Donna Karan’s Vision Quest

Photo: Chuck Close

Now, when you watch Out of Africa, all I can say is—I’m on the phone with my grandkids, and elephants are sitting there right in front of me—10,000 wilda-bee, we were in a wilda-bee migration—you’re talking hundreds of thousands of acres of land around, and I go, ‘Where is everybody?’ Nobody’s around. It’s just you.”

Forty-eight hours after returning to her house in East Hampton from a three-week safari to Botswana and Kenya, Donna Karan has had her assistant, Marni Lewis, set up a slide show of her photos, all 4,000 of them, on her new G4 PowerBook. Karan’s hairstylist and her publicist Patti Cohen gather around. “I figure, ‘Okay, I’m going to Africa,’ ” says Karan, 55, a tall, powerful woman with gripping green eyes and a flamboyant way of speaking, accented in the deepest Long Islandese. “I didn’t connect anything to it; I had no connection. I figured, ‘Oh, Africa—it’s, like, a country?’ It’s a continent.”

“Do you buy things?” asks Cohen, as a group of elaborately garbed Masais fill the screen. “Like, if you wanted their beads, could you give them a candy bar?”

“Oh!” says Karan. “All the Masais do is light. They are light. All they do is have light. The way they live, they live in these mud huts—tell Marni to come in here, because the contrast is off. I said I must’ve been a warrior in my last life because all I know how to do is wrap and tie a scarf. You get these connections. I say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ”

“All I want to show is that we are one,” says Karan. “We are all one. I’m a traveler. I’m an explorer. I live nowhere. I live on my mat.” She’s referring to her yoga mat, on which she spends a couple of hours a day.

“Yeah, sure,” comes the chorus.

“See, these people are pure; there’s no need, they don’t want, they’re happy being happy,” declares Karan. “They don’t even know how old they are, and all they are is giving offerings. It’s not about me, me, me, me, me.” On the screen, backs of hippos rise out of a river like boulders—“My hippos!” she shrieks. “Do you believe these hippos?” She sighs. “No offense, but if the collection doesn’t do well, what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” she asks. “I don’t want to be in a house anymore. I don’t think I ever want to go to a city again. I don’t want to be anywhere.” She squints at the screen. “Marni!”

Karan doesn’t have to be anywhere these days. She sold her trademarks and her publicly traded company to LVMH in 2001, for $643 million, at least $400 million of which went into her own pocket. That was the same year her husband, Stephan Weiss, an artist and her longtime business partner, died of lung cancer; she still talks about him constantly. Today, Karan, who remains chief designer of the company, has a new face-lift by Dan Baker, a trim figure courtesy of a raw-food diet, and a 30-ish boyfriend, male model J. J. Biasucci, who recently accompanied her on a trip to Bali. Clad in a red patterned wrap skirt and her most famous fashion statement, a black bodysuit, Karan has the blossoming vitality of a teenager back from an exotic summer abroad, one so excited by the world that she can’t be bothered to speak in full sentences or even observe basic precepts of grammar. Sexiness isn’t necessarily the first thing you would think about her, but it’s there: She wants to be sexy, so she is. Today she isn’t wearing any jewelry, her toes and fingernails unpolished, though clean (“You should’ve seen them in Africa—tar city,” she says). A carnivore, she says she can now understand why people become vegans. “I see an alligator bag now: I said, ‘You got to be kidding me,’ ” says Karan. “They say, ‘These are farmed.’ I say, ‘Honey, I was just hanging with them; you’re killing them.’ ”

