Donna Karan: It was never about a fashion show, it was just about my wardrobe

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Donna Karan’s easy version of elegance changed the way women dress. Harriet Walker meets an industry institution

Designer Donna Karan has reinvented the paper bag - which may well just sound like another bit of fashion nonsense, but before you stop reading: it’s not what you think.

The avant-garde set (Raf Simons, Maison Martin Margiela) have rather knowingly persuaded label  lovers to part with cash for sandwich bags in recent seasons, but Karan’s paper bag – which she totes proudly on a visit to her DKNY flagship shop in London (her first to the city in over five years) – is made from papier-mâché and created by specialists in post-earthquake Haiti.

They and countless other workshops in the area now collaborate on accessories and techniques with Karan, 64, making artisanal pieces that are sold through her shops on the strength of her name and reputation as one of America’s biggest fashion powerhouses.

“I think where there’s creativity, there’s an answer,” she says. “President Clinton has been my inspiration and he was involved in Haiti. Everybody was looking at the darkness of it [after the incident, in 2010] and I said ‘oh my God, with all this creativity, you could create jobs’.”

Karan likes helping people, or at the very least, trying to make their lives easier. That’s what her personal and professional ideologies are based around. Her aesthetic vision combines the glamour of uptown New York,  distilling the essence of Manhattan  sophisticates and luxury, with downtown bohemia, casual and practical: a “system of dressing” with the intention of “giving women back their bodies and about giving them back the comfort of their bodies”, as she told press around the time her label launched 27 years ago.

She had learned her trade as an associate designer at Anne Klein, having trained at New York’s prestigious Parson’s School – synonymous with a certain sort of luxe loungewear – and took the helm on Klein’s death in 1974 before setting up her own label with then-husband Stephan Weiss.

The concept was to create a range of pieces that interacted, to help women dress for any occasion, with comfort and cool at the forefront of their design. Draped and stretch jersey, supple leathers, crisp cottons and soft, feminine tailoring that appeared during the decade when many working women were constrained by boxy power suits and hyper-feminine  bubble skirts: Karan’s take was singular in the shops then, and all the more successful for that.

“I’m a basics designer,” she tells me, dark eyes shining from tanned skin, her signature mane slicked back into a low chignon. She is elegantly dressed down in a jersey top and biker jacket, topped off with yet more chunky,  primal jewellery sourced from her projects in Haiti. “Basic with a twist,” she says. “I’m not entirely classic, more street, edgy. I look at the body, whether it’s a bodysuit or pants, whether it’s jersey or leather.

“The clothes were just my clothes that I’d wear every single day. Seven Easy Pieces – it wasn’t about a fashion show, it was just about my wardrobe. It really was.”

That collection, her Essentials line launched in 1992, featured interchangeable pieces – a T-shirt, a skirt, slacks and blazers – which could all be worn in combination, to create a fully integrated wardrobe. It was informed by an American mid-century sportswear aesthetic, after a Townley capsule range designed by the legendary Claire McCardell in 1938, the simplicity and functionality of which became a fashionable directive in itself during wartime austerity measures – Karan’s sartorial solutions became key to the modern woman’s wardrobe, at first through the formality and easy chic of her main, eponymous label and later through her more casual and youthful jeans line DKNY.

“For me, it all starts with the fabric – I’m a fabric junkie,” she says. “Because fabric talks, just like with an artist or a sculptor. The luxury of making a garment, draping it and making it by hand – Donna Karan is the  artistic side of me, special and sort  of a statement. And when I started DKNY, I really needed a pair of jeans. I wanted to do a collection that was about men, boys, and children. Life, really. Because my kids kept wearing all my clothes!”

Since its launch in 1989, the second line has become a more youthful  outlet for the elegance that Karan  creates in her main line, just as luxurious in wool, felt, leather and fur, but with sharper silhouettes and higher hemlines. Having launched at a time when New York casualwear was increasingly label-led and status-driven, DKNY became a clutches of initials alongside the likes of Calvin Klein’s that contributed to the logo culture of the Nineties, even earning the label a mention in several hip-hop records of the era. Since then, the aesthetic has evolved into something sleeker but no less in touch with trends, a go-to for It-girls and young professionals.

Still, Karan sees the fashion industry as a stage for her charity work – the theory behind her Urban Zen Foundation, which focuses on community projects and working with sustainable resources, is to blend market forces with something more ethical.

“It’s where philanthropy and commerce come together,” she says. “It started out from healthcare, education and culture, and from mind, body and spirit. It’s not only dressing you on the outside, it’s dressing your insides – I meet all these women in the dressing room and everybody’s got a problem – the healthcare and education systems aren’t working, so unless people come together to create change, it’s not going to happen.”

One of the New York  fashionable Democrat set – which notably also includes tireless fundraiser Anna Wintour and designer Diane von Furstenberg, who is said to have jokingly ordered Republicans out of her New York store recently – Karan is passionate about the importance of her role and her industry.

“You have to bring awareness to the customer,” she says, “and how do you get the consumer interested? With fashion. I’m saying ‘this has come from Haiti, help Haiti’. People would even have thought of it had the product not been there. All of sudden, they realise you’re giving people jobs.”

Karan’s visit to the store is to unveil a new installation masterminded by the photographer Rankin as part of its Christmas display. In it resin hearts made from the same mâché as the paper handbag hang from the ceiling. They can be decorated by hand in the shop or bought to take home for presents, with all profits going to the Karan’s Haiti fund.

As we say goodbye, she says she wants to meet Stella McCartney while she is visiting London. Karan is interested in McCartney’s ethical approach to using animal products and production methods. It’s a pleasantly cyclical flourish, when you consider the female designers riding high in the industry at the moment – such as McCartney, and Céline’s Phoebe Philo – whose focus on strong, functional, but feminine clothing is so popular right now. While those names might be clothing a new generation of power women, Karan dressed their forebears – and in doing so, she changed the rules of womenswear.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
ebookAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Senior Renewables Grid / Power Systems Specialist

    £50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Offshore Wind Package Manager

    £50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: T...

    Subsea Cables Installation Project Manager

    £50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Subsea Cables Installation Project Manager

    £50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices