Donna Karan, Fashion’s Cassandra – WWD


“For some reason beyond my comprehension, stores want us to ship them six-ply cashmere sweaters and double-face coats by July 15. Of course, that’s fine with the consumer, because she’s learning to buy on sale by Oct. 15….The industry has to come together, to support one another and sell the right clothes at the right time of year. — 1997

“We’re all in trouble. We have to collaborate to create the kind of change [we need] to get out of these waters that we’ve created for ourselves. Nobody else did this. We did this.” — 2009

“What I think we’ve got to do is lower the volume on the press shows….Why do we need to blast out five months in advance rather than when it goes into the store?” — 2010

 “When it’s snowing out, they’re looking for a pair of boots or a warm coat [and can’t find them]. That’s why I started Urban Zen. I couldn’t take it anymore. If they’re not going to do it, I was going do it.” — 2016

Donna Karan — fashion’s own flesh-and-blood Cassandra. The Trojan princess was doomed to foresee the future, its dire straights perhaps preventable if only people listened and believed. Yet her cries fell on deaf ears. Donna has predicted cause-and-effect fashion industry maladies for years, and no one believed her — at least not until a global pandemic hit, killing hundreds of thousands of people and bringing the worldwide economy to a screeching halt.

A major thorn for Donna: those early deliveries. The comments above are hers from the years noted, the first two made at the WWD CEO Summit, the others, from published interviews. For years, Donna has decried the self-defeating practice of shipping clothes into stores months in advance of their weather appropriateness, all but insuring early, extreme markdowns. For years, some in the industry would nod in false agreement, secretly willing her to just shut up. Mostly, eyes rolled and shoulders shrugged, silent declarations that this was all just “Donna being Donna.”

Not anymore, with the industry thrust into turmoil by the coronavirus pandemic that has stunned even the power players into pause mode. Meanwhile, for legions of independent brands, many of which were already struggling to stay afloat, prospects are now grimmer than ever in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown and the ever-deteriorating retail landscape (many, many such brands remain dependent on the traditional wholesale model) with, in the U.S. alone, Barneys New York gone, Neiman Marcus Group in bankruptcy and Nordstrom permanently closing 16 of its department stores, as well as all three Jeffrey outposts.

Now, Donna’s decades-long proselytizing doesn’t ring so kooky. Last week saw the launch of overlapping initiatives aimed at pushing deliveries back to better align with the true seasons and instituting markdowns only at the end of selling seasons. Dries Van Noten leads the most notable of these efforts. It calls for women’s and men’s fall collections to be in store from August through January, with markdowns in January, and spring collections, from February through July, with markdowns in July. In addition, the plan seeks to increase sustainability by creating “less unnecessary product, less waste in fabrics and inventory, less travel.”

Giorgio Armani didn’t seek consensus. He kickstarted the slower fashion movement last month, committing to a more seasonally correct delivery schedule on his own, while Saks Fifth Avenue also called for such a shift.

If this isn’t a moment for a Donna check-in, what is? Though no one involved with any industrywide initiatives had approached her for advice or involvement, if she feels at all exasperated, frustrated or hurt, she’s not letting on. Last week, she signed Van Noten’s consortium letter at forumletter.org.

“This is not about an ego,” Donna said. “There’s no ‘me’ here. This is a ‘we.’ This virus has impacted the world.” She feels encouraged that broad pockets of the industry are finally realizing the need for change, while saddened by the depth of devastation wrought in getting to that point. “I’m happy that this [industry effort] is happening. I’m sorry that it took this pandemic, a crisis of this level, to bring everybody together. This is a very, very difficult time. We are going to be looking at changes every single minute of the day. But where there is a problem, there is a solution — this is what I believe.”

Donna has long trumpeted the importance of marshaling the industry’s various factions and individuals to work together for the common good. In articulating that desire now, she indulged in a little classic Donna-speak. “I have always wanted to collaborate, to communicate, to create change,” she said, launching heartily into a litany of her beloved c-words, “cotton, cashmere, café, concierge, create, collaborate, communicate, change. Clothes. Country. City. Conscious consumerism.” At that last one, she stopped herself. “I mean, a consciousness must go into this,” she mused. “We will all be more conscious of the choices we are making. We are more conscious of our reality from an economical and environmental point of view, and that will dictate not only how but also why customers buy from a brand….It’s a wakeup call. God forbid, something [terrible] happens to you, there’s a lesson. With darkness comes light. It’s a guarantee.”

That said, in pursuit of that light, Donna acknowledged feeling “like a broken record” after 25-plus years of passionate campaigning. “We’re not serving us [as designers], and we’re not serving the community, we’re not serving our industry. We’ve got to redesign it. I mean, that’s what we stand for, designers. We have to redesign this industry.”

Though she believes that measures should have been implemented years ago, she’s resolute that the past is over, and that the future offers no gray area: Now, change must occur. “I’ve been saying this till I’m deaf, dumb and blue in the face….We don’t have a choice,” she said, except to agree “how we all have to come together.”

