures in developing countries and promotes alternative healthcare, and which has also spawned a string of shops that sell holistic-looking implements and furniture. It strikes one as a vanity project.

Seven easy pieces, by contrast, easily won Karan seven CFDA awards over the years, and made her name. She launched everything from hosiery (thick, opaque, great to wear under your "body") to perfume, and a secondary line, called DKNY. All were successful. In 2000, when the luxury conglomerate LVMH came knocking, they paid an eye-watering $645m for Karan. Reportedly, $400m of that bounty went straight to Karan herself. She placed 31st on Forbes' list of America's richest self-made women this May, and her personal wealth is estimated to top £288m.

Karan leaving her label isn't entirely out of the blue. In recent years her catwalk collections had ceased to be must-sees. Her Madison Avenue flagship closed (although she has more than 250 stores across the world), and Karan intimated issues with LVMH. "Vuitton has given me the cold shoulder," she told The New York Times last July. Then, in April this year, she handed over the reins of her diffusion line DKNY to young New York designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School – in hindsight the first public step in stepping down.

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Clothes for ambitious women: Donna Karan's 1995 Fall show (AFP)

I wonder if it's also LVMH's first step in restructuring the business closer to the Michael Kors model? DKNY is sportswear-focused, lower-priced and accessible. And, according to the release publicising Karan's departure, the Donna Karan company will "substantially increase its focus" on the brand.

Nevertheless, it's a loss. Because what Karan's clothes represented, at their best, was a woman's view of a woman's wardrobe. Not aesthetically – that's the point. Their focus is inevitably on the practicalities of dress, on how clothes feel rather than how they look. When Gabrielle Chanel designed the first shoulder-strapped handbag, the 2.55 (created in February 1955, see), she said it was because a woman's hands needed to be free, to get on with doing stuff. Karan wanted her women to get on with doing stuff too. In 1989, John Fairchild, the publisher of WWD, called Karan "America's Chanel," and asserted that she was the country's most influential designer. Which, then, was probably true.

Donna Karan's legacy can still be felt today – and it's kind of ironic that, on the eve of (potentially) the first female president, she should be leaving her namesake brand. In 1992, she launched an advertising campaign, shot by Peter Lindbergh, titled "In Women We Trust", depicting the swearing-in ceremony with a Karan-clad female president.

Back then, you couldn't imagine a female POTUS wearing anything else. But what is she going to wear now?

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