Bella donna


FASHION:Donna Karan’s “seven easy pieces” revolutionised the way working women dress, and for the past 25 years, she has been influential in defining modern style for the stylish career woman and the actress on the red carpet. BELINDA MCKEONgoes behind the scenes at her latest New York show

IT’S SUNDAY MORNING in the West Village in New York, but inside the loft space of the Stephan Weiss Studio, it still feels like Saturday night. Tunes are blaring. Cameras are flashing. A high-gloss crowd is surging every which way on its wedge boots. From the looks of things, satchels are the new it-bags – although a woman carrying two Birkin bags appears not to have got that memo – and skirt lengths are hitting the floor.

But it’s not the done thing to think about this season, even though this season – autumn/winter 2010 – has finally announced itself, after a long hot summer, with a very welcome nip in the air. No. No talk of camel coats, or shearling vests, or penny loafers, please. It’s September, and it’s fashion week, and so we’re all shoehorned in here to think about spring. And in here, between the Vogue editors and the video crews and the photographers’ pit and the celebrity pit (okay, that doesn’t exist, but wouldn’t that be an idea?), something has definitely sprung. It’s chaos. And in the middle of it all, looking utterly at ease, is the reason for the whole kit and kaboodle. Doesn’t Donna Karan have somewhere else to be?

We’ve all seen episodes of Project Runway. We all know what designers get up to in the moments before their new season is unveiled to the world. So, with the DKNY Spring 2011 show about to begin, shouldn’t Karan be backstage somewhere, screaming at someone? Stitching the panels of an unfinished garment to the epidermis of an Eastern European teen? Deciding, at the last second, that it’s not going to be all about the scarf, after all – that it’s going to be about the cravat – and hurling a terrified intern down to Orchard Street to find 30 of them right now?

Clearly, that’s another memo that didn’t get through. Karan, instead, is greeting her guests, walking them to their seats, posing for photographs with her colleagues, and her backers, and her six-year-old granddaughter. She’s at home here, in the studio which belonged to her sculptor husband Weiss, who died in 2001. She’s wrapped in black cashmere and wearing chunky black jewellery and a black leather bum-bag; she’s Hamptons-tanned, she’s yoga-toned.

Next week, Karan will turn 62, and she exudes more energy and radiance than any of the twentysomething starlets stomping past her to their seats in the front row. And somehow she makes that black leather bum-bag look chic. There’s a reason why Karan has, for the past 25 years, been one of the most powerful forces in the US fashion industry – she’s in control.

It was out of that very notion – a woman in control – that Karan’s first collection emerged in 1985, revolutionising womenswear in one confident step. Or, rather, in seven such steps. With her now infamous concept of seven easy pieces – a wardrobe of interchangeable basics designed to go from day to evening – Karan strode miles ahead of other designers and their offerings to their women customers.

Until she launched her first collection, clothes for professional women had consisted of men’s powersuits in smaller sizes and eveningwear that looked absurd in the office. Along came Karan and the bodysuit, and the wrap, and the idea of draping and of cut as a way to work with a woman’s body shape. Along came clothes in cashmere and leather and jersey, to combine luxury with comfort. It was “fashion closing the gender gap”, announced the New York Times.

Karan claimed she had just intended to start a little business, making the kind of clothes that she and her friends wanted, the kind of clothes that they could not find. But there was no denying the ambition of her project, launched after 19 years as a designer at Anne Klein. There was no arguing that its adrenalin was as political as it was aesthetic. A 1992 ad campaign featured a Karan-clad woman being sworn in as president. “In Women We Trust,” it declared. By then, the trust of her women customers was something Karan had long since earned. And there was the trust of a man or two, also. While the opportunity to dress a female US president has still to arise, Karan outfitted both Bill and Hillary Clinton for his inauguration in 1993.

But it was outfitting her teenage daughter, Gabrielle, that Karan had in mind when she created her second line, DKNY, in 1988, becoming the first designer to launch a diffusion line. Seeing how her daughter constantly dipped into her closet, borrowing anything she liked and wearing it to school – nothing like a $15,000 couture gown for history class – Karan began to think about a wardrobe for another generation, which could also become a wardrobe to balance the workwear orientation of the main line.

As the models trip down the runway for her Spring 2011 DKNY show in a series of sharp trenches and ruffled print shells, ponytails swishing and silk scarves jauntily tied, the audience is already blogging and tweeting to the world about smart staples, zingy minimalism, the well-travelled Manhattanite, the office rookie vibe. (“I got the job!” one writer dubs the collection.)

