A new building, fashion icons and an inquisitive auditorium of students. This has been the make up for many conversations this year at Parsons The New School for Design. This time, it was Donna Karan and Simon Collins, the school’s dean of fashion discussing her career.
Described as one of the school’s best friends by Collins, Karan told the audience how she was blown away with collections from the graduating class: “The quality, mindfulness and conceptualization.”
“For her, Parsons meant, “It’s not about me, it’s the we” noting that Parsons means the world. And, despite failing draping, typing and burning her dress with an iron, she proves that grades, failures and a major design school faux pas only adds character to your story, which also includes how she wanted to be Barbara Streisand instead of a designer.
Diving right in, she discussed that for her, technology is a mix of love and hate. On one hand, she can look at a computer and get the answers, but at the same time questioned whether we are losing the visceral and not getting enough of the touch and feel to inspire. Her biggest fear:”losing our culture” in a hyperconnected world where customers are seeing things too fast and too quickly.
In response to a question on fast fashion, she used the analogy of pizza and caviar where sometimes you want a slice, and sometimes it’s time to indulge [in a collection].
Her thoughts on retail included a familiar sentiment that many designers have noted. “Stores are presenting in the wrong season. Stop delivering fall in June.” And, her advice to emerging designers: “Work in retail. Do you really know what the customer wants?”
She, indeed knows what the consumer wants and her portfolio of brands is a testament to that. She was a pioneer in putting stretch in fabrics and built a collection off of the body suit that women could move in. She noted, “We have to understand the business. How much do we cut? Make for the customer? This is the creative challenge.” When asked her point-of-difference she said fit, equating fashion to sculpture and how important the body is along with comfort.
What was clear is that Karan is not just a designer. In fact, it seemed secondary to her. A practicing yogi since 18, there is a spiritual side. Her philanthropic Urban Zen organization started out of frustration and realization that there is life behind fashion. It was also at a time when the AIDS epidemic and cancer impacted the industry and people in her life. She wanted a way to open up the conversation and find a space and place to change the world. Now, with a multi-faceted organization, giving back is a part of her DNA.
She spoke about how conscious consumerism is vitally important. One bigger question was, “How do we put our creative talent to preserve the culture?” She discussed her efforts in Hati Artisan Project and how the brand has taught artisans to make necklaces, recycled t-shirts and bags. She urged designers to go beyond the fashion show, the model that wears your clothes and garment. “Make a difference and apply it.”
What’s next for Karan? She talked about a motorcycle diary where she would travel the world and work with artisans while documenting it.
In her final words to a student on creating the next big thing, she said “An idea is one thing, but a manifestation is what matters.”
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