Give her a second to catch her breath, and Donna Karan will tell you that the constant buzz around her—the reporters, retailers and customers who hover ever-eager to affirm their devotion—is, well, a lot of fuss over nothing. “Okay, not nothing,” she concedes. But still, too much ado for Karan’s taste. “All this is silly,” she says. “I don’t get it. I’ve been designing for years.” This year, however, Karan, the 41-year-old designer with a few (self-professed) pounds to lose and a Long Island accent she couldn’t shake even if she wanted to, became the reigning queen of American fashion. “Donna doesn’t just have a customer,” says longtime Karan friend Dawn Mello, an executive vice president of Gucci. “It’s more like a super fashion cult.”
What’s the draw? Karan, once a junior designer at Anne Klein, launched her own ready-to-wear line in 1985. She won an instant following by appealing to America’s modern businesswoman—the exec with lots of cash but no time to spare for shopping. Her clothes looked nothing like Brooks-Brothers-for-women. They were seven easy pieces that managed to be professional and feminine, flattering even when draped over 10 “extra” pounds. At more than $1,000 for a jacket, yes, they were also expensive. So Karan launched her crowning coup last January with DKNY, moderately priced menswear-inspired separates. They wear like old favorites from the back of the closet but in fact come straight off the store rack. DKNY includes the kind of things every woman wants but can rarely find: a faded pair of khakis, the perfect white T-shirt, a boxy blazer. The idea for the clothes evolved, Karan says, because she was sick of wearing her husband’s jeans: “They were either old or didn’t fit. And anyway, they belonged to somebody else.” DKNY provided the cachet of the Karan label at a somewhat more affordable price—a blazer costs about $400.
In its first year the line pulled in a bank-boggling $58 million. “I guess I hit a nerve,” says Karan. “This isn’t about fashion. It’s just about being a woman and needing clothes.” The consummately wearable back-to-basics collection, and the queen’s ransom it brought in, has secured her happy reign. Well, not entirely happy. “The worst part of this success,” she grumbles, “is there’s never time to have any fun.” Somehow, we doubt that.