While history offers no exact parallel to this extraordinary moment, Donna cited precedent for the industry functioning as a genuine community in pursuit of the greater good. She noted two examples: the AIDS crisis and the aftermath of 9/11. “Never will I forget what happened to an industry at that moment in time,” she recalled of the latter, while still highlighting a difference between then and now. The September 11th attacks happened during New York Fashion Week, shaping a grim milestone for the entire fashion world. But they were attacks against the U.S., with all of the physical devastation, and much of the psychological/emotional impact, centered there. “[The whole world] wasn’t living it,” she said. “Now, every one of us is living it. Nobody’s [immune], no Chinese, no French, no American, no company, nobody. This is a global problem.”

Yet Donna refuses to blame the fashion industry’s current problems on COVID-19; rather, the crisis has exacerbated long-escalating issues. “Was there a global problem prior to this? Prior to this, go up and down Madison Avenue and see 45 empty stores. Prior to this, go down on Broome Street — empty. So this problem in fashion was [pre-existing]. Too much, too early, too many. For designers themselves, it was a machine. That’s why Urban Zen has been so important to me, because I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Donna turned her full attention to that philanthropically oriented business in 2015, after departing Donna Karan International, then owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. She said that even during quarantine customers are buying, responding to the personal experience of connecting with sales associates via Zoom and FaceTime. Then, there’s that practicality issue: “If you look at my web site, it still has cashmere sweaters. It’s cold out.”

For all her support and practice of in-season deliveries, she views the early ships that put winter coats on retail racks in August and airy spring fare, before Christmas, as only a part of fashion’s woes. She opened a broader dialogue a while back (pre-COVID-19) with then newly ensconced CFDA chairman Tom Ford. “Tom said that he wanted to get involved with the younger generation. I said, ‘that’s’ great, but I feel the entire industry has a much larger problem.” They agreed to talk again, after the fall 2020 show season. And then came COVID. She plans to resume the conversation at some point.

Tops on her agenda: the timing of shows. Donna believes ardently that online consumer exposure to collections six months before the clothes hit the stores — whenever that is — amounts to commercial disaster, and is a primary cause for many of the industry’s current problems. Translation: She remains a stalwart see-now-buy-now advocate, something of a lone luxury wolf on that point. Unlike the issue of early deliveries, which went unaddressed until now, the industry, particularly the American industry, experimented with the see-now-buy-now model several years ago and with few exceptions (Tommy Hilfiger comes to mind), it flopped, particularly at the luxury level. As of the last NYFW in February, only Ralph Lauren at fashion’s high end was still on the spring 2020 timetable — or would have been, had he not sat out the show season altogether.

Donna rejects the broadly accepted view that in-season showings can’t work. “We used to show the press and retailers early, and WWD would run two pictures,” she said. “You can’t knock off a collection based on two pictures.” That was pre-Internet. But today, entire collections are transmitted around the world in real time, allowing fast fashion’s purveyors months to copy the prime goods (and they only need weeks). Since they can get the look out there fast and cheap, why should the consumer pay much more months later, when her mind-set has already moved on to what’s next? “Particularly now, more than ever,” Donna offered, “we are communicating in the moment and living in the moment. We have learned a lesson in this coronavirus — we are living in the moment.”

When the see-now-buy-now experiment first percolated, a powerful opposition argument went that the end goal of a runway show ignites a designer’s creativity. Donna doesn’t buy it. “There are remedies,” she said. “Nobody wants to stop artistic creation. But revealing all our creativity to the consumer world six months before [the retail season] is asking for trouble by being knocked off. We are responsible to create a successful business.” COVID-19 has forced the entire show system to be under scrutiny, with many brands and designers now pondering alternatives, digital and others, to the traditional runway. For independents, it’s a matter of weighing ROI — bottom line, is the show worth it? — while everyone, power players included, must consider filling the house. “Do you think you and everybody else will be boarding planes and staying in hotels in Milan and Paris in the fall?” Donna mused. “I don’t.”

About young designers, Donna stressed that her comment to Tom Ford must not be misunderstood. She’s been following the work of Parsons School of Design graduating seniors online and is blown away by their talent level. But she cautions young arrivals to fashion design not to race into launching their own brands. “We have developed this ‘my collection, my collection, my collection, my collection, my collection’ mentality,” she said. “There are so many ‘my collections.’ I was thrown into it at 24 [at Anne Klein], but all I wanted to do was learn. Your educational process. if you think of a process, they don’t graduate [medical] school and all of a sudden become a doctor and start [seeing patients] or whatever. I’m not questioning embracing young designers. You do not ever hear me say that. I think we have to rethink what a designer community is for everyone.”

That’s not all that needs rethinking. Asked if the sorry retail news of the past few weeks has made her nostalgic, Donna’s answer surprised. “I had a problem with [the major stores]. It’s difficult for me to say,” she said. “I appreciate them, and I feel terrible about [what’s happening]…I like the personalized feeling. I got lost in a big store. And then I kept on saying, ‘Guys, these stores have to have a new energy’; they lost the intimacy.”

Not that a big store can’t captivate. Donna meandered way back, to Marvin Traub’s heyday at Bloomingdale’s. “Every year, he would do this exhibition on India or somewhere. That to me was the most exciting thing. It turned me on. You have to excite someone.”

Such strong memories aside, above all, you must live in the present with an eye toward the future, however undefined and ominous it might seem. Donna is undaunted, especially as she senses the industry coming together. “I am hopeful now that so many are joining forces and making the commitment to change,” she said, articulating her dual perspective. “I’m coming in as a conscious consumer, and as a designer who cares about an industry.”





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