The style icon has found inner peace-despite creating the elastic bodysuit.
Thu Sep 13 2007
Illustration: Rob Kelly
European camera crews skulking around Bryant Park and magazines that weigh 45 pounds can mean only one thing: The fall fashion season is here! In the midst of this autumnal madness, we snatched some time with the grounded and incredibly Zen designer Donna Karan. She arrived on the scene in 1966 when, as an intern for Anne Klein, she accidentally forgot a dress bound for an important show. Despite the gaffe, Karan became the company's head designer and started her own label in 1984. Boosted by simple, stylish concepts, her eponymous clothing line took off. (For proof of her success, look no further than the fact that in 1995, Mattel created a Donna Karan Bloomingdale's Barbie Limited Edition doll.) Soon, '80s staples like elastic bodysuits and the Essentials line for female professionals begat the bersuccessful DKNY spin-off, which today offers everything from kids' clothes and eyewear to fragrances and furniture. Even so, there's more to life for the 58-year-old Karan than fall collections and runway shows. She'd rather talk about the Urban Zen Initiative, her program to promote yoga and wellness instruction to hospital patients, children in need and plain ol' regular joes. Naturally, we assumed the lotus position when we gave her a call.
How did someone from Long Island develop such good fashion sense?
[Laughs] I guess I was born into it. My mother was a showroom model and my father was a tailor—it's just in my DNA. I wouldn't be who I am without Long Island. I worked in a clothing store out there when I was 15 years old.
What did you do?
I was the shelf girl. I tell every young designer that the best way to train is to work in a clothing store. When you actually put clothes on people, you understand all the different body types.
But were the clothes we saw during Fashion Week really for regular people?
Generally speaking, what you see on the runway is what you see in the stores. I think sometimes people are misguided by the makeup or the set—what you do to get the message across in a theatrical way.
What was your schedule like, getting ready for the tents at Bryant Park?
Making sure I had a collection. [Laughs] Then fit, fit, fit, fit, fit, fit, fit. And praying. A lot of praying.
You're responsible for so many classic styles. Can I blame you for the visions I have of my mom doing aerobics in an elastic bodysuit?
Um, no, because I wear mine every day to do yoga, so I hope your mom is on the path with me. [Laughs]
Would DKNY have been as successful if it were, say, DK Minneapolis?
The reason I chose New York was that culturally it represents everything that's happening in the world. The city has been a definite inspiration for Donna Karan New York and now for Urban Zen.
What's Urban Zen all about?
It is about raising awareness to make a difference in this world. We're training yoga teachers to go into hospitals and work with patients, we're in schools teaching kids who have every adversity in the world that they have a choice in their lives. I came up with Urban Zen to find the calm in the chaos of New York.
Is it really possible to find that calm in a 250-square-foot apartment?
That's the beauty of it! People are so charged right now with yoga and meditation because they do find the calm in the storm. It empowers people enormously.
Do you have older clothes that you just can't bring yourself to throw away?
What, are you kidding?!? I'm one of those people who like to wear the same thing every single day. I pick my favorite look, and that's it for the season. I call it "the uniform."
I've always wanted to ask somebody this: What's it like having your own Barbie doll?
Oh my God! That was years and years ago. I'm honored, but Dora the Explorer is my obsession right now as a grandmother. But maybe I should get my granddaughter a Donna Karan Barbie doll. I hadn't thought of that.