"The problem is this: I am an urban woman short on time and I need to look good day and night. I look in my closet and feel like I have nothing to wear. Sounds familiar? "
After 25 successful years in the fashion industry, your story is well known. However, it’s so fascinating and inspiring that it merits repeating. Would you tell us how you became involved in fashion design?
I was born into fashion. My father was a custom tailor and my mother was a showroom model. After my father died, my mother married a man also in the business. Fashion was just a part of our house and always discussed at the dinner table. It’s what I knew best. My first fashion show was a project for high school, and my first job was at Sherri’s Boutique, a women’s shop on Long Island. For me, fashion was destined.
You are from New York, and your line reflects that both literally and figuratively. How would you describe the quintessential New York woman? Do you design for her?
The quintessential New York woman is international; she could live anywhere in the world. She is sophisticated, juggling her professional and personal lives on the go, with barely a moment to breathe in between appointments. That’s why she doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about her clothes. She needs them to work from day to night, around the clock, whatever comes her way. The more I travel, the more I see that she is like every woman. But yes, I design for this New York woman because I am one. I know what she needs and what she desires in clothes.
What inspired your ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ system?
My Seven Easy Pieces was a creative solution to a problem. The problem is this: I am an urban woman short on time and I need to look good day and night. I look in my closet and feel like I have nothing to wear. Sounds familiar? As a designer, I wanted to make women’s life easier and to simplify dressing in the morning so that they feel confident and ready for the day ahead, even if that day turns into a late night. I wanted to give them less clothes that they could do more with. This way they could be more focused with fewer pieces instead of being overwhelmed with choices.
An entrepreneur is willing to take risks to actualize their dreams and goals. What are some business risks that you’ve taken in your career that have paid off?
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken was to leave Anne Klein, where I was established for so many years, and start my own small company, under my own label, devoted to dressing my friends and me. It’s hard to give up the comfort of success for the unknown. Frank Mori and Tomio Taki from Anne Klein actually had to fire me to get me to leave. They became my partners at Donna Karan New York, so it all worked out, but it was a huge risk, and one that could have easily failed.
Are there any risks that didn’t pay off?
I never look at it that way. Every time you don’t succeed, you learn something, like how to do it better or never to do it again. Knowledge is its own kind of pay off.
How have you adapted your business model in the past decade to accommodate growing online consumer habits?
We spent a lot of time studying e-commerce before taking the plunge. It’s very different than having a woman in the dressing room – my preferred way of selling clothes – where I encourage her to try things on and educate her about the pieces and their many benefits and potential. We realized that the secret was to talk to her online as if she were in a dressing room. If you go to our website, you’ll see there is a lot of conversation and explanation. Women want that connection. Online gives us the place and the space to have a dialogue with the advantage of reaching her when she has the time and privacy to focus.
You take a very spiritual and holistic approach to life. How does this affect your business dealings and design philosophy?
For me, it’s all one and the same. I’m one person, not an “either/or”, but an “and.” Just as you can be a wife, a mother, and a businesswoman, my spiritual path is yet another part of me. One role can’t help but influence the other.
What was the impetus behind starting Urban Zen? Tell us more about that.
I’ve always been philanthropically oriented. When I see a need, I act on it. In answer to the AIDS crisis, I worked with Anna Wintour and the CFDA to create Seventh on Sale, and later came Kids for Kids to raise money for Pediatric AIDS. I also worked with my friend Liz Tilberis who was sick with ovarian cancer to create Super Saturday in the Hamptons to raise money – and 15 years later, it’s still going strong. Urban Zen came about in answer to my husband Stephan’s battle with lung cancer. I realized that the medical world was focused on the cure, but no one was focused on the care. Mind, body, and spirit were the missing links in healthcare. It’s also the missing link in education, and there is so much to learn from ancient cultures. So, Urban Zen was born in Stephan’s former art studio as a place and a space where like-minded people could gather, exchange ideas, and inspire change in these areas that touch all of our lives.
"Every time you don’t succeed, you learn something, like how to do it better or never to do it again. Knowledge is its own kind of pay off. "
Talk to us about some hallmark moments in your career – the highlight reel, if you will.
I’ve been at this for over 30 years, so it’s a pretty long reel. Some highlights are: taking over at Anne Klein & Co. when she died from cancer and I had just given birth to my daughter Gabby, leaving Anne Klein and starting my own company with my husband Stephan, watching Donna Karan become so successful from day one, opening DKNY, the street-inspired sister to Donna Karan, Stephan selling the company to LVMH just before his death, and opening up Urban Zen to pursue my philanthropic passions. There are a million other highlights, of course, but not the time or space to list them all.
Your daughter Gabby is herself an entrepreneur and owner of two very successful restaurants. You must be so proud of her. Does she ever come to you for business advice? If so, what do you tell her?
I’m very proud of Gabby, starting with the fact that she has found her calling in something other than fashion. Yes, we talk, but ultimately she and her husband Gianpaolo do their own thing – quite well, I might add. Even I have trouble getting reservations in their restaurants!
Who are your personal business icons/influences? Who inspires you every day?
I admire too many leaders to list. My inspiration is one of creativity. I’m inspired by my own lifestyle and those of the women I know. I really believe that, if you create a desirable product, success will come. It starts with the product.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneurial woman who has an idea for a business but doesn’t know where or how to start it?
Talk to people in the field. If you can, work in the kind of company you’d like to open. Get to know your customer, what they currently buy, and what they are looking for. Nothing is better than on-site experience before you go into business.
What do you think of the emerging fashion scene in the Middle East? Do you have any tips for budding Arab designers who want to break into the American market?
I am completely supportive. My tip is the same one that I give to the Haitian artisans I am currently working with to develop a sustaining global business: create a product you love and put it out there. Make it with heart and soul, using your best resources possible. Do your research. See what the Western consumer wants and wears, and adapt accordingly.
Photos: Courtesy of DONNA KARAN