Looking at the clothes, mostly black, mostly fabricated in stretchy knit jersey in simple silhouettes, like wraps, tanks and flowy skirts, it was impossible not to think of a Donna Karan collection at H&M. She’s yet to lend her name to the fast-fashion giant, though it seems everyone’s doing it these days. “I think it’s amazing what H&M does. I wish I could deliver my collections as fast,” she said with a laugh. “But no, I’ve never thought about it. I have enough on my hands with DKNY (her lower-priced casual collection).”The designer is a seven-time honoree by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2004, to coincide with her 20th anniversary.In the new movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep, who plays an imperious fashion magazine editor, wears some of Karan’s iconic outfits, drawn from her archives, like a purple bateau-neck wool knit jersey dress, a felt cashmere trench coat, a black knit jersey sheath and a black wool jersey wrap dress with a circle skirt. “I don’t remember too much about the movie,” said Karan, who saw a screening a while back. “But I do remember thinking that Meryl Streep looked stronger than the clothes, which were mostly from the ’80s.”
Karan made her name by giving women a new version of power dressing. “Women were trying to look like men, in pinstripe suits or pants, in the mid-’80s. I liberated them, putting them in skirts and dresses. It’s always been about sensual freedom and a way to dress for day into evening, a wardrobe to travel with.”The movie brings to mind memories of that nerve-racking first job interview. What to wear? For her first big interview with Anne Klein in the early ’70s, when she was about 18, Karan wore a look-at-me navy chalk-stripe skirt suit and a white fedora. “It was only a summer job, but I felt very Seventh Avenue in that outfit,” she said. She was fired before the year was out. “I was trying way too hard, I was so intimidated,” she recalled. The daughter of a model and a haberdasher, Karan dropped out of Parsons School of Design after her second year to begin her career.
Standing within earshot at the museum reception was Karan’s second boss, Patti Cappalli, a former clothing designer now living in San Francisco who has known Karan since she was a teen. “She was passionate and fearless. She marched into Bloomingdale’s and sold a collection we did together back in New York because she fiercely believed in it. I didn’t know she’d be so famous, but I sincerely knew she’d make a huge contribution to fashion.”Karan eventually made it back to Anne Klein, where she stayed for a decade. She then started her own line. She left on a Friday, Cappalli said, and “on Monday she started her own business. She was scared to death.”Soon afterward came DKNY, which was inspired by her then-teenage daughter, Gabby, who lived in jeans and sweaters. Two decades later, she is still at it. The fall collection Karan presented here, originally shown at New York Fashion Week in February to positive reviews, made a strong, minimalist statement about womanly sex appeal. Backs and shoulders were bared, not midriffs and thighs.