Donna Karan's legacy will not be a style that liberated working women from their corporate cross-dressers' uniforms or seven easy pieces as the foundation of a wardrobe or even perfume that smells like suede and fresh lilies.
She may well be best remembered for a figure of speech. "It's about a sensuality in the way women dress," she says. "It's about energy."
When she explains what "it" is about, her big brown eyes shine, the fingers of each hand come together in front of her chin, forming a temple. "It's not about length. It's about an attitude."
Karan has become the designer as ultimate maven because the "it" to which she refers in her widely imitated syntax is not fashion at all. In fact, women hang on her words as if she were an oracle because . . . it's about being a woman, it's about nurturing and being nurtured, it's about finding a balance, it's about giving something back to the community and, in a significant way, it's about looking good on the journey and not having to worry much about that.
Before her pithy sound bites about style became ubiquitous, Karan's clothes spoke to women. Wrap skirts and bodysuits made them feel sexy; feminine curves, the clothes seemed to say, are a fact of nature, not a sin against pure design. Then came the designer's bulletins from the fashion front: "It's about ease, it's about sensuality. It's about throwing things together and knowing you look fabulous."
There was authority in her statements, and yet, in the 10 years Karan has been in business on her own, the message her growing audience valued most didn't depend on words. Her air of accessibility, her gestalt communicated more than the clothing or the on-target analyses of fashion's mood.
The fans who thought of her as a sympathetic girlfriend knew Karan headed a hugely successful, ever-expanding empire that grosses $500 million annually and employs 1,500 people around the world. She palled with the famous and powerful and retreated to a country house that was a cathedral of design perfection. Still, in the birth throes of each new collection, Karan admitted she suffered from flop sweat. She agonized when critics just didn't get her latest vision. She had fat days too. They were sure of it.
Because of that magical rapport, it's never been about suits, hosiery, belts, scarves, lingerie, shoes and handbags. It's about how she wants to help make their lives work.
"That's the truth," Karan says. "I do feel for them. I think I do know women. There's no question that my essence is about the understanding of people."
Talking over a breakfast of sliced mango at the Hotel Bel-Air, Karan's essence is swathed in layers of ivory knit. Her hair is gathered into an anarchic ponytail, her face bare except for a light covering of Donna Karan tinted moisturizer.
Before sundown this November day she'll effect a glamorous transformation to accept an award for corporate humanitarianism in front of a black-tie audience of 1,400 at Divine Design's closing gala. Her speech is a testimonial to the work others have done to combat AIDS. Yet she isn't feeling satisfied; there's so much more to be done.
Since 1990, the country's best manufacturers have donated clothes to a blowout market called 7th on Sale, with proceeds going to AIDS charities. The events have been held in New York and San Francisco, but not in Los Angeles. "Somewhere in my heart I see the concept of 7th on Sale going much larger," Karan muses, burrowing under a blanket of a shawl at the Bel-Air. "There should be 7th on Sale shops all over the country."
Karan's restless imagination is both her gift and her nemesis. She can't refuse challenges because she instinctively knows how to meet them. "I never considered myself a designer," she says. "I think of myself as a problem solver. See the problem. Solve the problem. The critic in me is really very large. You know, the one who says, 'Why don't you try it this way?' That impulse is just so overwhelming. It drives people crazy."
As a child on Long Island, N.Y., Karan was a leader. Even as a kid in school she recalls saying, "OK, guys, this is the way we're going to do it." Her father, who died when she was 3, mother and stepfather all worked in the garment business. After dropping out of Parsons School of Design, she got a job as assistant to sportswear designer Anne Klein. When Klein died, Karan became head designer, at 26. Ten years later, she broke away to form the Donna Karan company, saying she just wanted to make clothes for herself and her friends.
"Nobody out there was doing the kind of clothes that I wanted," she explains. "It was a really weird time in fashion. Everybody was wearing silk blouses with bows, trousers and blazers and there was no sensuality. None. And I'm saying, 'Where is the woman's body?' Me and my friends were this group of girls who liked to hang out in black and we needed a few little pieces of comfort clothes. I found that my friends were a lot more numerous than I had anticipated."
The company spawned offspring as naturally as if it were regularly ovulating. The Donna Karan Collection begat DKNY, her enormously profitable, less expensive women's line. DKNY begat DKNY Jeans and DKNY active wear. A men's division was born, then DKNY Men, Donna Karan Intimates and a beauty business. There is a quarterly newsletter called "Woman to Woman," a site on the World Wide Web, and Karan may expand Essentials, her group of basic wardrobe pieces.