Nowadays, Karan sees fashion as just one link in the greater chain of being. “All I want to show is that we are one,” says Karan. “We are all one. I’m a traveler. I’m an explorer. I live nowhere. I live on my mat,” she says, referring to her yoga mat, on which she spends a couple of hours each morning. “I don’t do either/or. I’m very in the inclusive. I’m very in the dichotomy. In Africa, I get off the plane and the first thing I see are the zebras. I say, ‘Whoa, black and white.’ ” Black is a design theme in Karan’s new 7,000-square-foot Central Park West apartment, complete with a yoga studio and wraparound views; the two houses on her surprisingly modest property in the Springs are decorated in varying shades of eggshell. For a while, too, she was dressing in black in the city and white in the Hamptons or on Parrot Cay, in the Turks and Caicos, where she has bought property but has yet to build her imagined compound. “I’m thinking I want tents instead,” she says.What Karan wants has always been important. When she started her company in 1984, after leaving her position as head designer at Anne Klein, it was part of the marketing strategy that Karan designed for herself: a mature, accomplished, sexual, confident woman who wanted comfortable clothes that showed off her curves in a way Armani suits didn’t, who looked good in things that kept everything in, like jersey dresses and opaque Lycra tights that lengthened the leg and rarely sprouted runs. Karan was a hit, and anyone who was paying attention to magazines those days could tell you about her tireless work habits, devotion to charitable causes, tendency to cry tears of joy, and how she feels about her hips, which have a normal-gal circumference. She was such an incarnation of ubiquitously chatty, unassimilated New Yorkiness that a New York Times article characterized her as “Ed Koch in a stretchy black dress” in the early nineties. She’d even show up unannounced at department stores housing her collections and personally foist on customers the right wool bodysuit or sequined wrap skirt. The company encouraged something of a cult of Karan among customers, focused on the needs, wants, and body of Karan, such as it is—and that cult still exists. But today it is centered on Karan transcendent. Perhaps, even, Karan as shaman. “People say, ‘As long as she does high heels with urban clothes, we’re fine—give us New York City Power Woman,’ ” says Karan, munching on a flaxseed cracker. “Do I look like a power woman in New York?”

More recently, Karan has talked of working with energy and light the same way she once spoke of working with women’s lumpy backsides and unimpressive chests. Spiritual lingo infuses each of her monologues, which are lengthy and can rarely be diverted. Assistants are instructed to have vegetable juice ready for any trip in a car, and to light candles and have relaxing music on the stereo when she steps into her home. Karan has been a yoga devotee since 18 and was an est groupie in the seventies. In more recent years, she has become interested in the East—Deepak Chopra’s teachings, Reiki, crystals, hypnosis, colon cleansing, past-life regression, bodywork, juicing, trance dance, therapeutic screaming, and, since last Passover, Kabbalah, at the behest of friends Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, she says. Her first glimpse of a world beyond came on the sands of Gardiner’s Bay, in front of her East Hampton house, fourteen years ago. “I had everything, the career, the family, and I was reflecting, What keeps driving me?” she says. “Then all of a sudden a poem came out of me about this rock, a little potato rock. I said, ‘You’re so still, and I’m so moving, and the water comes over you and me.’ For six weeks, I had this whole dialogue with the rock. Then I lost the rock. I was really upset. Then I had to learn how to detach from the rock.”

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.

Seventy-two hours after she returned from Africa, Karan is thinking maybe she will go to Big Sur, because she always dreamed of moving to Big Sur as a kid, or to L.A. to see Barbra, or maybe to Sun Valley to visit her close friend Richard Baskin, a music producer and writer, and an ex-boyfriend of Barbra’s. She also mentions going to Alaska and then to Mexico. She’s not sure she wants to stay in East Hampton, and she definitely doesn’t want to go to the city. She keeps on saying she wants to go somewhere, but she doesn’t know where to go. Then J.J. said he was coming to visit over the weekend, so she’s thinking she’ll stay in East Hampton. “I have only gone out with two men in my entire life, and I was married to them,” she says. “So dating for me is a cultural shock.”

In the living room of her East Hampton house, a stack of Women’s Wear Dailys that Karan missed during her vacation rest on an end table, unread. Much of Karan’s business today is licensed—eyewear, kids, hosiery, watches, jeans, home, beauty—and DKNY is entirely designed by Jane Chung, a Karan employee since Anne Klein. Many of Karan’s employees are also longtime loyalists, and during the sale to LVMH Karan insisted on a provision protecting them from being fired without her consent. The collection is overseen by well-regarded former Cerruti designer Peter Speliopoulos, with Karan’s involvement ranging from a few tweaks to completely new creations. In recent months, it has been rumored that LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault would like to sell the company if he could recoup something close to his investment (analysts say it is now worth less than half of the amount LVMH paid). Karan could remain as chief designer, or not. “I say to myself all the time I’m not going to do it anymore, but then I see another piece of fabric,” she says. “It would be a big step to say I don’t have a deadline, ever. I’m addicted to it. I’m a little alcoholic, honey.”

