6 Career Musts from Fashion Powerhouse Donna Karan


Lessons from a monumental career.

Image by Neilson Barnard via Getty

The designer who put the bodysuit on the fashion map thirty years ago, Donna Karan, is stepping down from her eponymous post as chief designer.

Founding her fashion label in 1984 with her late husband, sculptor and painter Stephan Weiss, Donna’s collections came to bear the hallmarks of the buzzing streets of New York City accompanied by a sense of ease and practicality. The latter was epitomised in her first collection of “Seven Easy Pieces” perfect for both work and play; the base of the collection was a bodysuit that could then be dressed up or down with a white shirt, cashmere sweater, wrap skirt, tights, loose pants and a tailored jacket.

From that first show, Donna’s designs changed the face (or rather, body) of women’s fashion and, as she moves on, here are six of the biggest lessons we can learn from her career:

1. Wear black

When you’re running at the speed of light, it’s best to keep those morning decisions simple. While many entrepreneurs wear a uniform of sorts, Donna Karan has long been known for consistently donning a darker hue and, on occasion, could be seen stepping out in all white. It’s a small but easy change that makes the closet department a no-brainer while adding sophistication that can be executed with eyes half-closed before your morning coffee.

2. Edit your work

Donna’s first collection had only seven pieces – SEVEN! She saw a gap and nailed it, with her signature style and without overdoing it. For those in the rag trade the moral of the story is to edit your collections, and if you can’t see it for yourself call your stylist friend, a buyer, or an editor who will tell you the truth. If you spend your days in front of a computer instead, the same rule applies – simplify those ranting emails, check yourself in what you say to others and do a double take before you leave home in the morning – is your outfit saying what you want to portray about yourself to your colleagues?

4. Find a supportive team

As mothers know all too well, babies don’t always have the best timing. Donna’s daughter decided to enter the world the same day her collections were due, causing her team to rush to the hospital so they could decide which fabrics to choose for pre-fall. The lesson here is to surround yourself with incredible people who are not just for your business but for you, personally. Even if your business is small, you just need the loyal one or two people that will keep things running for you when you’re sleep-deprived and lactating on demand. And there are no shortcuts to getting those teams – you have to build into and value them long before the hard times come.

5. Stay healthy

While Donna’s late husband was being treated for cancer, Donna realised that “we were treating the disease, but nobody was treating the patient”. Though he passed away, Donna still does an hour of yoga, pilates and meditation every morning. It’s time to get some balance – step away from the office and get out and do some deep breathing. To sustain a thirty-something year career, as cliché as it sounds, you need to take care of you – calm the soul, sleep lots (Donna is not a morning person and doesn’t get up before 7am) and eat well. Healthy body, healthy mind, healthy work.

6. Be kind

“Be able to see the empty space; be able to connect with the person and see what their needs are,” shared Donna in a speech to students at New York’s Parsons School of Design. Known as one of the hardest-working and kindest people in the business, Donna is definitely proof that being nice to others – your colleagues, employees, suppliers and even competitors – can be crucial to your success. Above all, be kind.

7. Give back

Philanthropy has always been at the core of Donna’s company. Of late this has seen proceeds from all the company’s sales support the Urban Zen Foundation, which Donna founded in 2011 after the death of her husband, which funds the preservation of culture, integrative healthcare (treating the patient holistically) and education. They also run the Haiti Artisan Project to help develop and market the works of artisans from the Caribbean nation. It’s pretty straightforward, but make generosity part of your growth strategy – for the good of your brand and others.

It was Anna Wintour who best summed up Donna’s impact to the New York Times: “[Donna’s designs] came from a deeply personal, instinctual place; she has always let her empathetic heart rule her design head.”


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