"I'm tired," Karan says softly. "I guess my desires are so abundant. I have to monitor my own concepts. There's nothing that I don't want to do. There's a constant dueling between the two parts of me, the soulful me and the artistic me."
Recently, the soulful woman has hungered for more attention. Three years ago, she began meditating. She is an enthusiastic follower and friend of Deepak Chopra, and gives copies of his bestseller, "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success," to employees and friends. "Deepak's seven laws are the beginning," she says. She is fascinated by spirituality as defined by Eastern cultures and longs to visit India.
The hyper, rapid delivery for which she was known has slowed. Even the pitch of her voice is deeper. She purrs. Pauses. Silence is not a void she feels mandated to fill.
But something more than fatigue may have sparked Karan's metaphysical quest. An aborted stock offering in 1993 gave rise to a barrage of negative press. "I felt extremely vulnerable," Karan says. "As the company was growing, we needed more funding. That was extremely positive. It looked like, oh, my god, Donna Karan's company is in need of money. People started to worry if our bills were going to be paid. But the fact was we had all these new, budding businesses that needed funding."
Ongoing complaints about fit, quality and late deliveries reached Karan and her second husband, Stephan Weiss, then co-chief executive of the company. (A sculptor, Weiss is now concentrating on his artwork but remains on the board of directors.)
"I hear the criticisms and I check everything out," Karan says. "Until now, I questioned my quality as well, and that's why I think I found it difficult to take my clothes to Europe. I had to make sure that the clothes could stand up to the European design community and the quality level of their clothes."
Improving the workmanship has been a mission for Karan, particularly since she began designing for men five years ago. "The menswear has taught me so much, because you cannot fake menswear. There is a precision to the cut of tailored men's clothes that is just extraordinary, and once I did that I said I wanted my women's clothes to look as good as the men's."
See the problem. Solve the problem. Last fall, Karan designed, as usual, from her gut. She presented a group of austere leather coats and jackets and long cashmere dresses, modeled by girls wearing flat, satin slippers. The response from critics was a resounding, "Huh?"
"My biggest frustration ever in my life was that collection," she says. "I knew that was the best I could do. I knew it was great. They couldn't get past the fact that I didn't show high heels and short skirts. I wanted to say, 'Wait a second, guys.' Just feel this and you'll understand what I'm talking about, the soulfulness of it, the comfort of it. Like relax. You can just be yourself. A woman in flat shoes is grounded. That's exactly what I'm saying: Ground yourself, girls. Then you can get on with your life with grace and style, in comfort and luxury."
Karan's genius has always been her ability to conceive a system of dressing, a formula that could be quickly grasped. At 47, she is secure enough to let designers in each of her divisions have creative rein. At some point, she sees, touches, tries on, if she can, everything with her name on it. But she is the first to admit she does not design it all.
"There's no way any human being could do it all. I don't believe it has to be about me anymore. I am an extremely good editor. I help stimulate and inspire. I have incredible talent in my organization, people who are like my family who have been with me and grown with me. They complete my sentences. We've created principle. I just keep saying, be conscious of the human body. Be conscious of hips, be conscious of ass. Take a girl and put her in the clothes. Make her look good. That's what it's about."
Such messages from the boss come by phone or fax every morning. Her day begins with a yoga or Pilates session with her trainer at home, and she stays away from the office till the afternoon. "When I walk in there, everything shifts around, particularly if I'm hanging out in the design room," she says. She works till 8:30 or 9 p.m., then frequently ends the day with an 11 p.m. massage at home.
She considers frequent vacations a necessity. "I gotta get away, even if it's only for two or three days. I run away to the beach, to a spa, to Europe." When possible, Karan takes her 21-year-old daughter or her husband's two granddaughters.
Even when Karan is refreshed by communing with nature, even when her explorations into the wisdom of great philosophers bring her a measure of serenity, old demons surface. Patti Cohen, her senior vice president of public relations, right arm and friend of nearly 20 years, can count on getting a phone call at 1 in the morning before the debut of a collection. "We have to cancel the show," Karan tells her.
The designer laughs at her predictable panic attack. "You'd figure that after all these years I'd get that it's going to work itself out. But I really believe it every time I start a collection when I say, 'I'm telling you, guys. This time I really have a problem.' "