Founder of DKNY
Clothing Company – New York-based fashion house specializing in fashion goods for men and women
“Everything I do is a matter of heart, body and soul,” says Donna Karan, chief designer of the international company that bears her name. “For me, designing is an expression of who I am as a woman, with all the complications, feelings and emotions.”
In fact, Karan credits her feminine instincts for the success of the company she founded in 1984 with her late husband Stephan Weiss, which went on to become a publicly–traded enterprise in 1996, and then five years later, was acquired by its present owner, the French luxury conglomerate, LVMH, Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Says Karan, “that I’m a woman makes me want to nurture others, fulfill needs and solve problems. At the same time, the artist within me strives for beauty, both sensually and visually. So design is a constant challenge to balance comfort with luxe, the practical with the desirable.”
I was born into fashion – literally. My father was a custom tailor and my mother was a showroom model. Even my stepfather was in the business. So fashion was all around me from the day I was born. I put on my first fashion show in high school, and my first job was at a clothing boutique on Long Island called Sherrie’s. I went to Parson’s School of design, which led to a summer job at Anne Klein & Company. Anne told me not to go back to school, that I could learn more with her, and, with a lot of twists, turns and surprises, the rest is history.
DKNY came about for a number of reasons. I was already designing Donna Karan New York, a true luxury lifestyle collection. My daughter Gabby, who was a teenager at the time, was stealing my clothes and wearing them to school as sportswear. So I wanted to dress her in clothes that better suited her energy and spirit. At the same time, I wanted weekend clothes for myself – especially a pair of jeans that had a sexy woman’s fit – as opposed to a boy or ‘mom’ fit. So all roads led to DKNY – a street chic wardrobe that was multi-generational, multi-purpose.
I love that I don’t know. That’s where the excitement comes from.
There have been many, many. When we opened Donna Karan New York in 1984, we designed and offered a head-to-toe wardrobe – a new concept for its time. For DKNY, we did the same thing, seeking out partnerships that would complete our lifestyle message. We have everything from menswear and a separate and complete jeans company to accessories like hosiery, watches, swim, sleepwear, eyewear and home. Sometimes we source it ourselves, other times we partner with an expert in the field, as we did with Estee Lauder for our fragrances.
Every success we’ve had has come from listening to our gut. You have to believe in yourself and go for it. Who would have believed a body suit and a wrap skirt would have revolutionized the way women dressed? There was no precedent for it.
I don’t consider anything a mistake. You learn from everything you do, the good and the bad. The point is to stay open and try something. When something is successful, you keep trying to bring it to the next level. Never think you’ve arrived, that you’ve done it. That’s why I always write ‘to be continued,’ on every press release.
Get a job in retail. Design school is essential too, of course, but there is nothing more valuable than meeting with your consumer. What does she look for? What does she buy? The more you know on the ground level, the better a designer you’ll be.
How has your marketing strategy evolved since inception? Do you utilize social media and to what extent? How do you capitalize on the recent fashion trends?
Social media and e-commerce is everything right now. You have to be plugged in to be heard. Personally, I love it. I love the intimacy of being able to reach someone when they’re in their home or office – when they have time to truly pay attention. I don’t think e-commerce can ever replace the store experience, but it gives us all options we never had before. Fashion-wise, I’m not a trend-chaser and never have been. Yes, DKNY does fast fashion clothes, but it’s more about individuality, giving the customer great pieces she can style in her own way.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
Any and everywhere. My go-to sources are the streets of New York City, my travels around the world and my love of nature. But I can be inspired by a great exhibit or something as simple as a scarf I once saw on a friend. As my mentor Anne Klein would always say “you have two eyes, use them!”