A Conversation with Donna Karan

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Accounting for 5% of the world’s entire economic output, fashion is one of our largest industries.  The global apparel market alone is valued at over U$2.5 trillion, and employs tens of millions of people around the world.  We are talking here about one of our world’s most competitive, emotive and rapidly changing industries- and one in which few companies or brands stand the test of time.

Donna Karan is of our world’s most successful entrepreneurs, who’s fashion fame is legendary.

Donna was mentored by the designer Anne Klein, and in 1985, founded Donna Karan New York where she revolutionized the way women dressed with her luxurious Seven Easy Pieces, an interchangeable wardrobe that took women day into night with ease and sophistication. Four years later came DKNY, the street chic sportswear line that has become a name synonymous with New York City all over the world.  In 2007, Donna unveiled Urban Zen, a foundation dedicated to three initiatives: preservation of culture (past), and bringing mind, body and spirit to healthcare (present) and education (future.) The Urban Zen Center in New York is the Foundation’s home, a place and a space where like-minded individuals come together for forums, educational lectures and fundraisers.

In an exclusive interview, I caught up with Donna Karan to learn more about a life in fashion, entrepreneurship and her vision for the future.

Q: How did you become an ‘entrepreneur’ and what does entrepreneurship mean to you?

[Donna Karan] I’ve been an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember. It just came naturally to me, and I never gave it a label as being an entrepreneur.  When I was 15, I rearranged the sales floor in the boutique I was working in and was the best salesperson in the store. At 25, when my boss Anne Klein died, I took over designing and changed the look of the collection to make it younger and sexier, and also changed how it was shown and sold in the showroom – not to mention just having had a baby while all this was happening. Ten years later, I set out to create a small company to make clothes for me and my friends, a Seven Easy Pieces system of dressing, which turned into Donna Karan New York and then Donna Karan International. And just a few years after that, I wanted a pair of jeans to flatter a woman’s body and to dress my teenaged daughter. That desire turned into DKNY, a global company that introduced fast fashion to the world. Now I’m focusing on Urban Zen, a marriage of commerce and philosophy where I can address as well as dress the consumer. In each and every case I took action based on a personal desire. I wasn’t thinking about success or being ‘big’ or creating a huge business. I was thinking about answering a need, a void, creating something that wasn’t there before.

Q: What does success mean to you?

[Donna Karan] To me, success is balancing your personal life and your work life.  It’s also being content and satisfied with what you accomplished so you can let it go and move forward.  I’m not good at standing still, so success is about taking that next step and challenge, whatever it may be.

Q: What is the role of the founder in a business?

[Donna Karan] The founder is the innovator, the one who sets the wheels in motion. Once it’s up and running, the founder’s job is to empower and inspire others with the message, to nurture and make believers out of everyone who comes close, internally and externally. Later on, a founder needs to be open to evolution and growth. Dispensing of the ego and knowing when to let go. You give the birth, raise the child and then set them free and let them find their own way. That’s what I did last year with Donna Karan New York and DKNY. Now I’m raising my youngest child, Urban Zen, which is in an exciting stage of development and growth, both as a foundation and as a brand.

Q: What are the components of a great brand?

[Donna Karan] It all goes back to the customer. Does the brand answer a void in her life? Is it new and innovative? Necessary and desirable?  It has to be original – you can’t copy anyone else. A brand has to be authentic and be born of a personal passion. If you, its creator, doesn’t want the product, no one else will. If you want it, chances are it will be wanted around the world. Desires are universal and speak in every language.

What drives you, and keeps you creative?

[Donna Karan] I’m driven to do what I haven’t done.  I love a creative challenge, to learn a new craft, a new business, a new way of doing things. The inspiration is always there. Right now, I’m looking out the window at a tree that has white leaves and wondering what I can do with it.  Creatively, nature always inspires me.  But on a practical level, it’s about filling the void, coming up with something that answers the frustration of what’s missing, what would make life easier. For example, I’m obsessed with creating an urban hotel and wellness center. I want all my medical and spa needs in one place so I don’t have to run around the city. That’s the kind of   thing I want to address while still dressing people. I want to help my customer inside and out.

Q: What is the role of wellness in the entrepreneurship journey?

[Donna Karan] Wellness is the secret to not getting sick – to prevent disease before it has an opportunity to set in. We’ve become a nation of disease-care instead of human care. Why let it even get negative if you can avoid it? My basic philosophy has always been to accentuate the positive and delete the negative. On a personal basis, that means integrating yoga, meditation, massage into my daily life.  Recognizing that nutrition and food matter. That if you treat your mind, body and spirit well, you have a better chance at reaching your potential, however you define and dream it.

Q: How do you build a team who have the same passion for the brand and company as its founder?

[Donna Karan] It’s not easy. I find there are two ways. The first is you get them young while they’re in school and you help develop them. I can’t tell you how many of my design associates I mentored and hired right out of Parsons School of Design. The other way is to see something in someone that they don’t even see themselves. Resumes are not the way to find people. It’s a connection and an instinct you have to listen to.  I don’t micro-manage, I give them enough rope to hang themselves. If I trust you, I’ll let you find your way, because that could lead to something I hadn’t thought of. Lastly, I don’t work with anyone I don’t like. That goes back to following your instincts.

Q: What does philanthropy mean to you as an entrepreneur?

[Donna Karan] I can’t separate who I am from what I do. I’m a mother by nature, I always want to take care of people I work with. My desire to dress and address others started in the dressing room. Women would always be telling me their problems, especially about sick loved ones. There is such a void in healthcare and there are no easy answers. There are no easy answers about how to take care of Haiti, a country besieged with problems. Solutions don’t happen overnight. You have just keep at it.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever had [and wish you’d had]?

[Donna Karan] I wish someone had told me to travel the world before working. I started too early. Once you’re working, you don’t take the time to be inspired. The best advice I ever received was from Anne Klein: a designer is a designer, whether you’re designing a dress or a toothbrush. The integrity, skill and creativity are all the same.

 

Originally published in British Airways Business Life


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