article

09.10.10

Donna's Day

After 25 years making beautiful clothes for modern women, Donna Karan has finally found her light. Kate Betts on the legendary designer's remarkable career.

“It's all about light,” says Donna Karan as she stares down at the 25 white candles burning brightly on the white frosted birthday cake the Saks Fifth Avenue brass has waiting for the designer when she arrived—20 minutes late—at her second-floor boutique where buyers, customers, FIT students, and Saks executives had been patiently milling about. Donna was making what’s known in the retail business as a "personal appearance" to celebrate Fashion’s Night Out, but also, more importantly, to celebrate her long career with Saks.

As she leaned in to blow out the candles, tendrils of smoke wafted up above her head. “Oh my goodness! My hair is on fire,” the designer yelped. A handler rather frantically patted Donna’s hair to extinguish any remaining embers. Without missing a beat, Donna blew out the candles, smiled for the cameras, and headed back into the boutique where loyal customers were waiting for a chance to meet the designer who had single-handedly solved the crisis of '80s career women with her sleek, no-brainer uniform of bodysuits, draped skirts, and opaque stockings.

“I bought her first collection for Saks in 1985,” says June Horne, the senior buyer for American and European designer collections. “It was such a historical moment. Here was a woman going out on her own, starting her own empire. And those seven easy pieces were a whole new way of dressing.” A favorite Donna fashion moment? “Oh, it wasn’t on the runway, it was in an airplane. We were traveling to a personal appearance and she arrived in first class draped in cashmere and with these black sunglasses. Everyone was staring at her. I was just watching all these people watching her.” Another favorite Donna story Horn remembers was the first time she met the designer. “She shook my hand and asked me what my astrological sign was.”

That same spirit and camaraderie has always infused Karan’s business dealings. Back in the early days of her showroom at 550 Seventh Avenue, according to Josh Patner, who worked for Karan in the 1980s, the designer would arrive at the office at 4 p.m. and greet the staff with “Good morning, how’s life in the big city?” and then work until 1 a.m. on the collection, often fitting and draping looks on herself.

Gallery: Fashion's Night Out

More on New York Fashion WeekOver the years, Donna introduced groundbreaking ideas such as the secondary collection, DKNY, which was heralded with no less than skywriting. “We looked out the window at 550 and there in the sky was DKNY writ large,” remembers Donna’s longtime communications guru and friend Patti Cohen. Her Intimates line of hosiery was also innovative in its technology and color palette. Then came a period of spiritual searching and travel that brought faraway cultures and artifacts onto the runway. One show featured incense and the music of Deepak Chopra. Although her audience didn’t always follow along on Donna’s journeys, the designer has remained fearless when it comes to experimenting with new ideas. Her latest passion, The Urban Zen Foundation, which she started in 2007, veers away from her core business of fashion, focusing instead on funding the training of holistic healers to introduce integrative therapies like massage, aromatherapy, and yoga into the patient experience at hospitals like New York City’s Beth Israel.

Back at the Saks boutique, an impatient handler is trying to draw Karan away from the adoring fans for just one minute so she can do an interview with the Today show. “This has to happen now,” someone says. But Donna is not happy about the overhead light that is casting a bad shadow. She crosses the room, in search of better light. “The lighting is not good. I’m here to protect both of us, trust me,” she says to the TV reporter. “It’s all about the light, that’s my tip of the day.”

Karan seems to have sprinkled a bit of her spiritual “light” on her retail partners too over the years. Horn recalled a recent visit to a monastery upstate. “We all could use a little of that before fashion week,” she laughed. Another Saks bigwig, senior vice president of group marketing Terron Schaefer, remembered a long-ago trip with Donna and another friend to an ashram in Northern California. “They wanted me to do silent meditation,” he said. “And there was this tiny square drawn on the ground where I was supposed to sit. And I’m kind of a big guy.”

“It’s all about the light, that’s my tip of the day.”

A New York magazine reporter approached Karan and asked her if she’d ever had any memorable snafus at work. “Only one,” Karan insisted, wagging her finger. “The time I had this great idea to paint the runway taxi cab yellow. The night before the show we did a light check and the models all turned yellow. There was nothing to be done. I just had to pray.” In this case prayer did work and the runway was repainted in time for the show and the light was right.

Karan has insisted over the years on always prioritizing the customer. At one of her first Bergdorf Goodman personal appearances, a customer wanted to buy the dress Donna was wearing. Donna sold it to her right off her back and Dawn Mello, one of Karan’s early supporters, had to buy the designer a terrycloth robe in the lingerie department.

Karan recently told the Canadian daily The National Post that young designers have to work in retail to understand the consumer: “We’ve got to get to the reality of who you’re really designing for.” If tonight’s sampling of women waiting eagerly to meet Donna was any indication, that consumer might just be the middle-aged woman with the blond bob wearing jeans and sneakers, carrying a Gucci purse and trying on a strapless taffeta gown in a size 12. Then there were the two older women hovering around Karan, one emphatically asking her to sign her taxi yellow silk blouse.

Then there’s Robin Campbell, a devout Donna Karan fan who has traveled all the way from Austin, Texas, to meet the designer. “I covet her clothes. I would wait here until midnight for someone who’s achieved so much in the industry and been such an inspiration for women,” says Campbell, a fashion writer who was formerly employee number 35 at Dell computers. When Campbell emerges from the dressing room in black stretch satin halter dress, looking visibly uncomfortable, Karan rushes over. “Do you feel comfortable? If you don’t feel comfortable, forget it.” Then Karan asks Campell, “OK, so you want sleeves and sex?” The designer disappears for a minute and returns with three dresses, one in olive khaki draped crepe. Campbell steps into the light. The dress fits perfectly. Even in the wrong light, it’s the right dress.

“I think it’s amazing that she’s so approachable,” says Campbell. “And yet she’s a little like our little Coco Chanel.”

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Kate Betts is a contributing editor at Time magazine and until this year was also the editor of Time Style & Design, a special supplement to the magazine. Previously, Betts was the editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar and the fashion news director of Vogue. She is the author of the book Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style , due out February 2011.