Donna Karan

Sandra J. Ley

Designer Biography

DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA084

Donna Karan was born Donna Ivy Faske in 1948 in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, New York. Her parents worked in the apparel industry and encouraged her dreams of becoming a designer. In 1966, she entered the Parsons School of Design. A year later, her talent won her an internship at Anne Klein, a major women’s sportswear designer. A job offer as Anne Klein’s assistant quickly followed and Karan left school.

At only nineteen years of age, Karan was not prepared for the pressures of full-time employment. Within nine months, she was fired. She bounced back with a position at another sportswear firm where she honed her skills as a professional, then returned to Anne Klein in 1968—experienced, wiser, and more determined. In 1971, she became associate designer. When Klein unexpectedly passed away in 1974, she was appointed head designer. Though devastated by the loss of her mentor, she accepted the position and hired her Parsons classmate, Louis Dell’Olio, as assistant designer.

Her first presentation of urban-chic career separates received a standing ovation. The growing population of working women inspired Karan to create Anne Klein II, a highly successful diffusion line. Under Karan’s decade-long leadership, Anne Klein became the leading sportswear brand in the United States.

Within ten years, Karan desired a new challenge: She wanted to design modern clothes for modern people. With the backing of the firm that owned Anne Klein, and in partnership with her second husband Stephen Weiss, she launched Donna Karan New York. Her label’s name paid homage to her muse as well as her collection’s attitude—urban, energetic, edgy, vibrant, and sophisticated. In the fall of 1985, she presented her first (now-famous) collection, “Seven Easy Pieces.” It was a system of interchangeable separates for career women with busy lives. Emphasizing black and based on a bodysuit with poppers at the crotch, each piece could be mixed with a selection of skirts, pants, unstructured blazers, and blouses to create an effortless, chic, comfortable, professional, and subtly sensual wardrobe. It offered working women an alternative to the period’s boxy suits and floppy ties. The collection achieved critical acclaim and retail success. The components, remixed and re-accessorized, shifted easily from day, to evening, to weekend. A highly profitable diffusion line, DKNY, soon followed. Karan balanced career, family, and education when she returned to Parsons to study for a degree in 1987.

Over the next twenty years, Karan’s business skyrocketed. In 1996, her company became one of the first firms on the New York Stock Exchange to be headed by a woman. She expanded into accessories, timepieces, swimwear, denim, lingerie, hosiery, eyewear, active wear, shoes, menswear, children’s wear, home accessories, skincare, and fragrances—a complete lifestyle system. Her corporate mission reflects her design aesthetic: “Luxury, sensuality, comfort and creative expression, always utilizing the finest-quality fabrics, workmanship, and technological innovation.” By 2004, Donna Karan International had over one hundred stores worldwide.

Donna Karan’s career is studded with numerous prestigious design awards. Known for her warmth and spirituality, Karan has also been recognized numerous times for her charitable and humanitarian work.

Donna Karan, Spring/Summer 1997 Photograph by Niall McInerney, Fashion Photography Archive

References and Further Reading

About Donna.” Donna Karan New York, n.d. http://www.donnakaran.com/_pages/company/3c1289ec-8f7c-4608-bc47-68ce68717268/about-donna (accessed 8 January 2013).

Find in Library Gessner Liz. “Donna Karan.” In Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion , 2nd edition, edited by Valerie Steele , pp.298–299. Detroit : Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005 .

Find in Library Karan Donna, and Ingrid Sischy. The Journey of a Woman: 20 Years of Donna Karan . New York : Assouline, 2004.

Find in Library Kellogg T. et al. “Donna Karan.” In An Influential Fashion: An Encyclopedia of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Fashion Designers and Retailers Who Transformed Dress , pp.173–174. Westport, CT : Greenwood, 2002 .

Find in Library Polan Brenda, and Roger Tredre. “Donna Karan.” In The Great Fashion Designers , pp.215–217. Oxford : Berg Publishers, 2009 .

Find in Library Stegemeyer Anne, and Holly Price Alford. “Donna Karan.” In Who’s Who in Fashion , 5th edition, pp.200–201. New York : Fairchild Books, 2009 .