Fab, Fearless Females: Donna Karan Steps Down,Then Up Again

By: Susan Berman Hammer

Donna Karan, the bold, internationally celebrated fashion icon who created a modern system of dressing (built on the basic bodysuit), the first clothing with fabric that stretched, and the “cold shoulder dress,” designed these and her other DK pieces because she intuitively understands women's needs and desires.

Now, she's entering the next phase of her storied life and career. This past summer at age 66, Karan officially stepped down as chief designer of Donna Karan International, the global company that bears her name. Take a look at the final Fall 2015 collection….

Close friend and client, Barbra Streisand, said: she's not worried about about her friend Donna Karan during this emotional transition. In an email to The New York Times, Streisand said: “Donna is so great at everything she does... designs, friendships, compassionate causes... I’m sure her next steps will amaze us.” Still, Streisand added, “I surely will miss her clothes.”

What's Next for Karan

Karan just finished her memoir scheduled for publication on October 2nd -- her birthday. She said: “It’s certainly a book about my life, born on Seventh Avenue. The thing about the book is that I hope to touch people’s lives who realize that Donna Karan is not untouchable. What everybody goes through, I’ve been through. Whether it’s for young designers, or for women who are not happy with their bodies, there’s not a woman I know who isn’t happy about some part of her body.”

Also a grandmother, Karan is now devoting the remainder of her time and talents to the next chapter in her life. She's building her brand called Urban Zen and its Foundation which she established in 2007 “to advance wellness, preserve culture and empower children." The designer's Urban Zen collection is affiliated with the foundation.

“If I can’t live, work, travel, sleep — or, yes, meditate in it — it’s not in the line. Urban Zen is my baby”, she added. “I was given this vision of Urban Zen over 15 years ago. It was so clear to me. I had done Donna Karan, I had done DKNY, and I felt that my next journey had to be Urban Zen. I had to find the calm in the chaos. I was living in so much chaos. Everything around me was chaotic. I want to make a difference in this world. I want to help….I always thought there was purpose in philanthropy and commerce.”

Karan, an honorary ambassador to Haiti, works closely with the Clinton Global Initiative to support and develop Haitian artisan commerce. Additionally, she was honored with a Gordon Parks Foundation Award for using creative means to change and educate the world.

As Karan herself has said, her life has been characterized by dramatic change. Like Honey Good and most of us, she has experienced both joy and sorrow. “There’s the anxiety of telling people about my departure from DKI. For me, there’s a relief to it. I’ve been holding onto it. I keep on comparing it to a sudden birth or death, whether it be Anne [Klein] or my husband. You never know what is happening when there’s a huge, massive change in your life. My whole life is about that. This is not surprising. To me, it seems like it is what it is. Not that there’s any difference. To the outside world it might appear like that."

The Karan Take on Style

“...That I’m a woman makes me want to nurture others, fulfill needs and solve problems. At the same time, the artist within me strives for beauty, both sensually and visually….designing is an expression of who I am as a woman, with all the complications, feelings and emotions.” 

“….I see style as an evolution, a unique reflection of who you are, where you’ve been and where you are going.” 

Profile of a Designer

Born Donna Ivy Faske, Karan is Jewish. Her father Gabby Faske (who died when Karan was three) was a custom tailor, her mother Helen was a showroom model and fashion sales rep. And Karan’s stepfather, Harold Flaxman, was in the fashion business. While still in high school, she designed her first collection and staged her first show.

After studying at the Parson's School of Design, Karan was hired for a summer job at Anne Klein. Three years later in 1974, Karan was named chief designer and successor to Klein following Klein's death.

During this time, Karan and her first husband Mark were married, had a daughter they named Gabby, then divorced five years later.

With Louis Dell’olio, a Parson’s friend, Karan and Dell'olio designed the Anne Klein Collection. In 1984, Karan left Anne Klein to start the Donna Karan New York company with her second husband, artist Stephan Weiss, and business partner Takiyho Inc., the owner of Anne Klein & Co. Seventeen years later in 2001, Stephan Weiss died from lung cancer at the age of 53. Karan and Weiss have two children together – Corey and Lisa.

All the while, Karan’s quest for the perfect jeans continued. In 1989, looking for a new way to dress her daughter Gabby, she created DKNY. Commenting on Karan's designs, the official Donna Karan website had this to say: “it’s never been just about clothes; it’s about lifestyles. Karan sees the entire picture from head-to-toe, from function to aesthetic. Handbags and shoes are designed right alongside the clothes.”

DKNY grew so popular that other brands and labels spun from it, including DKNY Jeans, DKNY Active, DKNY Underwear, DKNY Jeans Juniors, and DKNY Kids.

Donna Karan became publicly traded in 1996, and five years later was acquired for $243 million by its current owner, the French luxury conglomerate, LVMH, Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

Throughout her long and extremely successful career, Karan’s peers have presented her with numerous accolades:

  1. Glamour magazine named Karan one of their Women of the Year in 2007.

  2. Karan's alma mater, Parson's School of Design, awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2004.

  3. The Council of Fashion Designers of America saluted her six times.

  4. She was nominated for the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award in 2010.

  5. Karan was the first American designer to receive Fashion Group International's "Superstar Award" in 2003.

Karan's also ranked #31 on the recently published Forbes’ inaugural list of America’s richest self-made women. She has an estimated wealth of $450 million and is tied with Diane von Furstenberg.

Using her resources, instincts, creativity, drive and optimism, we're certain Donna Karan will continue to forge ahead for the charitable causes and her family which she cares so deeply about.

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Susan Berman Hammer brings more than 35 years of professional communications, management and parenting experience as well as journalism training to The Honey Good team of writers. Susan is also PR counsel and a business strategist to HoneyGood.com. Susan previously served as the Senior VP-Account Supervisor of a Chicago PR agency and later headed her own agency. She earned graduate and undergraduate degrees from Northwestern University. Follow Susan on Twitter: @SueBermanHammer