Out Of The Game

This past week, two companies that were established ten years apart and had defined the era in which they began, were sold. Donna Karan was let go by LVMH and picked up by G-III Apparel Group and Yahoo was snapped up by Verizon. Both sales brought to an end a time when American fashion and Internet search were defined by the two respectively. Fashion and tech, more than ever before, wait for no man… or womanDonna Karan body and Yahoo homepage

Donna Karan ‘body’ of 1980s and Yahoo’s homepage circa 1990s

She was up there with the big boys Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, but the brand that Donna Karan founded is presently in a limbo. Not that the other guys are doing any better. Calvin Klein is, as of now, still without a designer, and Ralph Lauren, well, when was the last time you bought their polo shirts or ties? After she stepped down as designer of her own label last year, the brassiere-averse Ms Karan said in the New York Times that “I would love to work more with them, but Vuitton has given me the cold shoulder.”

Whether the snobbish French truly ignored the one-time Queen of Seventh Avenue, we may never know, but if she did not sense the stopping of her main line and its subsequent sale coming, then her ears were likely trained on the wrong listening post. How did it come to this—when a designer that John Fairchild puzzlingly called in 1989 “America’s Chanel” ended up being paid no notice? Has she not pondered?

The French critic and semiotician Roland Barthes said, when comparing Chanel to Courrèges, “the unchanging ‘chic’ of Chanel tells us that the woman has already lived (and has known how to); the obstinate ‘brand-newness’ of Courrèges that she is going to live.” As with the Courrèges woman, the Donna Karan woman was going to live, at least at the start. By the time LVMH acquired the brand in 2001, she would likely have already lived. Yet somehow, a life lived wasn’t joire de vivre. Is the LVMH snub then affirmation that the French have always considered their American fashion counterparts less than equal?

It may be inviting censure to say that Donna Karan’s fate was predictable, but for some of us, the brand’s decline coincided with the moment LVMH bought it, five years after its splashy debut in the New York Stock Exchange in 1996. Taking the company public, according to Ms Karan’s memoir My Journey, was something she had resisted. An IPO, she thought, wasn’t a natural solution to the cash flow problems the company was then experiencing. While shares increased 25% on the first day of trading, the rise, down the road, did not lead to a soar.

Donna Karan 7 easy pieces collection

One of the looks of the Seven Easy Pieces collection in 1985. Photo: AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis

When LVMH purchased the company, Donna Karan International’s performance wasn’t what an investor might call sterling. According to Ms Karan, she tried delaying the signing of the contract when she was warned by her psychic that Mercury was in retrograde (or going backwards in the sky). The acquisition, to some, was indeed an odd one. Ms Karan’s new-age leanings aside, why would a Euro-centric French company be interested in an American brand so unlike anything they had already own in their stable? What’s in it for them other than just a business move?

No one was so deluded as to believe that Donna Karan International was going to up the power quotient of an already powerful conglomerate. In fact, fashion companies going public wasn’t commonplace and Donna Karan’s weak position on the NYSE cast a rather discouraging gloom over American designer fashion at the time (although Ralph Lauren did go public a year later in 1997). Concurrently, Ms Karan’s clothes had lost much of the Seven-Easy-Pieces aha moment of the early years.

Donna Karen New York was one of the earliest labels to cater to the needs—both practical and sartorial—of professional women. In fact, Ms Karan was so associated with clothing for the careerist that she seemed unable to win over new fans when, in later years, her designs appeared less boardroom-ready and more progressive. But career wear (now, that’s a term we have not heard for a long time) did give way to styles that were very different from what Donna Karen stood for in the mid-Eighties, a time when many remember her for those Seven Easy Pieces.

The thing is, if you try to uncover the septet behind the Seven Easy Pieces collection that debuted for fall 1985, such as Googling the description, you won’t be able to find any specific seven. What it was in essence was a collection built around a core garment—the leotard-inspired bodysuit or, simply, the ‘body’, that had snap-button closure under the crotch. When it was initially available in the first Donna Karan boutique at Isetan Orchard in the late ’80s, then buyer of the brand (and division merchandising manage of Isetan) Eric Lee called it a “foundation garment”. Women loved the body, we were told, as it held in place what would otherwise have been a top that was prone to shifting and untucking. Other clothing can be teamed with the body (in Singapore, it was the star piece often worn without an outer), and it soon evolved from a swimwear-looking one-piece to a hybrid conceived with a pullover or a shirt, all the while the bottom half remained snug and secure as a panty. The body, not as underwear, was truly unseen before.

Donna Karan bodysuit

Donna Karan’s bodysuit that was shown in her debut collection in 1985. Photo: Thomas Innaccone 

The Seven Easy Pieces were not specifically identified, and they changed with each new collection. Even the Donna Karan website is vague, describing them as “a modern system… where a handful of interchangeable items work together to create an entire wardrobe that goes from day to evening, weekday to weekend, season to season.” But fans and impressed members of the media could see that they invariably included shirts, sweaters, jackets, skirts, and pants. Looking back now, the Seven Easy Pieces seem ho-hum, but at that time, they were a heaven-sent. According to Ms Karan’s account to the press, “So many women find assembling the right clothes bewildering… They’ve discovered fast ways to put food on the table, but they do not know how to get their wardrobes together easily.”

