In 1984, another lifetime ago, I landed my first job in fashion by answering a blind ad in The New York Times. It was for a spot in public relations at Anne Klein. After I met with the personnel director, I was told I’d get a call back to meet with Patti Cohen and Donna Karan. I waited.
Finally, one Saturday morning in July, my mother called my summer share house on Fire Island and informed me, “Some woman named Patti called and she wants you to come over to her beach house in Saltaire to meet Donna Karan.”
Later that afternoon I found myself sitting on the deck of a spacious, light filled beach house talking fashion with Donna Karan and Patti. I wracked my brain trying to remember what I’d seen in the latest issue of Vogue. Sitting there in my madras shorts and a Lacoste shirt, I told them my favorite designers, besides Anne Klein, were Giorgio Armani and Claude Montana.
I got the job as Patti’s assistant at Anne Klein II and found myself shadowing Patti, who shadowed Donna, pretty much everywhere. There were photo shoots with photographer Lynn Kolhman, tea in the AKII design studio with Maurice Antaya and trips to the offices of WWD which, at the time, were at 7 East 12 Street. At 205 West 39th Street, Anne Klein II was upstairs from Anne Klein, where Donna worked with Louis Dell ‘Olio in their design studio. I was in fashion heaven.
These were heady times at Anne Klein II. The department stores and the press couldn’t get enough. Local television news personalities and celebrities like Diane Sawyer and Candice Bergen were all clamoring to get the AKII pink jacket featured in the collection’s first national advertising campaign – and it was my job to make sure they got it.
I still remember Donna sweeping into Anne Klein II’s one-room sales office, black mug in hand, and calling, “Pat-eee!” before plopping down in the one chair in Patti’s closet-sized office. Patti would reach around her chair and slide the white pocket door closed, sequestering them away from the busy office. Often times it was after meeting with AKII’s president Marilyn Kawakami, whose laser-like focus on churning out the definitive working woman’s collection often clashed with Karan’s more expansive, artistic impulses.
It’s been a long time since I thought about those days, all the wonderfully colorful and talented people that were a part of Anne Klein and Anne Klein II and, as Karan recounts in her book, the “iconic blazer,” but my memories were all brought vividly back to life while reading Karan’s new memoir, My Journey (Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House) published earlier this week.
The book is much more than a behind the seams look at the upper echelon of American fashion — it reads like a dishy novel. I devoured every page. Karan makes for a gutsy heroine as the gangly Long Island teenager and self-described outsider who, she writes, planned “to work in fashion for a bit and then become a full-time mother” but went on to be on the most influential American fashion designers in history.
Luckily for her – and the industry, fate intervened. Karan tirelessly chronicles the smallest of details of her career from her days as a less than stellar student at Parsons to LVMH’s unexpected decision earlier this year to suspend the Donna Karan collection shortly after she left the company. Ironically, the book’s final chapter was due shortly after Karan stepped down following her 30th anniversary show for her fall 2014 collection. At the end of the book, she marvels that September 2015 was only the second time she has not presented a spring show. The only other time was 9/11.
Fashion junkies will undoubtedly appreciate Karan’s experiences over the course of four decades spent working in fashion from the groovy seventies to glitzy eighties to the celebrity-obsessed nineties to today’s era of conglomerate world domination.
For obvious reasons, I loved her anecdotes from her days as a young designer — first as the protégé of Anne Klein and later when she partnered with Louis Dell ‘Olio at Anne Klein and Anne Klein II (“We were completely co-dependent”). In recounting the back story of her firing from Anne Klein, which led to the creation of the Donna Karan Company with her late husband Stephan Weiss and Taiho Inc., she namechecks a familiar cast of characters who cheered her as she struck out – and ultimately – made it on her own.
Her encounters with celebrities — Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Trudie Styler and Sting, Bill and Hillary Clinton (who are thanked in the acknowledgments) and even Princess Diana all pop up. Karan’s “soul sister” Barbra Streisand plays a supporting role in the story. Much of the book’s more light-hearted moments come courtesy of their close relationship.
As fascinating as Karan’s career has been, it turns out her personal life would make a great theatrical film, or at the very least, an HBO movie. While Karan has said she hasn’t sold the movie rights to her life story, I think Demi Moore and Jessica Chastain would be perfectly cast as Karan and Cohen. Donna’s BFF Barbra Streisand could play herself.
Raised on Long Island, Donna Faske was the youngest of two daughters born to her father, Gabby, a tailor and Helen, a former showroom model turned sales woman. Karan writes the death of her father when she was just three years old left her with deep emotional scars. Her perfectionist mother, who Karan calls ‘Queenie,’ offered no emotional support. In her own “Mommie Dearest” moment, Queenie once berated Karan for using wire hangers and threw all her daughter’s clothes on the floor making her rehanging them with wooden ones. Their relationship remained fraught for the rest of her mother’s life.
Throughout the book, Karan’s extraordinary rise in fashion is juxtaposed with the consuming guilt she felt as a working wife and mother. In one of the most revealing and interesting passages in the book, Karan writes that after marrying Weiss, she’d run home and make dinner “almost every night” and continues: “If I was late to meet him somewhere, he’d leave.” Although he was her co-CEO, Weiss would not go to any event that came addressed ‘Donna Karan and guest’ – “He refused to be my plus one.” Cohen went instead.
Much of the book is devoted to Karan’s passionate love affair and subsequent marriage to Weiss, who died from cancer in 2001. Karan was engaged to Mark Karan, when she met Weiss (“an addiction”). While married to Karan, she became pregnant with Weiss’ child and had an abortion. Ten years later, still married to Karan and now mother to her daughter, Gabby, she reunited with Weiss. They were married in 1983.
The sculptor and artist made for a confounding fashion executive, but in Karan’s story, Weiss was the largely responsible for the success and expansion of her company — it was his idea to rename the house Donna Karan International and to pursue licensing and fragrance businesses. She credits him with saving her ill-fated chapter as a public company; shepherding the LVMH deal which gave her and her family long term security.
Karan winds up the book musing about the many losses in her life, the increasingly important role spirituality plays in her life and her desire to expand Urban Zen. Will there yet another rebirth for Donna Karan?
I wouldn’t bet against it. “If I’ve learned anything over the years,” Karan writes “It is: somehow you do carry on. You’re never the same, but the remarkable thing is life continues.”
– Diane Clehane
Covers fashion and entertainment for a number of national outlets. You can contact her at DClehane@aol.com and follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane