Donna Karan in the Black

Associated Press

Associated Press, 2015

I’ve never bought anything by American designer Donna Karan—her clothes are far above my price range.  But after reading her new autobiography, My Journey, I think I might have been influenced by her approach to clothing. In the late eighties, when I was working full time and had a young child, I developed a basic uniform based on black. The foundation was a pair of black pants, either trouser style or more often the pull on kind. I combined this with a simple shirt and jacket, either a black shirt with a colorful jacket or a colored shirt with a black jacket.  I’m not sure I was aware of Karan’s black based “seven easy pieces” made for her line Donna Karan New York. It must been in the air, though, since I had created “three easy pieces” of my own.

Vogue Sept 1, 1985

Donna Karan New York in Vogue, Sept. 1, 1985

By any standard, Karan has led a charmed life as a fashion designer.  She worked as Anne Klein’s main assistant and took over the brand with Louis Dell’Ollio when Klein died an early death from cancer in 1974.  At that point Karan was only twenty six years old. She stayed for eleven years, When she decided to launch her own line in 1985, she received generous backing from Anne Klein’s owners. Her company went on to become a megabrand, with a more casual line, DKNY, a menswear line, and innumerable spinoffs into make up, fragrances, leather goods, etc.  In the process, she won pretty much every award the fashion industry has to offer.  In 2004, at the young age of 55, she received the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement award.

Karan is best known for her love of black, a topic that she brings up many times in her memoir.  “Black. The color that does it all. It’s sophisticated, says New York, looks good on everyone, goes seamlessly from day into evening, matches everything, doesn’t get dirty, travels well, sets a canvas for jewelry, erases extra pounds, and allows a woman’s skin and personality to shine. Do I need to go on? I will anyway. You never regret buying a good black piece. It is timeless, seasonless, and ageless, and it looks right anywhere in the world. To me, it’s a uniform you put on and don’t have to talk about again.” (139)

I gave up wearing black about ten years ago—the color was getting me down. But Karan, now in her mid sixties, never changed her mind. For her, black is ageless–her signature look remains all black clothes with big statement jewelry.

Urban Zen, 2016

Urban Zen, 2016

Just last year, Karan stepped down from the brand that bears her name. These days she has a new enterprise called Urban Zen, which focuses on fashion, health, and philanthropy.  The clothes are looser with a lot of drape.  They feature muted colors and even a few prints.  But since Karan is in charge, there is still a lot of black.

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9 Responses to Donna Karan in the Black

  1. Maggie says:

    I bought a DKNY jacket on sale in the early 90s and wore it literally to shreds… And yes it’s black pinstripe. It could not be a better fit. Black DKNY tights? Probably have had 100 pairs (and not because they didn’t last).

  2. JS says:

    More luck: Donna Karan failed Draping at Parsons. They apparently wanted her to return and complete it, but she found a job.

    Donna Karan is also a New Yorker; for decades, black has been a standard New York uniform. There’s also the feminist influence. Decades ago, I read an article in Ms. Magazine on how to buy clothes. Presumably written by a New Yorker, it suggested buying black clothes, white clothes, and avoiding colors like red, which had to be laundered separately. But black clothes could always be mixed and matched with themselves or whites. Instant outfit.

    I’ve never been able to afford Donna Karan, either, but the style also was a little too sophisticated for me. I also don’t like bodysuits. I have bought a few DKNY pieces on sale, however, including a black coat and a black or black-ish dress. They are my nicest clothes.

    Donna Karan didn’t just step down from her eponymous line; it was closed, which the fashion press noted was very unusual. DKNY is being run by the designers of Public School. I wanted to like their offerings last season, but just couldn’t.

  3. Carol in Denver says:

    I like her clothes — a lot — but wearing all black, as you say, “the color was getting me down.” Now every day I wear black slacks, socks & shoes, with assorted colors on top. I like to layer colors; today it was moss green top, long dark green cardigan and aqua very long crinkled scarf.

  4. eimear says:

    some years ago, worked in a store where the dress code was anything black….. and I found on my days off, I would enjoy wearing colour more, and there is little black in my wardrobe. I have pale skin so cant carry it off so well. I have always admired Donna Karan, she seemed to bring a less fussy look, as well as an awareness of a working wardrobe – potentially the buying less items of better quality.

  5. Mema says:

    Thank you for the post. As usual, I had al lot of mind but not enough words to put it. Gruß Mema

  6. Jen O says:

    Interesting post on DK. I devoured those Vogue patterns of hers in the mid-80s (which I still have), whipping up my own versions in my early career days. It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized she simply ripped off American fashion from the 40’s, especially the WWII era when Vogue was marketing local talent, in both detail and style.
    I also agree with those here who pointed out the NYC point of view when it comes to wearing black. Now days I seem to reserve that color for travel, in general it’s too hard nosed for daily living (at least on my planet).

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