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Donna Karan’s Vision Quest

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Karan tells this story as she flies down winding Northwest Woods roads in her white Jeep, 20 to 25 miles per hour above the speed limit, plastic windows flapping open, the wind making her hair rise in a spiky halo. She doesn’t wear sunblock, and she’s deeply tanned. A few soft leather necklaces are strung around her neck like seaweed. “Put your seat belt on—the police are crazy this summer,” Cohen pleads from the backseat. Karan is discussing a new trip she wants to organize, a yoga-and-ski vacation, even though she shattered her knee a couple years ago on a Sun Valley heli-skiing trip (John Kerry was in the helicopter, too, and got stuck on the mountain for hours while they medevaced her out). She keeps looking at me as she drives and talks, talks and drives; interior silence is not an immediately apparent personality trait. “Yeah, you probably shoot right through your kundalini,” Karan says earlier, referring to the latent energy that yogis believe resides at the bottom of one’s spine and is released through yoga. “I know these tiny, tiny girls who shoot right through their kundalini. My girlfriend was with us on a yoga retreat in Parrot Cay; she had just had breast cancer and I was taking her there for a whole cleansing, and she started spinning. I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s your kundalini rising, get into it,’ and she said, ‘It’s brain cancer,’ and I said, ‘Don’t be crazy,’ and then it turned out she really had brain cancer.”

The Jeep dips down a hill, and a cop is pulled over at the bottom. Karan grabs the seat belt and holds it to the buckle. She whizzes by the patrol car. Then she lets it retract.

Karan wasn’t always the center of attention. Donna Faske grew up “alone, afraid, very insecure,” in Woodmere, Long Island, the daughter of a custom tailor who died in a car accident when she was 3. Her mother, a Seventh Avenue saleswoman and former showroom model who Karan says looked like Joan Crawford, went by the name “Queenie.” Queenie remarried another garmento, and they lived a middle-class life in a wealthy suburb, in a two-family dwelling without air-conditioning. Karan’s mother gave away an attic full of clothes right before she died, over twenty years ago, including many of the suits Karan’s dad made. These are things Karan would have liked to have kept. “Why did she do it?” she asks, and throws her hands in the air. “Why is the sky blue?”

After a high-school job as a salesgirl at Shurrie’s, a local boutique, Karan, a statuesque five foot nine, began modeling for fashion illustrators and dreamed of becoming an illustrator herself, though she didn’t have much patience for drawing. She smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, and she had style. Says Louis Dell’Ollio, a former classmate and later Karan’s partner at Anne Klein: “The first time I saw Donna, in the summer of ’66, she was sitting on her mother’s front stoop in a ribbed cotton tank top, shorty hot pants, with gladiator sandals laced up to her shins, a ponytail sticking up from her head, and false lashes.”

Through one of her mother’s contacts, Karan landed an interview for a summer internship at Anne Klein, and showed up in a pinstripe suit and white fedora. Klein told her to take a walk. “I said, ‘I’m a designer. What do my hips have to do with it?’ ” says Karan. “Little do I know that my hips have everything to do with designing.” The forbidding Klein, considered the first American sportswear designer, persuaded Karan to drop out of Parsons, planning to groom her, but Karan soon became frustrated with picking up pins and coffee and was eventually let go. She ended up on downmarket Broadway with Patti Cappalli, who told her to get a passport on her first day—they were going to France. “So we’re on our way to St.-Tropez in a sports car, and Donna throws her bra out on the road,” says Cappalli. “I said, ‘Donna, it’s on the beach they don’t wear tops.’ ”

After nine months, Karan persuaded Klein to rehire her, and she became her right-hand woman for three years, until 1974. By then, she had married her first boyfriend, Mark Karan. “I had to get married, because I was afraid to live alone,” she says. They moved to a new house in Lawrence, and she became pregnant with her daughter, Gabby. The story of what happened the day she gave birth is fashion-industry folklore. “The office called me and said, ‘Anne is sick, when are you coming?’ ” says Karan. “I said, ‘Would you like to know if I had a boy or a girl?’ They said, ‘We’re coming there.’ I thought, ‘How brilliant, everyone’s coming to see my baby.’ They bring the entire company, 25 people, and I have bagels and lox. I’m designing, I’m sitting on a tire because I’ve gained so much weight, and on the TV it says Anne Klein died. Then I lit a cigarette. Which I had stopped smoking.”

