Donna Karan Steps Down as Head of Iconic Brand


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Donna Karan in her studio upstairs from Urban Zen.

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Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times

In a major shift for American fashion, Donna Karan the 66-year-old founder and chief designer of Donna Karan International, a brand that defined the way American working women dressed for decades, announced on Tuesday that she was leaving the helm of the house that bears her name.

Ms. Karan will remain as an adviser to Donna Karan International, but devote more time to her Urban Zen line, which centers on wellness and artisanal goods, and its foundation.

LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the French conglomerate that bought the house in 2001, said there were no immediate plans to replace her as a designer, and the main Donna Karan collection would be suspended. It will not hold a show at New York Fashion Week in September.

Instead, according to an announcement, the company will reorganize its teams and structure to “substantially increase its focus on the DKNY brand,” the company’s more accessible line, which is currently responsible for 80 percent of Donna Karan International revenue. It will also maintain its license business.

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Donna Karan Throughout the Years

CreditDon Hogan Charles/The New York Times

“It’s a big corporate move and strategy statement,” said Robert Burke, founder of a namesake luxury consultancy and former fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman.

Ms. Karan said in a statement, “LVMH and I have made this decision after much soul-searching. I have arrived at a point in my life where I need to spend more time to pursue my Urban Zen commitment to its fullest potential and follow my vision of philanthropy and commerce.”

Interestingly, Ken Sunshine and the communications firm Sunshine Sachs were handling press requests for Ms. Karan on Tuesday. Although Mr. Sunshine represents a number of top drawer entertainment clients, including Ms. Karan’s close friend Barbra Streisand, he is largely known for his work in crisis management and his aggressive representation of people in acrimonious situations.

Over the last year there have been signs that the relationship between Ms. Karan and LVMH had deteriorated.

Last summer, Ms. Karan shuttered the three-story, 11,000-square-foot space on Madison Avenue that for more than a decade had operated as her signature line’s flagship store. This winter, the Neapolitan men’s wear brand Isaia took over the lease.

In March, Ms. Karan gave an interview to WWD in which she seemed to acknowledge that all was not well with LVMH.

“I’m married to my company,” Ms. Karan said. “I’ll be married to my company whether I’m there or not there. I love the company, it’s my baby. Am I still going to design there? I assume so.”

The decision also reflects a reality of the New York fashion world, which has seen an explosion in the contemporary market in recent years thanks to brands such as Tory Burch, Alexander Wang and Rag & Bone.

In April, LVMH acknowledged the importance of the sector by naming the hot young designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of the haute streetwear brand Public School the creative directors of DKNY, to much fanfare.

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Interactive Feature

Donna Karan: Through the Years

Donna Karan is stepping down as chief designer of Donna Karan International, the company announced on Tuesday. Below, a look at her life and career.



OPEN Interactive Feature


At the time, Pierre-Yves Roussel, chairman of the LVMH Fashion Group, said that LVMH “knows for a fact that most people who buy DKNY did not even know it was by Donna Karan.”

The retirement of Ms. Karan’s long-term right hand, Patti Cohen, in May led to speculation that Ms. Karan might also soon step down. At a presentation later that month, she told a reporter, “Never say never.”

In an email, Ms. Streisand said that she was not worried about her friend.

“Donna is so great at everything she does… designs, friendships, compassionate causes… I’m sure her next steps will amaze us,” she said.

Still, Ms. Streisand added, “I surely will miss her clothes.”

To a generation of women, Ms. Karan, who started her company in 1984 with “seven easy pieces,” a mix-and-match wardrobe, was a personal heroine: a role model who understood their needs and solved their problems.

“Donna created a way of dressing that was womanly, practical and empowering, and came from a deeply personal, instinctual place; she has always let her empathetic heart rule her design head,” said Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast and editor of Vogue magazine.

Along with Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, Ms. Karan created one of the first truly global brands at New York Fashion Week, an achievement that brought her to the attention of LVMH, which paid $243 million to acquire the brand.

It also earned her a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion designers of America in 2004. She has also received the women’s wear designer of the year award and the men’s wear designer of the year award.

“She came to the fore at a time when it was mainly men designing for women, and she knew and understood her customers like no one else,” Mr. Burke said.

Caroline Brown, chief executive of Donna Karan International, said of Ms. Karan, “I speak for the many teams at DKI in supporting her great legacy and reinforcing our commitment to it for our next chapter.”



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