She spoke up for the female point of view
What made Donna Karan truly unique was that she represented women not in the way male designers tend to imagine them – decorative creatures to be dressed up like paper dolls, for Country Club tennis tournaments and formal dinners – but as working women who wanted to look chic and feel comfortable in clothes that would take them from subway to office, taxi to restaurant.
Her Seven Easy Pieces was a revolutionary attempt to rethink high fashion, starting from the point of view of a modern woman. Based around her famous black bodysuit, which could be worn under skirts or trousers, it was a wash-and-wear coordinating wardrobe you could roll up into carry-on luggage and pull out uncreased at the other end.
She was championing a first female president in 1992
Karan was the leading lady of the era when American fashion went blockbuster. Ralph, Calvin and Donna: such has been the undisputed holy trinity. So it is ironic for her to bow out of fashion now, when a female president is a realistic possibility for the first time ever, because her most iconic advertising campaign – In Women We Trust – acted out this moment back in 1992. Peter Lindbergh’s photograph of model Rosemary McGrotha in a Donna Karan double-breasted blazer being sworn in as president was pure fantasy back then, yet immediately became a classic.
She didn’t design for size zero
Karan herself has never been skinny, and she has always been open about having hangups about her hips and thighs, and about being constantly mindful of this when designing clothes. There is a yawning gap in fashion between the reality most women face getting dressed – trying to find clothes which flatter their bodies, accentuate their favourite bits, skim over other bits – and the charade acted out by most designers in which everyone is 5ft 10in and slender and can wear anything. Donna was honest about this. Her “cold shoulder” dress – famously worn by Hillary Clinton, funnily enough – is designed around her belief that shoulders are one body part that women continue to feel confident about as they age.
She is one of the real characters of New York fashion
Karan hasn’t been setting the trend agenda for a few years, but she has still been a flesh and blood presence at New York fashion week. She has hosted huge, welcoming dinners at her fabulous apartment overlooking Central Park, inviting editors and buyers into her home. The look? Black lacquered coffee tables, lots of orchids, nubbly throws on low sofas, black and white photographs of Donna with the Dalai Lama. With her departure, Diane von Furstenberg (who at 68 is two years older than Karan) becomes NYFW’s undisputed senior grande dame. (Furstenberg no longer designs her label but remains attached as founder, and is president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.)
But … at least we still have DKNY!
The Donna Karan company has long been split into two lines: Donna Karan International (known as “Donna” in the industry) and the more affordable line, DKNY. The lady herself distanced herself from DKNY a while ago, and that label’s iconography is as much about the city itself (Manhattan lights, yellow cabs) as about its founder. In April, the hip design duo Public School were appointed to design DKNY, and their first catwalk show will take place during NYFW in September.
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