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

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.