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Los Angeles Times Interview : Donna Karan : On Working Women, On Wearing the Pants, On Building a Fashion Empire

June 24, 1990|Lisa Norris Eisner | Lisa Norris Eisner was the West Coast editor of Vogue magazine. She interviewed Karan in the designer's Seventh Avenue office

NEW YORK — In the last 10 years, women's office clothes have undergone a startling transformation. One of the major reasons is Donna Karan--her new clothing line in 1984 redefined how women look in the workplace.

Like a politician who is just ahead of the public-opinion curve, the designer was on the cutting edge of change taking place in the business world. Greater numbers of women were growing more established in their professions and this enabled them to accept a new way of dressing. The '70s look was "dress for success"--a loose, Brooks Brothers-style suit--mannish blazer, trouser skirt, white oxford shirt and small bow-tie. In their desire to be taken seriously, women were wearing a distorted image of a man's business suit.

Karan took this and turned it inside out. Skirts were shorter and snug, shirts became clinging, jackets more fitted. The tie evolved into a chunky necklace. As women spent more time at the workplace, their clothes grew more comfortable.

And Karan created a fashion empire. It was built on a body suit, a shirt top that snaps closed at the bottom so it could never come untucked. Over it, she created a set of pieces that fit together, like Lego blocks, to build innumerable looks. Jackets and skirts could go from the office to dinner just by adding a piece of jewelry.

With this base, Karan, at age 41, has become the most successful American woman designer ever--with two distinctive lines of clothes, her original and the year-old DKNY, a more accessably priced, casual collection. Total sales are projected to reach $153 million in 1990. In addition, she markets eyeglasses, hosiery, shoes and sewing patterns--with perfume and home furnishings in the works.

Karan developed a feel for the working woman during her years with Anne Klein. She started there fresh from Parsons School of Design in 1969 and ultimately took over--with Louis Dell'Olio--when Klein died in 1974. They ran the Klein line with great success, for 10 years, before Karan went out on her own.

While managing a multimillion-dollar industry, Karan is still concerned with the details. In her constant re-examination of how women dress, in pursuit of that elusive perfect tote or pump, she has enabled hundreds of thousands of women to feel more comfortable at the workplace.

Question: Within the last 10 years, women have changed the way they dress at the workplace. How have you influenced this?

Answer: A while back, when I was at Anne Klein, women were still at entry-level positions in the workplace and worried about competing with men. At that time, I think, women were basically wearing a blazer, a silk blouse and a pair of trouser pants or trouser skirt. And that was sort of their uniform.

But now, in the '90s, the working woman is much more sure of herself. She doesn't have to constantly prove herself. She can wear what she wants.

And basically what I started--when I started the company about, what was it, six years ago--was: It's OK, we're women, and let's start with our bodies. And let's sort of accent the positive, and delete the negative . . . .

We started with the body suit--that certainly has totally changed the way women feel about blouses. And then layering on top. And keeping the clothes simple--day into evening. The clothes have gotten a little bit more travel-oriented, you know, packable. You know, modern.

Then there's the whole idea of using accessories--I think we've had an important statement in what an alligator belt means to a woman. Then all you need is a white body blouse, and a black skirt, and a black alligator belt and a string of pearls, and a cashmere scarf. You can go anywhere. Or, for evening, add a sequined scarf to something.

It's that whole accessory feeling. A way of pulling an outfit together that makes women more comfortable and more sure of themselves. Before we started, designer accessories were on the cheaper side, you know. There were no such things as alligator belts, and good hosiery and all that kind of stuff. When I came out with my first pair of hose--God, it's so expensive!--but it's quality. And cashmere. You know, cashmere is something that we all talk about now. It's not something we say is for the chosen few.

But the feeling of luxury, that it's better to buy a few good pieces that will last forever. It's not about fashion, for the season. But fashion that will have longevity. I feel also the counterpoint, of putting together expensive and inexpensive things. Not everything has to be expensive. If you buy a good jacket--you can wear it with anything you own. It doesn't have to be all "designed." It's all separate pieces--it's a sportswear concept.

Q: Working women often wouldn't wear certain things because they felt men wouldn't take them seriously. How has this changed?

A: Well, I think they realized, because they felt so good in it, that they could stop worrying about the way they looked and worry about what they wanted to do.

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