Donna Karan’s fashion wisdom, in 7 easy pieces

By , on October 12, 2015


Donna Karan (Photo from Karan's website)
Donna Karan (Photo from Karan’s website)

NEW YORK – Donna Karan introduced her famous Seven Easy Pieces in 1985, as she was introducing the world to her namesake label. Based on a black bodysuit with simple added pieces like a wrap skirt, classic trousers, or a suede jacket, it was a lot more than a convenient wardrobe: It was a conceptual shift in fashion. Karan was trying to tell women working women that clothes could work for them, and not the other way around. And that they didn’t need to wear buttoned-up suits to look professional.

It’s a time of great transition for Karan, 67. In the summer, she announced she was stepping down from her signature Donna Karan collection to focus fully on her Urban Zen company and foundation, which along with designing clothes promotes health care, education and preservation of local culture in countries like Haiti.

What’s more, she has a memoir coming out next week – “My Journey,” a volume chock full of very personal, entertaining anecdotes (like that time Barbra Streisand came in and insisted on taking a sweater that had been determined to be too flammable. They became great friends.) Karan didn’t know, when writing, that she’d have to add a new final chapter about her farewell to her famous label. But, she says “that’s how my life happens” – beginnings and endings, always at the same time.

Karan sat down to chat with The Associated Press this week in her sweeping, tranquil Urban Zen space in Greenwich Village. Here are Seven Pieces of Wisdom from a pillar of American fashion.

Fashion is about dressing – and addressing

“When Donna Karan started, I felt there was a really enormous need for women to be addressed as women. Because they were either wearing men’s clothes – suits and ties and shirts, kind of buttoned up – or they were the ladies who lunched, and kind of wearing cocktail dresses. So who was really expressing the working woman? She was just not being addressed.”

Clothes need to work all day and all night – and black is best

“I wanted clothes that could go from the minute I got up in the morning to the minute I went to bed at night. I wanted clothes to go through that whole cycle, because I found that I didn’t have time to go home and change. It was like, if I put them all in a suitcase and went off to Europe, what would I pack? So jewelry was an important aspect. And I love black. I never get out of it. Black took me from day into night.”

Shoulders never gain weight – so show them!

“I remember Women’s Wear Daily REALLY did not like my cold shoulder look (exposed shoulders, covered arms.) Just not at all. And then Liza Minnelli decided to come into my closet one day and pick up this discarded dress. Everybody loved the way she looked in it. Next thing, I see Hillary (Rodham Clinton, then first lady) wearing it at the White House. For me, the cold shoulder was so obvious. It is the only place where women never gain weight. You gain weight EVERY OTHER place on your body except on your shoulders.”

It’s great to have fans in high places

“One of my dearest friends, Barbra Streisand, wears the clothes magnificently. I’ve dressed her for practically every concert she’s ever done. And I’ve always said that we worked together on it. It was a ‘We,’ not a ‘Me.’ We designed it together. And certainly when I designed her wedding dress, that was the ultimate for me. Her style is fluidity, simplicity, elegance. It was never too much. It was so that she – the woman, the voice – came through. And that’s how I feel about clothing. I always want the person to come through, not the clothes.”

Don’t hide yourself

“You know, a woman has a certain point of view about the way she can dress. And what I did was, I threw that a little bit to the side. Like pencil skirts. I love women in pencil skirts. No matter if they’re a little bigger on the bottom, they’re better in a pencil skirt because it narrows them out. Women don’t really understand that: They think the bigger the clothes the more they hide. Well sometimes, the narrower the clothes, the leaner they look.”

We all need a deadline

“Putting on four (Fashion Week) shows a year? It is a LOT of work. It’s exhausting. But at the same time, it’s a high. So when you’re in the zone, it’s an adrenaline rush. And then you crash. That’s a guarantee. But I always felt, Oh my gosh, if just had one more week, two more weeks, three more weeks. But a deadline is a deadline. And that’s what brought me into the next season. I was always late for the next collection. Most designers need deadlines. You’re still designing as those clothes go onto the runway.

Creativity is great, but fashion needs to produce clothes you can actually wear

“I think it’s much more difficult to work in fashion today than when I started. Fashion is going at warp speed – What’s new? What’s new? – and with the red carpet, and with the communications, everybody sees it so quickly, so fast. There’s so much to handle, and (the clothes) really do take on each person’s individuality, which is the good news of it. But I think we’re also pushing the limit of what a woman can actually wear.”