Days later, Tomio Taki, a Japanese textile magnate who had recently bought a 50 percent interest in the company, selected Karan, 26, as Klein’s successor. She was ambitious and a little cunning, but no one would describe her as wicked. She changed the pattern: Klein had a tummy and no butt, and Karan was the opposite. In the studio, Karan would whip off her clothes in front of whoever happened to be around and model garments herself. “Donna is partly driven by a kind of sexual energy,” says Robert Lee Morris, a jewelry designer who designed Karan’s original “body pin,” a cinch for her wraps, and has worked with her for twenty years. “She’s very blatant about her whole body language—it’s all about this sexual power, the drape, the swagger. When you work with her closely, it becomes this direct soul-to-soul thing, and we all become part of that energy.”

Karan was obsessed with fabrics. “If you sketch well, you don’t spend all your time draping, because you have great assistants who drape it up for you,” says Dell’Ollio. “But Donna wasn’t a good sketcher, and if you can’t sketch you have to show the assistants what you want. So she was very much about the fabric, the concept. We’d go to fabric fairs and she’d sit in the booth looking at one piece for twenty minutes, playing with it, getting off on it. I’d say, ‘Donna, enough! What is this thing saying to you? Sample it and let’s move.’ ” (When asked how she feels about fashion today, Karan says the thing that keeps her interested is fabric. “Fashion is in a really stuck place now,” she says. “Young people are really excited about retro. Would I die to wear Marc Jacobs’s clothes, truthfully? No. Would his friends die to wear mine? Probably not.”)

Toward the end of her tenure at Anne Klein, Karan left her husband for Stephan Weiss, a sculptor with two kids from Cedarhurst, heir to a family business making sets and draperies for Broadway theaters. They married in 1983, a year before Karan persuaded Taki and his partner, Frank Mori, to fund her own line. Weiss and Karan made a token contribution to the $3 million needed to start the business, and became equal partners. Weiss was vice-chairman of the company and emotional ballast. One day he painted a plus sign and a minus sign on Karan’s bathroom mirror. He told her it was her choice how she wanted to spend her day.

Weiss’s attitude seems to have rubbed off on Gabby, who has opted for a relaxed lifestyle in the Hamptons with her husband, Gian Paolo De Felice, an Alitalia pilot, and their toddler, Stefania. “My daughter should be my mother” is the way Karan puts it. On a still, hot August day, Gabby and Stefania, in matching white linen, are lying in a hammock in their backyard with their dog, Scooby, chatting with Karan, who is splayed out willy-nilly on a quilt nearby. (“Gian has two wives,” Gabby confides later, something he undoubtedly enjoys.) Karan picks up a giant metal lollipop toy and repeatedly hits herself in the head with it. Then she announces, “Scooby gave Marni a tick bite!”

Gabby’s first dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Petey, was killed by a swan when he swam too close to a mother’s nest in Central Park one day a few years ago. Karan, Gabby, and Karan’s Esalen-trained masseuse from Brazil had come down from their apartment in the San Remo and were doing yoga on the lawn by the lake when Petey jumped into the water and started swimming toward the boathouse. The swan pounced about mid-lake. The masseuse valiantly pursued but was too late. Petey had been beaked to death.

“Mom used to say Petey was her mother reincarnated,” says Gabby. “Because he was so high-strung and nervous, and he would torture everybody. My dog was her nightmare—‘This is my mother!’ ”

The swan turned up dead earlier this summer, apparently of natural causes. Gabby says the police called Karan’s office to see if the family had anything to do with it.


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