How We Met: Donna Karan and Stephan Weiss

Laurel Berger
Saturday 10 September 1994 23:02

The American designer Donna Karan, 45, was born on Long Island. The business she set up in 1984 is now a fashion empire including clothes for men and beauty products. She is the mother of Gabrielle, 20, from her first marriage, and stepmother to Weiss's son, Cory, 29, and daughter, Lisa, 27.

The sculptor Stephan Weiss, 55, also from Long Island, is a founding partner of the Donna Karan Co. He created Karan's scent and its suggestively sinuous flask. In 1993 he designed sets for the Martha Graham Dance Company. He and Karan live in Manhattan and their East Hampton beach house.

DONNA KARAN: There was a snowstorm. I was stranded in Manhattan, with no way of getting back to my mother's house on Long Island. Nineteen years old, a sophomore at art school, and engaged to Mark Karan, my now ex-husband. Stephan showed up one night at my girlfriend's apartment. He was 10 years older than I was, an artist, and, oh my God, terribly attractive. He also happened to be recently separated with two young children. Our conversation rather quickly reached esoteric levels and although I didn't understand a word of what he said, I was fascinated. We spent the rest of the week together.

Once the snow thawed, I realised that it would never work. Stephan was going through a rough time with his wife and I wanted to get married. Today it sounds weird, but in 1965 it somehow made sense. And so I married Mark, my best friend, really, but Stephan's memory always hovered in a corner of my mind.

Ten years to the day from our first meeting I spotted a mutual friend on the Long Island Railroad. I told her, 'If you should talk to Stephan, tell him to give me a call.' Then it was snowing again and Stephan was on the phone, would I like to have dinner with him? - and we were back together. Just like that.

We lived together for seven years before getting married in 1983. Stephan calls us 'lifers' and it's comforting, since I'm extremely jealous of other women. In the beginning, wherever we went, women would come up to me and say 'I know your husband intimately.' Yeah, everyone knew my husband. I'd try very hard to keep a straight face and reply: 'Thank you for sharing this. I am so happy to meet you.' As soon as we were alone, I'd turn to Stephan and hiss: 'Where did that one come from?'

Now the fact that I'm always trying to lose weight has nothing to do with this. We're actually too busy to be unfaithful to each other. Male models are not a temptation. That's business.

A lot of the clothing I design is inspired by Stephan's sculpture. And I often have him in mind when I'm working on menswear. It's important to me that he wears the things that I make. When I met him he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and he'd probably be comfortable in that for the rest of his life. He does not shop. And yet he has very strong preferences when it comes to clothes. For instance, I design body suits for men but he adamantly refuses to wear one. And there's no getting him into a sarong. He hate-hate-hated the long dresses and men's shoes I used to wear. He said I looked like a nun. He'd like to see me in heels and a short skirt.

He likes modern, I like eclectic. Stephan is happy sitting still. I'm

more volatile and on the go. We both love the children, so that's easy. But we have different ideas about aesthetics. Take this beach house. The bottom of our swimming-pool is painted blue. He was going through his

blue period at the time and I almost died when he picked it out. I would have chosen black.

Our professional and personal lives are completely intertwined and things sometimes get heated. People aren't aware of how much this business affects our relationship. We still find time to laugh at ourselves, though.

I could chatter endlessly about his good points. He's my protector. He deals with the business aspects of the company, and he's an ear to my creativity. Have I mentioned that he's virile, charming, and eloquent, as well as a wonderful sculptor? His only shortcoming is that he's a man.

STEPHAN WEISS: I think there are forces that bring people together - certain magnetic forces beyond our understanding that make us circle around each other. That's how it was with me and Donna.

We met on a blind date in the middle of a snowstorm. We connected right away and became intimate pretty quickly. It lasted a week. Although I was very attracted to her, I had recently separated from my wife and was in serious conflict with myself. Donna, on the other hand, was young and beautiful and as clear as a bell. She wanted out of her mother's house and was bent on getting married, but I couldn't even consider it.

My first wife and I eventually realised that we had mutually failed. I moved out for good but it took four or five years before I realised that I wanted to settle down and stop wasting time on idle conquests. Finally it struck me that I should be looking for someone in my past so there would be no surprises. Right about then I received a phone call from a friend who'd seen Donna on a train and said that she'd asked about me.

We saw each other in another

blizzard and the bond was as strong

as it had been 10 years earlier. I'm

not proud that she was married at the time but I felt something very deep and powerful for her. And if I was going to make an emotional investment in any woman, well, most of

the equation was there. She had her own life, and she didn't need a man to take care of her. We've been together since that night.

Business encroaches quite a bit

on our relationship. Donna's work habits deprive us of time that could be spent with our family and I'm not at all happy about that.

Professionally, I respect that it's the Donna Karan Company and I don't try to intrude creatively in any way. Sometimes she does go too far. I'm a functional animal, you know. I can't see myself, say, walking to work in a skirt. Donna says that skirts on men are sexy and modern and that I'm a buffoon to resist, but there's no way. Body suits were another major embarrassment. Every time I raised my arm my voice rose several octaves.

We share the same insecurities, mostly about our work. She won't let me give up my art, no matter what. For many years I was involved with Abstract Expressionism - I used to get naked and do these huge 10ft-high multi-coloured paintings by covering my body with paint and flinging myself across the canvas. Then, back in 1968, I read a critique which called that kind of work 'decadent Jewish art'. I went nuts, but once I got past the ethnic slur, I realised that it upset me so much because I agreed with it. I ended up turning to sculpture, which I approach via drawings of random dots I connect to create abstract forms.

The perfume bottle I created for Donna was developed through this process, it had nothing to do with anything that's been written about it. I didn't set out to create a bottle shaped like a penis . . . it wasn't like I said to myself, oh, how can I make this thing more penile? I did a book with 100 forms and I happened to pick the one that looked like a phallus.

I've abdicated a lot of my dreams to help Donna build the company but I would've had to have been virtually brain dead not to help her. My participation was a gift of love and a commitment to her talent and vision. I didn't want to leave her in an environment where she was unprotected - although perhaps that's a weakness on my part.

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