“If I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Donna Karan told the New York Times less than a year ago. Karan and her longtime publicist, Patti Cohen, expressed concern that the brand’s parent company, LVMH, had not paid it the necessary attention. “I would love to work more with them, but Vuitton has given me the cold shoulder,” she said.
Within three months, LVMH had reengaged, hiring Carolina Herrera exec Caroline Brown as Donna Karan International’s new CEO. In April 2015, Brown appointed Public School designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne as the creative heads of DKNY, capitalizing on the streetwear moment in which the mid-priced label fits so nicely.
In May, Cohen announced her retirement. And now it’s July, and Donna Karan is stepping down as well. Her plan is to dedicate her time to the Urban Zen foundation, which she founded in 2007. “LVMH and I have made this decision after much soul searching,” Karan said.
Whether she truly wanted to go or not, Karan’s role in the rise of American fashion can’t be ignored. She may be best known for her "seven easy pieces," the mix-and-match wardrobe that changed the way American women thought about clothes when it was introduced in 1985. But she was also one of the first designers to take her company public. In June of 1996, Donna Karan International debuted on the New York Stock exchange. It was a bumpy road, as reporter Teri Agins depicted in her 1999 must-read, "The End of Fashion." "Donna Karan’s sorry performance... cast a dark shadow around the entire sector,” she wrote. While the stock debuted at $30 per share, it was bought for just $10.75 per share by LVMH in 2001.
Poor Wall Street performance aside, Karan’s global appeal must have been clear to LVMH all those years ago. A third of the triumvirate — Donna, Calvin and Ralph — that transformed American fashion into a serious business, Karan’s curvaceous clothes are distinct, a quality that is increasingly difficult to come by in this industry. But the brand never developed its other categories — such as shoes and handbags — in the way it should have, and its menswear collection dwindled. The foundation of the Donna Karan business was ready-to-wear clothes. For the most successful of LVMH’s brands, the runway show is a storytelling platform. The real business is in the accoutrements: accessories and beauty.
In a statement, LVMH said that it will suspend the Donna Karan Collection line for an undisclosed period of time. There will be no head designer, no runway shows. Instead, the conglomerate is going to focus its efforts on DKNY, which still has plenty of energy. (It’ll be interesting to see if Aliza Licht, Donna Karan and DKNY’s celebrated publicist and social media star, stays on to work with Chow and Osborne.)
The trend of whittling down a company to one brand is picking up speed in fashion. Dolce & Gabbana did away with D&G in 2011, Marc Jacobs announced it would fold Marc by Marc Jacobs into its main line this year and Fifth & Pacific is now just Kate Spade & Company, minus even Kate Spade Saturday. The strategy for most of these brands is to say goodbye to its lower-priced label. In the case of Donna Karan, LVMH is doing the opposite, focusing on the troubled middle of the contemporary world. “Advanced contemporary," which includes higher-priced-but-not-quite-designer brands like 3.1 Phillip Lim and Alexander Wang, is thriving. As are brands that fall right below the contemporary price point, such as Whistles, Club Monaco and yes, Zara. Perhaps LVMH will adjust DKNY’s pricing just a tad to better compete with those brands — though in what direction, that's not yet clear.
Of course, it makes sense that LVMH is keeping the future of the Donna Karan brand open ended. Maybe the right designer — a designer with the capacity to harness Karan’s vision in a way that she never could — will emerge. But it’s too bad that time isn’t now. Karan’s vision of big sweaters, nomad pants and bodysuits in black, grey and camel have never been more relevant. Over the past six months, I’ve found myself searching for Céline and The Row on department store sales racks, only to pull out a Donna Karan Collection piece with a similar feel. Ironic, no?
The flood of images that surfaced yesterday on Instagram — most notably posted by jewelry designer Dana Lorenz and Vogue contributing editor Sarah Brown — reinforced the sentiment that Karan’s ideas, and ideals, are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. What LVMH does with that notion, however, remains to be seen.
Front page photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images