Fashion designer Donna Karan has been a force in the industry for more than 30 years — not an easy feat in such a fickle field. Now that she's retired from her namesake label and DKNY, the veritable force has written a memoir titled "My Journey" detailing her experiences. TODAY spoke with Karan about being a working mother, creating clothes that empower women and maintaining success decade after decade.
Donna Karan has missed only one spring collection show in her 30-year reign as designer and chief executive of her fashion empire. That day was 9/11 and it was an event she still recalls as if it were yesterday: "That was one of the most horrendous experiences because it really did make me completely re-evaluate my entire life," she explained. "There I was that morning, I had just lost my husband [to lung cancer], I had a family, I was putting together a show and all of us who had companies knew that we now had a city that needed our support. Unfortunately, it took such a horrific situation like that for people to realize that we are all one."
It is that honest and heartfelt perspective that has made Karan stand out among her peers; that, and her affinity for dressing real working women like herself. Moving forward, Karan will be missing many more shows due to her recent step down from Donna Karan and DKNY; a decision that she certainly hasn't taken lightly. "I was just spread too thin between the fashion, my family and Urban Zen" (her latest endeavor and passion project aimed at impacting healthcare, education and culture worldwide), she explained. "This is a very difficult time to have made that decision because I never thought I would ever do that even though I kept saying I would one day."
Perhaps it's the fact that inspiration still surrounds her decades later. "Clothes speak to me, fabric, sand on a beach or even tall buildings and streetlights would suddenly speak to me. I can't explain why some things say, 'Hello,' and some things don't but it's all important: the shapes, color of water, even rocks. Rocks are significant to me because the shades of them became the colors for my menswear line."
Early on in her career, Karan's rare, artistic talent was honed by her experience working with Anne Klein, who took Karan under her wing. In Klein's passing it was Karan who, just one week after delivering her daughter, Gabby, returned to the company and ran the design team. Like many women and mothers, the challenging act of juggling a family life and a career is familiar to her. "Women always feel wrong," she said, sounding slightly defeated. "We're never doing it right and we always feel insecure. To this day I still feel guilty about not being there enough when Gabby was younger, but we have an amazing relationship. Sometimes I think she's my mother and she has more guidance on me than I have on her."
But Karan has been lauded for doing just that: guiding and empowering women in their fashion choices. Her three pillars — style, comfort and effortlessness — have been at the forefront of her mission to help women feel both feminine and bold. Easier said than done? Not according to Karan, who thoroughly understands the daily frustration women face as they wade through the black hole of their closet day after day.
"Don't be afraid. Go into a dressing room and work with people who really have an understanding of clothes. It's really about understanding your body and looking in the mirror and saying, 'Hey, is this how I want to feel today? Do I feel strong?' Sometimes, clothes you respond to aren't necessarily for you," she advised. "You usually know which clothes will empower you. Have the confidence that you need to be a woman."
Karan, who describes herself as "still inspiring" and "still creative," lives a healthfully conscious lifestyle consisting of regular pilates classes, yoga and meditation and jump starts her day with an energizing smoothie. "I do see the clock ticking a little bit more than I would have a few years ago," she admitted. "I'm very childlike but in my reality when I see my years, I wonder, 'How much can I really do?' I'm not as energized as I used to be and whether I look or feel young in my mind, my body now is not the body it was."
Still, she's taking every ounce of energy she has and channeling it into an adventure she has carried in her imagination for many years, but hasn't had the time to carry through until now. "In the chaos of the world in which we live, how do we find the calm?" she posed, explaining her vision behind Urban Zen. "I have a dream and it's to do the 'Motorcycle Diaries,'" she said, referring to the novel and movie about Che Guervara's adventures as a young man. "I want to travel around the world and work in developing countries and with artisans."
And as she takes to the open road in a new chapter in her life, she says she will be accompanied by a cherished group of those whom she lost too soon. Notably among them, her husband and business partner Stephan Weiss. "Everyone I've lost is still with me and around me," she said. "The first thing I see each morning when I wake up are two paintings Stephan made for me, a positive sign and a negative, so I say to myself every day, 'OK Donna, you have a choice. Which way do you want to look at the day?'"
We have a pretty good guess at which painting she leans toward.