KARAN, DONNA (1948– ), U.S. fashion designer. Karan (born Donna Faske) was raised in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., to parents already immersed in the fashion business. Her father, Gabby Faske, who died when she was 3, was a custom tailor in New York City. Her mother, Helen, was a showroom model and sales representative. Karan – who got her surname from her first husband, Mark Karan – would become one of the best-known businesswomen in the U.S., head of a publicly owned company, her name on everything from apparel to accessories, from fragrances to furnishings. She designed her first collection while still in high school and staged her first fashion show while an undergraduate at Parsons School of Design in New York City. In 1968, she dropped out of school to become an assistant to
, a popular women's sportswear designer known for skirts, blouses, sweaters, and jackets that could easily be mixed and matched. Klein, who had become Karan's mentor, unexpectedly died of cancer in 1974. The 26-year-old Karan, who had given birth to a daughter only two days earlier, took over the line with co-designer Louis Dell'Olio and built it into a highly successful business.
In 1984, Karan, who had been divorced a year earlier, launched Donna Karan Co., her own business, in partnership with her second husband, sculptor Stephan Weiss, and Takihyo, a Japanese company that owned the Anne Klein firm. Her approach to dressing was geared more to practicality than to "fashion." Just as Klein had promulgated a wardrobe of interchangeable parts, so did Karan. She identified with urban women who worked for a living and did not necessarily look like runway models or wealthy matrons, and they identified with her. Her design concept was based on a handful of interchangeable items that created a complete wardrobe able to flow from day to evening, and from weekday to weekend. It was distinguished by its use of black cashmere, leather, stretch fabrics and molded fabrics, and silhouettes that wrapped and sculpted the body. In short, clothes that were comfortable, flattering, and easy to organize. Karan called the jacket the foundation of a woman's wardrobe, and advocated versatile blazers that were equally appropriate for home, business, or leisure. She took the concept a step further in 1985, when she launched DKNY, a subsidiary label that was a less expensive version of the Donna Karan collection. With its nod to city life, DKNY emphasized bodysuits and active sportswear, often
accompanied by loose, easy garments. Karan also returned to school at that time, earning a B.F.A. from Parsons in 1987. By the early 1990s, she had branched into men's wear and introduced a fragrance and a skin-care line. In 1996, the company made a heavily anticipated public offering, becoming one of the few firms on the New York Stock Exchange to be headed by a woman. It opened its first DKNY store in 1996, on New York's Madison Avenue. Karan's husband, Stephan, died in 2001, the same year her company was acquired by LVMH Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, a Paris-based fashion conglomerate, for $243 million. Karan remained as artistic director, in control of all creative aspects. By 2004, the company – since renamed Donna Karan International – boasted 70 company-owned and licensed Donna Karan Collection and DKNY stores worldwide, including units in London, Manchester, and Tokyo. In 2004, it generated some $1.4 billion in retail sales and employed 1,600 workers.
Karan was named Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1985, 1990, and 1996, and men's wear Designer of the Year in 1992. The Fragrance Foundation saluted her for Best Fragrance of the Year in 1993.
That same year, she was honored for humanitarian efforts by the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS. In 1996, she won a Fashion Critics Award from Parsons. Karan was named Intimate Apparel Designer of the Year in 1999 and in 2003 she became the first American designer to receive a Superstar Award from Fashion Group International. She was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the CFDA in 2004, the same year she got an honorary doctorate from Parsons. As a board member of the CFDA, Karan headed its Seventh on Sale fundraiser for AIDS awareness and education. She was a co-chair of New York's annual "Kids for Kids" events for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and co-chaired an annual flea market and barbecue to benefit Ovarian Cancer research. In 1999, she and her husband established the Karan Weiss Foundation to benefit children's causes, medical research, and the arts.