When I was a design school student at the end of the 1980s, there was one name that you found in all of the magazines and on everyone’s lips: Donna Karan. She was changing the way women dressed. She wanted to “to design modern clothes for modern people.”
Karan became a presence in the fashion world as the women’s rights movement found its footing in the 1970s and women began working in the business world in greater numbers. Most designers didn’t know how to dress this burgeoning new population of professionals. You saw women dressed in double-breasted suits with tight skirts, wide shoulders, and, often, pin stripes. Virginia Slims adverts of the time showed images of women in suits – straight, lean, no curves, nothing womanly at first glance. The models could easily have been men.
Donna Karan changed that. She cut clothes that she would want to wear, that fit her own lifestyle as a designer and businesswoman. Starting at Anne Klein in the 1960s, she worked her way up from assistant designer to associate designer; after Anne’s death in 1974, Donna worked as the head designer for the house with a classmate, Louis Dell’Olio. She showed the first collection under her own name in 1985 and has been going strong ever since. Under the Donna Karan label, she took a thoughtful approach to women’s professional dress. She famously created a wardrobe base for the professional woman, which she called “Seven Easy Pieces.” It included pieces that women could easily mix and match for any number of occasions.
I remember being a student and lusting after her pieces. They were soft and strong at the same time. I saved my money and bought a wrap skirt which served me a decade. Eventually, the skirt got lost – a casualty of years of travel. But, I’m certain that if I still owned that skirt, I’d be wearing it today because the quality and classic style of the piece made it timeless. As a designer, I have tried for a decade to reproduce that skirt— to no avail. My clothes, my cuts are simply different.
Later in my career, I got the chance to meet Donna—and, I am proud to say, make a few dresses for her.
Her work has been an inspiration to me, and given a generation of women the option to NOT dress like a man at work; she gave us the opportunity to look in the mirror and embrace our real selves: womanly, curvy, and strong at the same time. Many younger women might not understand the freedom that Donna’s designs allowed us. Looking back at her designs, I think that her contribution is undeniable.
Through her work, she taught me that it is okay to be feminine, comfortable, and beautiful.
Come back this Thursday as we continue our conversation about the intersection of Fashion, Craft, + DIY. We’ll also feature instructions on how to make a Donna Karan DIY Dress, using The School of Making hand-sewing techniques.
The featured images are from WWD: 100 Years, 100 Designers, Arena Magazine – November 1995, and Fashions of the Times: The New York Magazine – Spring 2002.
And see images of Donna Karan New York by Ingrid Sischy on this post from June 28, 2012.