For these clueless women, Ms Karan created a way of dressing that was akin to a uniform, only more customisable. Seven Easy Pieces allayed women’s fear that fashion had to be complicated to be seen as fashion. It was a novel idea, and could have, perhaps, embryoed at Anne Klein, from where Ms Karan received her professional training, and where she tenured for 11 years, during which she took over as designer (together with school mate Louis Dell’Ollio) when the namesake founder died in 1974, aged 50, from breast cancer. In fact, the early years of Donna Karan New York sometimes seemed like Anne Klein 2.0—souped-up sportswear-as-work-wear. It wasn’t really seeing double as both lines were backed by Tomio Taki of Takihyo Co, a Nagoya-based textile company that was instrumental in the rise of Donna Karan after Anne Klein’s death.

The body soon lost its shine just as dressing for success in strictly practical clothing—although inspired by men’s wardrobe but designed as a counterpoint to it—lost its appeal. Donna Karan’s sense of career-smart luxe, while still championed by the likes of BFF Barbara Streisand and US presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton, was at odds with an increasing preference for unapologetically feminine—even girlish—styles. Ms Karan, who exemplified (and still does) her own idea of what stood for professional elegance, continue to produce clothes that women soon did not really care about. The New York scene was changing rapidly too, lead by Marc Jacobs, and later Alexander Wang—both their shows always so headline-grabbing that Donna Karan’s were deemed skippable. Keeping apace did not seem terribly exigent for the Queen.

DKNY 1989Donna Karan and models posing in Time Square in 1989 to promote DKNY. Photo: Condé Nast Archive/Corbis

To be fair, Donna Karan did make clothes that women desired. Apart from the body, there was the sarong skirt (to add softness to a skirt suit) and the cold-shoulder top/dress (to add sexiness to the after-office outfit. According to Ms Karan, the shoulder is one part of the body that does not grow fat). She created a desirable luxury with re-imagined American sportswear basics that would, years later, be seen in brands such as The Row. She has also put New York on the map when the city wasn’t really considered on par with Paris or Milan. It isn’t certain how French and Italian women reacted to her clothes, but here, women found her designs as appealing as those from Europe, and especially suitable for the new-found success in the workplace.

In trying to reach even more women, Donna Karan created one of the earliest bridge- (or diffusion) lines—DKNY, a collection that arguably paved the way for today’s ubiquitous fast fashion. DKNY, with abbreviation for a name and a modified Helvetica font (both deemed at the start unattractive but would later proved to be game-changing), was inspired by the designer’s daughter Gaby, and, thus, aimed at the younger crowd. It wasn’t Ms Karan’s first lower-priced line since she was instrumental in the creation of Anne Klein II, believed to be America’s first bridge-line.

Although DKNY was meant to be the more accessible of the two major collections of the brand (which eventually saw other spin-offs under DKNY, including jeans wear and even home ware), it was DKNY that was maintaining its popularity with its more forward-looking designs. So not yet relieved of its full potential that when LVMH decided to halt one of the collections, it was the main line Donna Karan that was shown the stop sign. DKNY was given the kiss of life in 2015 not by a prince, but two princes of fashion—non-white to boot, Public School’s Maxwell Osborne and Chow Dao Yi, both recipients of the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year award in June 2013, and later in October, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s top prize.

Donna Karan AW 2015Donna Karan’s last collection: autumn/winter 2015. Photos: Yannis Vlamos/Indigitalimages.com

The installation of the Public School designers at DKNY was, presumably, to give back relevance to the brand. By the early Noughties, DKNY has lost much of its bearing that could be traced to the street culture of the city in which it was born. While street style is still very much alive and has even influenced the French fashion establishment, including the time-honoured haute couture, it isn’t the same as it was when DKNY was established. These days, street wear is very much hybridised—a crossbreed of influences that come from vintage sports clothes, hip-hop styles, and skate wear, and amplified by a showy presence on social media. DKNY, despite a more with-it communiqué, simply won’t stand out.

Relevance is an elusive quality and is perhaps even more crucial to the survival of a brand than even creativity. It is acknowledged that LVMH had not been able to turn around a Donna Karan that was once the uniform of successful business women—perplexing when you consider that this is a category of consumers that has swelled in numbers through the years. Perhaps, more pertinently, LVMH was not able to restore relevance to a brand that had not moved to the changing rhythms of the times. The situation was complicated by the decline in the status that American fashion once enjoyed, especially among the middle class, and made worse by the lost of appeal of even mass labels such as Gap, American Apparel, and Abercrombie and Fitch.

It’s not farfetched to say Donna Karan’s fate mirrors Yahoo’s. Although they are admittedly dissimilar businesses, they were both struggling against a shopper/user base that had grown to be vastly different from when they started. Consumers have indeed become a lot savvier. In addition, there were no viral products to propel both brands forward or bring fans to them. Yahoo used to be the search engine of choice by most, but when Google came along, they were not able to match the latter’s simplicity of interface and ease of use, and in time, could not keep up with the ascent of social media and, perhaps even more significantly, the rapid adoption of mobile devices.

A successful past is no promise of relevance in the present. Donna Karan and Yahoo simply succumbed to the notion that all good things must come to an end.