Then there are her future plans: “I wanna do a restaurant, I wanna do hotels. I want to do a yogic health and healing space really badly. I want to be able to bring my lifestyle, a holistic lifestyle and the creative and the luxury and cultural into one particular venue.” She thinks she might want to become a photographer, and she’s into books. She’s publishing one with the friend who had brain cancer, Lynn Kohlman, and recently hosted a party at her Madison Avenue store for Iyengar yoga guru Rodney Yee’s new book.

This afternoon, Yee comes over with his girlfriend Colleen Saidman, co-founder of the popular Sag Harbor studio Yoga Shanti, to give Donna a lesson in her yoga room, which is attached to a massive bathroom of Jerusalem limestone, complete with a deep Jacuzzi tub and a massage table. (There are no bathroom doors in the house; Weiss and Karan designed their home, and forgot to put them in the plan.) Yee and Saidman sit down with Karan and the PowerBook for another slide show, this time from a yoga retreat they all did together in Bali. J.J. and Karan hug by a waterfall, and then there is Karan alone, naked except for her Kabbalah string, sitting with her legs huddled up by her chest as the water pours hard on her head.

Karan is an advanced yogi, and though she can be a terrific klutz in ordinary life she is exquisitely graceful as she moves from pose to pose. While Saidman advises her on proper alignment, Yee’s three children splash in the pool outside, and when class is over they rush into the room. One of them goes over to Karan’s altar, where there is a Dhyani-Buddha and a black-and-white photo of Weiss. “That’s Donna’s ex-husband,” explains Yee.

“My husband, my mother, and my boss all died on a day of a show,” Karan says. “Black and white. Birth and death. I have to believe it has something to do with karma. That’s how I cope.”

“He’s still her husband,” corrects Saidman.

“That’s okay,” says Karan. “He’s still here. I know he’s here.”

Karan takes the kids through the house, pointing out Weiss’s sculptures, crouching, glowering figures made of twisted metal. Her white-uniformed chef supplies a lunch of salad and nuts, and Yee tells her about a qi gong master from China she might want to start studying with. They discuss the state of the world. “J.J. wants to do a movie of a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian all talking to each other, and I said, ‘You’ve got to get a yogi in there, because we are all one,’ ” Karan says. Afterward, she asks if everyone wants to watch Weiss’s memorial video. Her friends have told her not to show J.J. the video, but she’s thinking that maybe he’d like to see it this weekend.

Weiss was sick for seven years. “We had the good years and bad years,” says Karan. “He was operated on three times. Originally they said, ‘We got it, no problem.’ The next year, it happened again. That was a bit of a shock. The third time, we knew we had a real problem.” She calls herself cheap, and indeed she does not live like someone with her kind of wealth, but says that when Weiss was dying she wanted him to have everything he ever wanted. She bought him his first Ducati, spurring a passion for collecting and racing bikes, then a Lamborghini, and surprised him during one hospital stay with a painting by his favorite artist, Francis Bacon. She bought the land on Parrot Cay and promised him she would build houses (now, tents) there for the whole family to keep Gabby and Weiss’s kids together when he was gone. She lobbied for one of his sculptures, a three-ton apple, to be installed on the West Side Highway near Christopher Street, and still maintains his 10,000-square-foot studio on Greenwich Street, which she’s planning to turn into an exhibition space.

Everyone gathers on Karan’s white couches as the video begins. As images of Weiss racing down the slopes or at the stock exchange on the day the company went public flash by, Karan gives a hard slap to the cushion. “My husband, my mother, and my boss all died on a day of a show,” she says later. “Black and white. Birth and death. I have to believe it has something to do with karma. That’s how I cope.” Karan didn’t particularly care for the shoot for this article—No retouching? “Let’s just say Barbra wouldn’t have approved,” she said. In a tiny barn in Bridgehampton, Chuck Close’s assistants pinned some of the shots he had taken to a wall, and Karan pointed to the two that were most conventionally flattering. “That’s my opinion,” she said. “Just an opinion, and you know what I say to my people—it’s like an asshole; everyone has one.”

But it was before this, when she was in her bedroom getting dressed, that what makes Karan’s opinion so special came to light. She declared that she had no clothes, because everything she liked was still “stinking” from her trip, but after a few minutes playing in her sparsely stocked closet she created an outfit. A beaded belt, a tie-dyed scarf, an old carrot-colored sweater— “It’s got a pull in it; sorry, guys,” she said. These are things no one would have thought went together. She looked magnificent.

Donna Karan’s Vision Quest