Kay Unger and Donna Karan

Last Thursday I had the privilege of witnessing two of fashion’s most successful and celebrated women at the New School’s 100th Anniversary celebration. Michelle Lee of Allure Magazine interviewed Donna Karan and Kay Unger for an hour in front of a packed house. The topic was reinvention which was what got my attention and drew me to their talk. The first question Lee asked them was “What were your earliest jobs?”

“I lied about my age,” Donna Karan confessed because she needed money to go to school and found a job at Shurries in Cedarcrest where she discovered she was good at sales.

“I hated fashion,” admitted one of the all-time most famous fashion designers. Rather, she confessed, she wanted to sing like Barbra Streisand and dance like Martha Graham. Instead the totally “fell” into fashion, taking a job as an illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily. She failed draping at Parsons and burnt a dress while working for Rudi Gernreich.

Kay came from a more privileged background and was not permitted to work while in school. She also lied (notice a theme?) to get her first job which was as a camp counselor, which was odd since she’d never been allowed to even babysit. Her mother wore couture clothing–she came from a privileged family–and she received a sewing machine when she was 8 years old. The seeds were planted.

“How was it, being a woman in business back then?” Ms. Lee asked.

Donna described being the assistant to the assistant of the assistant to Anne Klein, a major woman fashion designer in the 70s, where she was ultimately fired. She had never even been to Manhattan from Long Island, but she resembled the model Marisa Berenson which seemed to give her a passport into the industry despite her lack of credentials. She married Mark Karan whom she’d met in Paris. It was there that she became enamored by the Maud Frizon Paris France shoe label and thought, why not Donna Karan New York – famously DKNY. Clearly, she was meant to make a name in this industry because even with the early obstacles, she exploded onto the scene with her Seven Easy Pieces in a DKNY Collection that was initially meant for her daughter and a small group of friends.

When Ms. Karan became pregnant with her daughter Gabby and she was ten days beyond her delivery date, the company continuously called her to make decisions like how many buttons should go on the blue coat. “It was crazy, right?” she asked us rhetorically. They were more concerned if she was coming back to work than whether she had a boy or a girl and was it (and she) healthy? She had been re-hired at Anne Klein, Ms. Klein passed away, and Donna was her successor. “Whatever we think about, it ain’t,” she reminded us. She’s now 71 and continues to question what it’s all about. “Something up there guides us. The last thing I wanted to be was a designer.”

Kay Unger was more certain about becoming a designer and had the good fortune to have her first job assisting fashion legend Geoffrey Beene (a favorite of my mother’s!). It was there that she learned to work hard and not give up, and where she got her vision. Her motto was “cover the asses of the masses.” She was becoming famous as a result of good PR, and the boss’s wife was jealous–one of many obstacles along the way. Her father passed away while she was at Parsons and left her a check in an envelope. It was in the late 60’s, and the amount was $25,000. At the time, she was enamored of Liberty of London fabric and used the entire check to buy a year’s worth of their yardage with which to start her company.

Although she was an immediate success, she took on a business partner who later embezzled all of her money. He told her, “You’re the designer, design! I’ll take care of the business.” Kay’s advice to the audience: Watch how people speak to their children, cab drivers, others. There had been evidence she overlooked, like the $10 million house he bought in the Hamptons. The banks called in her loans and she declared bankruptcy. That was the bottom for her, “My failure,” she named it. “You’ve got to be nice to everyone!” She made sure all of her vendors were shipped their goods and kept her word to them. “You’re never a success until you’ve seen the bottom, because you know you can do it again.”

As you can see, this talk was not a brag fest. It was a really honest look at the trajectory of two very successful women’s careers, the highs and the lows. From clothing, DKNY expanded to fragrance. “Not who I was. Not what I wanted!” the designer admitted to us that afternoon. “DO NOT GO PUBLIC!” she warned. She wanted control of her business and said no. Ask yourself, she advised, “What do you want from the inside? What is your soul telling you to do?”

“The future of fashion is conscious consumerism,” Karan continued. “What we’re wearing on the inside…”

When asked what success means to them, both answered in the same vein: Giving back made them each the most happy. The business gave them the money to give back. Both are involved in philanthropy and foundations helping students and people, particularly in Haiti (DK). “Haiti is a model for what the world needs.”

“I’m obsessed with comfort and ease,” DK said. Their panel provided not only that, but also inspiration and the power of example.

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