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Fashion : Donna Karan: Sensual Flair for Executives

June 16, 1989|MARY ROURKE | Times Fashion Editor

You might say designer Donna Karan is selling sex at the office. She calls it sensuality, but whatever the word, the clothes speak a language that all but vibrates with appeal. Not that she's the first to try it. It's more that she's found a wizardly way to keep the message understated. So understated it catches most people off guard.

Karan's adventures in passive-aggressive apparel started five years ago when she left her position as co-designer of the Anne Klein collection and launched her own label. She promised then to find fashion solutions for the boring business suit.

Having done it, she's become the uncontested darling of the upwardly mobile women who long to look like sirens, whether they're anchoring a national news show, wangling a corporate merger or slinking about by candlelight some romantic evening.

There is Diane Sawyer and her sitcom rival Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen), Raquel Welch, Bianca Jagger, not to mention other loyal customers who are hugely successful, if less famous, executive women around the country. They've helped put Karan in the major league, made her the American most often mentioned among the super star designers of Europe.

"My clothes say, woman ," Karan declares. "They tell you how to move. Put them on and you'll walk a different way." Then she admits: "They look dreadful on the hanger."

That's because they don't have a built-in, or boxy shape. Everything Karan makes has a sensual knot, slit or tie to it. Skirts are usually sarongs, open at the side. Bodysuits are part blouse, part dancer's leotard; sweaters always seem on the verge of sliding off the shoulders.

Although she only uses cashmere, silk and wool jersey, many of her shapes come from exercise and athletic wear. "The clothes are about body, fitness, movement," says Karan, who works out at home with a personal trainer several mornings each

week.

As if by intuition, as much as astute business sense, she has outlined a sort of American fashion dream. But owning a piece of it is an expensive proposition. When Karan unveils her fall collection here Monday night at a benefit fashion show sponsored by Saks Fifth Avenue, items on the runway will range from $350 to $6,000. A blazer and skirt will cost about $1,500. A body blouse will range as high as $450 if it's pure silk. And a silk velvet evening dress will cost $1,200--much more if it is beaded. But apparently she's found her customers; sales last year reached $34 million.

Aside from the rich-as-fudge, uncluttered-as-ice clothes themselves, the shoes, handbags, hosiery and sunglasses the models will wear are by Karan, sold under her own label. She even controls the jewelry designs, all of them original creations, exclusive

to her, by Robert Lee Morris, whose work is included in museum collections.

It is something new, however, that makes her the front-runner in the fashion pack right now--her sporty DKNY collection, launched last spring and priced about half that of the other line. Consisting of blue jeans and oversize sweaters, blazers and shirt-style dresses, it's Karan's upscale answer to fashion from the Gap. And it looks as if it will add another $58 million to her company's gross earnings this year.

"I don't feel it," she says about her explosive success. An earthy, outgoing woman, she spends little time reflecting on anything but fashion design, she says. Now in her early 40s, she wears the most casual of her own creations. Padding around Los Angeles during free time, she sports stretchy leggings and leather sandals, a big white shirt or a soft, khaki jacket.

"I'm always thinking about the future," she says. "Menswear is next. My husband says I'm crazy."

He is Stephan Weiss, and he became her business partner, having first established himself as a sculptor and the head of his own family's 90-year-old business. (I. Weiss makes theater drapes, most recently for the Los Angeles production of "Phantom of the Opera.")

"I'm able to be an ally and a good friend," Weiss says about his involvement in Karan's company, which he tries to keep to a minimum. "But the business is omnipresent and that becomes difficult. I'd rather see Donna on a husband-and-wife basis when we leave the office at night."

He still oversees the company's long-range projects, which now include sales outlets in Europe and a skin-care and cosmetic division in the states.

Visitors to her Seventh Avenue offices are struck by the volcanic activity there. Walls are going up and coming down, staff is being expanded and upgraded. Through it all, Karan maintains her mother-hen/soul-sister style. She is known for the family-like ties she creates at the office.

"She drives her staff with a whip, and they're devoted to her," Morris says. He has designed jewelry for Karan's collections from the time she worked under the Anne Klein label. She gets away with her demanding ways, he says, because she demands even more of herself. "She's a slave to her own passion."

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