The Aura, the Art of Donna Karan : Focusing On Stretchy, High-Waist Wools, Luxury Fabrics

Times Staff Writer

The designer barges into a Saks Fifth Avenue dressing room to tug at the waist of a woman attempting to get dressed.

"Can I show you how to wear it?" says the designer, more a command than a question.

"See? This skirt won't fit you right. It's too big." She scurries away in purposeful mission, leaving the customer half-dressed--in Donna Karan garb--and half-bewildered.

"Is that Donna Karan?" asks Louise Korshak of Bel-Air.

It is. And on Donna Karan's jaunt through Los Angeles this week, she attracted coos, whispers and general groupie-like behavior from fans who, often as not, recognized her as readily as any superstar. In fashion, that's what she's become.

"The clothes are pure, abstract. That's why your things drive me crazy," attests sculptor Bobie Brickell of Tarzana, who came to meet the designer Tuesday at Saks, Beverly Hills.

That perceived connection between Karan's fashion and art prompted Saks to make her the subject of a benefit show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Monday-night, $35-per-person event raised about $15,000 for the museum.

"We all know her clothing is a statement about art. . . . It belongs in a museum," said Terri Smooke of the museum's modern and contemporary art council, introducing the show.

If such talk is starting to lend Karan a larger-than-life aura, the designer insists she doesn't take the lines literally.

"I like supporting the arts. I don't see myself as the artiste ," Karan says.

The fall show focused on stretchy, high-waist wools and luxury fabrics--a tailored glamour Karan's been selling since she left Anne Klein to go solo three years ago. Her signature look of clinging fabrics in body dressing has long since entered fashion's general vocabulary--leaving the New York-based Karan to ask questions bordering on: What's it all about?

"This season, there's a reason to buy something new--there are the shearling coats and the stretch evening pieces," she says, reviewing her collection. "But there gets to a point where you feel you have enough clothes."

Superstardom has made her "more high strung," more interested in repair time and vacations, Karan says. She's started going on spa retreats. And during a Beverly Hills interview, she drinks hot lemon water to keep energy up.

"It's very taxing, frightening, demanding. It's like: 'Stop the world; I want to get off,' " she says. "It's been three years of constantly building, producing, researching, making sure it gets to the customer. It's just exhausting. Then everyone wants you to do a men's collection. Or a less expensive collection."

Karan has added luggage, belts and scarfs to her repertoire. Robert Lee Morris designs jewelry for the Karan label, and she has a new hosiery agreement with Hanes. She's also contemplating a fragrance and cosmetics.

Skirts Above the Knee

At 5 feet, 8 inches and a Size 12, Karan wears her skirts above the knee and argues that her short, snug-fitting fashions have a slimming effect--even for imperfect figures--when worn with matching dark hosiery. (One Saks employee tells of an extremely heavy woman who bought several pieces after a pep talk from Karan.)

But the line has taken a sexier turn of late. One of Karan's new evening outfits, for example, is a lacy, sheer black minidress that could double for lingerie.

Her clothes are evolutionary--one collection builds on another, she says. And although Karan explains her fashion with absolute confidence, she's vulnerable enough to admit to a fear of running out of ideas.

Learn From the Customers

"You're always in a rut--and you wonder if you're going to come up with anything again," she says.

"I don't know. I go out there, and I learn from the customers," she says with a cheerful shrug, breaking up the talk to resume advising women on the how-tos of her clothes. "My ultimate fantasy?" she asks. "To take a year off and be in the same position when you get back. But that's not possible."

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