Model, photographer was muse to designers

Times Staff Writer

Lynn Kohlman, a fashion model and photographer who worked with the creative teams of top New York designers Perry Ellis, Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan, has died. She was 62.

Kohlman died of brain cancer Sunday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said her husband, Mark Obenhaus. She had been battling cancer for more than five years.

Early in her career, Kohlman modeled in Europe for Kenzo, Zandra Rhodes and Yves St. Laurent, and she appeared in Elle, Italian Vogue and Harpers and Queen.

In London, where she lived during the 1970s, she developed her personal style. Short, dark hair and a long, narrow figure gave her a "punk androgynous" look, she wrote in "Lynn: Front to Back," her 2005 memoir about her career before the camera and later behind the lens.

She moved to New York City in the early 1980s. "Lynn wasn't the typical blond-hair, blue-eyed model," Donna Karan, a longtime friend, said this week. "She had an edge."

Kohlman modeled for Perry Ellis, who asked her to became his collaborator. He once designed a collection of oversized jackets, pants and coats for women based on the men's linen pant suit Kohlman wore, several sizes too big for her.

"I thought of myself as his muse, but he gave me the title 'assistant designer,' " Kohlman wrote of Ellis.

As she outgrew her modeling career in the mid-1980s, she moved into photography.

She had been taking pictures most of her life and had a portfolio of celebrities and fashion figures including Ellis, Karan and Calvin Klein, along with photographs of her outdoor treks and river rafting trips. Her work appeared in Interview, Vogue and other magazines. She shot ads for Perry Ellis and Anne Klein II.

In 1988, Kohlman became a creative director for Donna Karan's company, where she worked for 11 years and helped to develop Karan's DKNY label.

"The masculine-feminine, street feeling of DKNY was Lynn," Karan said. "She inspired me."

Kohlman left Karan's company to work as a creative director at Tommy Hilfiger for about one year. She was considering her next move when she learned that she had breast cancer in 2002.

Less than a year later, after a double mastectomy, she developed an aggressive form of brain cancer.

One page in her book shows Kohlman as a young model, nude from the waist up, next to Kohlman after her double mastectomy, without breasts.

She didn't hide her head scars, either. A memorial page honoring her on Karan's website,, includes a photograph of Kohlman after her brain surgery.

Once, when she was walking down a New York City street, someone with a pierced nose and eyebrow stopped her, looked at her staples and said, "That's cool, where'd you have that done?" Kohlman recalled during an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2005. She gave him her doctor's name.

She talked openly and wrote about how terminal cancer changed her.

"I have finally realized that, at 59 years old, my breasts gone, my hair fried from radiation, a scar circling my scalp like stitches on a baseball, I am beautiful," she wrote in the August 2005 issue of Vogue magazine.

Kohlman was born Aug. 12, 1946, in Teaneck, N.J. She graduated summa cum laude from Oberlin College, where she majored in art history and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

She got her first fashion assignments after she joined a modeling agency in New York City.

She was married twice. Her first marriage ended in divorce. Along with her husband, a documentary filmmaker, Kohlman is survived by their son, Sam, and her brother, Jeffrey, a federal judge in Atlanta.

The family requests that contributions in Kohlman's name be made to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Neuro-Oncology Research Fund, 1275 York Ave., New York, NY 10021.


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