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Donna Karan Biography
Everything I do is a matter of heart, body and soul," says Donna Karan, chief designer of the international company that bears her name. "For me, designing is an expression of who I am as a woman, with all the complications, feelings and emotions." In fact, Karan credits her feminine instincts to the success of the company she founded in 1984 with her late husband Stephan Weiss, which went on to become a publicly-traded enterprise in 1996, and then five years later, was acquired by its present owner, the French luxury conglomerate, LVMH, Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Says Karan, "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. So design is a constant challenge to balance comfort with luxury, the practical with the desirable.
How Karan meets that challenge can run from the simplicity of a bodysuit (where it all began) to the artisan glamour of a limited edition hand-painted devore dress. Whatever form the design takes, Karan will tell you it begins and ends with the body - its sensual expression, sense of security, and freedom of movement.
A modern system of dressing, Karan's concept is based on seven easy pieces, where a handful of interchangeable items work together to create an entire wardrobe that goes from day to evening, weekday to weekend, season to season. "I'm designing for an international man and woman. A creative person who never knows where a day is going to take them," says Karan. "That's why New York is on the label. It sets the pace, the attitude."
Speaking in a multi-cultural language of fashion, Karan is inspired by life and the innate style of the artist. Quintessential hallmarks include black cashmere, leather, jersey stretch and molded fabrics, as well as silhouettes that wrap and sculpt the body.
For Karan, it's never been just about clothes. It's about a lifestyle. She sees the entire picture from head-to-toe, from function to aesthetic. "How do I dress the leg?" inspired Donna Karan Hosiery. "The right bra, T-shirts and sleepwear?" Donna Karan Intimates. "The perfect glasses?" Donna Karan Eyewear. The list goes on to include shoes, belts, accessories and, as Karan puts it, "Everything you need to pull yourself together."
Karan's quest for the perfect jeans, as well as her desire to dress her daughter Gabby, resulted in the 1989 birth of DKNY. Fast fashion with an urban mind-set, DKNY is what Karan calls "the pizza to Collection's caviar." DKNY grew so popular and diverse that other brands and labels spun from it, including DKNY Jeans, pure, DKNY Active, DKNY Underwear, DKNY Juniors, DKNY Kids, and DKNY Baby (Not surprisingly, Karan's grandkids and friends' kids had much to do with the latter brands). Like Collection, DKNY has myriad accessory lines to underscore its New York City street-smart look.
Karan saw that the many men in her life, starting with her husband, also needed a sophisticated system of dressing. Considering Karan's father was a custom tailor, a menswear collection was inevitable, and it was founded in 1992. Since men cannot live by doubleface cashmere suits alone, DKNY Men emerged a year later in answer to his casual, sport side. Both menswear lines beget other collections, from tailored suits to dress furnishings and shoes.
Determined to seduce all the senses, Karan took on the world of beauty in 1992 under the business and creative leadership of her husband, who designed the bottles and jars for the signature fragrances and their ancillary products. The beauty division went on to introduce an award-winning skincare line and best-selling fragrances that include Cashmere Mist and DKNY scents for men and women. Completing the lifestyle approach to design, in 2001 Karan introduced a Donna Karan New York Home collection "all about touch and feel," which includes everything from luxe bedding and candles to cashmere throws, and DKNY Life, which accents the contemporary city home with fashion-forward bedding and accessories.
Donna Karan International has seventy company-owned and licensed freestanding Donna Karan collection and DKNY stores worldwide. The first flagships opened in London, DKNY in 1997, and Collection a year later. 1999 marked the opening of the uptown New York City DKNY flagship store, located at 60th Street and Madison Avenue, and two years later, came the downtown DKNY flagship on West Broadway in SoHo. Bringing it back to where it all began, in 2001 Karan opened the Donna Karan New York flagship store, the premiere Collection showcase, at 819 Madison Avenue. Designed as "a serene escape from the city's chaos," a dramatic indoor/outdoor river rock garden runs through the townhouse's ground floor.
For Karan, it literally and creatively began in New York. She was born into fashion on Long Island. Not only was her father Gabby Faske (who died when Karan was three) a tailor, her mother Helen was a showroom model and fashion sales rep. Even Karan's stepfather Harold Flaxman was in the fashion business. So it was only natural that Karan, while still in high school, designed her first collection and staged her first show.
Following her second year at Parson's School of Design, Karan was hired by Anne Klein for a summer job. It was an association that would shape the rest of Karan's life. After three years as associate designer, Karan was named successor following Klein's death in 1974. Louis Dell'Olio, a Parson's friend, joined her a year later, together they designed the Anne Klein Collection. In a foreshadow of DKNY, Karan created Anne Klein II in 1982, originating the concept of bridge and lifestyle dressing in fashion.
Ten years after Klein died, Karan was ready to go out on her own with the support of Weiss and partner Takiyho, Inc. the owner of Anne Klein & Co. Fall 1985 saw the first Donna Karan New York Collection and the reaction from the press and retailers proved once again that Karan made fashion history.
Throughout her long career, Karan's peers have acknowledged her achievements with numerous accolades. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has saluted her an unprecedented six times. Because the industry has been so generous and supportive, Karan feels it crucial to give back, which is why she spends as much time as possible at her alma mater Parson's lecturing and critiquing students' work.
Using her company's visibility and resources for social causes is a heartfelt priority. A member of CFDA's board of directors, Karan conceived as well as spearheaded its Seventh on Sale benefits to raise funds for AIDS awareness and education. Karan co-chairs the annual New York "Kids for Kids" events for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, as she has since its 1993 inception, as well as the yearly "Super Saturday," a flea market/barbecue founded with the late Liz Tilberis in 1998 to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. She is an active supporter of New York City's Dia Center for the Arts, one of the most prestigious contemporary art institutes in the country and has chaired its last two Fall Galas. To facilitate her many on-going philanthropic involvements, in 1999, Karan and Weiss established the Karan Weiss Foundation to benefit children's causes, medical research and the arts.
Maintaining an open dialogue with her customer means everything to Karan. Through her company, Karan regularly publishes style-related books, sponsors art exhibits, charity events and book parties at the stores, and produces a bi-annual magazine called Woman to Woman, where Karan speaks directly to her Collection customer.
Donna Karan biographies (profiles). ML41308