I’m not the only one searching for Donna. Marie Laboucarié of Nina Gabanna vintage has been collecting Karan’s designs (as well her DKNY creations) alongside her Roberto Cavalli and Stella McCartney–era finds because “she incarnates the image of elegance in fashion in NYC in the ’90s.” Brandon Giordano, the coowner of the Chinatown vintage store James Veloria, has been on the hunt. He’s been sending me pictures of his classic, solid-color Karan finds for the vintage store. Of course, there are the signatures that put Karan on the map: Kevlar-status leathers, classic bodysuits, and wrap skirts. But Karan is not without wild cards. Giordano found a sheer gown from spring 2002 with swirling boning at the skirt (“It creates a 3D silhouette) and a silk fringe dress in baby blue from spring 1999 (“It moves really beautifully”). “Those more complicated pieces were surprisingly easy to wear with stretch fabrics in all the right places,” says Giordano. Even those fancy things are made to be worn comfortably. According to Giordano, they can’t keep the designer’s pieces on the shelves. In fact, a perpetually paparazzi’d veteran model recently popped in to buy a few of Karan’s leather pieces.
There’s been a bit of that big-D moment beyond fashion. Consultant Mellany Sanchez texted me lyrics to Nicki Minaj’s brand new song, “Red Ruby Da Sleaze”: “We don’t be Karen like Donna-na, na-na-na-na”. On TikTok, hundreds of people are raving about Donna Karan Cashmere Mist. The deodorant is based on Karan’s popular Cashmere Mist Eau de Toilette that she launched in 1994, with notes of Moroccan jasmine and sandalwood. According to Google Trends, there’s also an uptick in searches for her perfume Chaos 1996, which was discontinued in 2002. (Used bottles, some containing a thimble worth of scent, are up for grabs on eBay for $150 upward.) If you are in your late 20s to mid-30s, you may remember your mother dousing herself in the fresh stuff at the time.
Born in Queens and raised in Long Island, Karan dropped out of Parsons School of Design to join Anne Klein’s design team in 1968. She went on to found her own label, Donna Karan New York, in 1984. The brand was known for balancing the masculine and feminine (a suit and a lace bra was a common reference) and for her Seven Easy Pieces. (It was initially five pieces and included staples like a bodysuit and an LBD.) She famously designed for herself and later tested it out. On the talk show Attitudes in 1992, she spoke about what she was wearing: a white jacket and a pair of jeans. “These are the absolute first pair of jeans that I ever made, and they were made on my body because I would not approve of the jeans until I made a size 12,” said Karan. That was often how she designed: guided by practicality and real women’s experiences. In fact, when she noticed her daughter, Gabby, was raiding her closet, she introduced a younger, more affordable line, DKNY, in 1989.