Afterwards, Karan sits with her right-hand woman, Patti Cohen, and watches as venue preparations begin for tomorrow’s show of the Donna Karan spring collection. Both lines are now carried in Ireland – Donna Karan in Brown Thomas Dublin, DKNY in the same store in Dublin as well as in Brown Thomas Galway, Cork and Limerick. That both are very New York labels, says Karan, does them no harm at all in cities without yellow cabs.

“New York represents the world to me,” she says. “I never look at this city just as New York. It’s Irish, it’s French, it’s English, it’s Italian. You never know, walking down the streets, what language you’re going to hear. Besides, for me, what Donna Karan and DKNY have symbolised is the act of bringing fashion to the States. Europe is the fashion forerunner, is a much more fashion conscious community. What DKNY especially did was to lay the path here for the idea that fashion is okay, that it’s okay to commercialise it, that you can do it on a large scale.”

Patti Cohen says that Irish customers place a particular emphasis on what they see from the runway – those slideshows that , twice a year, reveal Karan’s new collections to the world. “Some people think that outside of New York, customers want more basics,” she says, “but they look at the show photographs and those are the clothes they want.”

That said, this phenomenon of customers browsing show photographs is not one that Karan is entirely happy with – at least, not when those show photographs are being browsed several months in advance of the clothes being available in stores. This split-season mentality is something she sees as a serious flaw in the fashion industry; its eagerness to over-share, in exchange for the short-term high of hype. It’s something, Karan says, that ultimately puts designers, retailers and customers at a disadvantage.

“My philosophy on this is that we should be catering to our customers, and that customers should be seeing clothes in season only,” she says. “These shows were originally meant for long-lead press, for people who have to understand the lines from an advance point of view. But now the customer is getting far too much information, being exposed to the lines too early, and she’s confused. We should be talking about, we should be celebrating what’s in the stores now.”

Part of the downside of this exposure for designers is that, within days of their upcoming collections going online, high-street outlets can offer imitations of their freshly-minted designs, long before the designers themselves can offer them for sale. If a ruffled silk dress is available from ASOS or Forever21 in early October, how excited will a customer be to see the high-end original in March?

Which brings us to another of Karan’s bugbears: disposable fashion. She’s frank about the commercial identity of the DKNY line, and has even been known to describe that line as fast fashion, but disposability is something very different. It was with the opposite of disposability, she says, that she created her first collection in 1985. “Because I really believed in a wardrobe that is truly for dressing,” she says. “Where you think about, really, what is your wardrobe, what do you wear? And now, we’re no longer in a time where people want to pick up lots of clothes. They want to think about what they really need, about what can take them from day to evening to travel, about the pieces that can really make a difference. That’s how I personally dress.”

Recently, a New York fashion blog ran an item on how Karan had been photographed in the same dress on at least 10 different occasions this summer. The dress was, in fact, a few different versions of the same dress (pictured above), a convertible jersey wrap from Karan’s Urban Zen range.

The message from that long summer in the same style was clear; the doyenne of wardrobe staples practices what she preaches. “I don’t believe in fashion being disposable,” she says. “Because if you’re making an investment, if you’re buying a piece for yourself, you hold on to it. I don’t think that women get rid of their clothes. And with DKNY, even though it is the more mass-market line, I don’t want people to feel that they’re wearing a season, or wearing a fashion moment, but that they’ve got a great piece with longevity to it, that also gives you enough of a fashion moment to feel fresh and new.”

The Donna Karan line, which Karan refers to as Collection, is even further from the notion of the disposable. To Karan, this line is “artisan, in terms of what goes into every piece”. She’s conscious that Collection is for a much smaller demographic than DKNY, and she’s frank about that fact. “It’s luxury, so it’s pivoted on a very specific group of people. For that line, draping is much more important. For DKNY, it’s more about structure.”

Whatever the line, Karan says that the concept of seven easy pieces has persisted and strengthened since first she presented it. It’s still the basis, she says, of how a wearable wardrobe works. “The pieces have evolved over the last 25 years,” she says. “But I think that the bodysuit is still important. It has always been a jersey base with a tailored top, the feminine and the masculine put together, but I think that the top has got a lot more liquid, a lot softer. But it’s still, for me, about the sensuality of the body. The tailoring comes after that, goes on top of that. I never forget the woman and her body, and what she wants to talk about with her body. I never move away from that.”