Before there was Spanx, athleisure, or personal essays about personal uniforms, there was Donna and her bodysuit.
We now know Donna Karan, who has announced that she would step down as chief designer at her company, as a lifestyle juggernaut whose name is carried on her DKNY line, fragrance, hosiery, and home wares, along with her designer collection and stores. But the essence of what made Donna, well, Donna can be boiled down to a single item: the bodysuit.
Whether mock-neck, scoop-back, or wrap front, these hybrid garments extend all the way down to a woman’s crotch and snap beneath it, creating a sleek silhouette to layer upon for work or play. (Plus, Karan would remind us today, you can do yoga in it, a chic alternative to Lululemon.)
In 1985, Donna Karan—a former Anne Klein designer—launched a collection based on what she called her “Seven Easy Pieces:” a flattering, flexible, and interchangeable set of items women could wear for day or night, with that bodysuit as its base layer. It may not seem revolutionary now, but at the time, Karan’s modern approach to dressing women catapulted her into the stratosphere of single-name Seventh Avenue designers, a boys’ club no longer. Along with Ralph, Calvin, and Oscar, there was Donna.
Power-dressing still presents challenges for working women. (Ever see one in a “power hoodie?”) In the 1980s, it was worse, with women in shoulder-padded, skirted versions of the suits their male counterparts wore to the office.
“So many women find assembling the right clothes bewildering today,” Karan told the New York Times in 1985, the year her collection launched. “They’ve discovered fast ways to put food on the table, but they do not know how to get their wardrobes together easily.”
Karan came to the rescue with knit pieces that stretched and draped, with varying hemlines and adjustable waists that tied over her signature smooth bodysuits, along with the sweaters, coats, bangles, belts and—so important for Karan—dark tights to wear with them.
“Sometimes one wonders how executive women dressed before Donna Karan,” wrote the legendary fashion editor Carrie Donovan in 1987.
The designer wasn’t just a godsend for the striving women of the 1980s and 1990s. Karan, whose daughter Gabby was born in 1978, was also a role model for working mothers like her.
Just 12 months after launching her collection, department store chairmen sang Karan’s praises: Hers was the highest-earning collection by a US designer, reported both Bergdorf and Saks. Then, there was the contemporary spinoff line, DKNY, the fragrance, the IPO, and the sale—reported at some $450 million—to LVMH, in 2000.
Karan also launched menswear. She has dressed both Clintons, including Bill in his inauguration suit (she disbelieved his size) and Hillary in the famously maligned “cold shoulder dress.” (One of Karan’s oft-repeated bon mots: “The only place you never gain weight is your shoulder.”)
Although Karan’s most recent collection appeared to herald a return to Donna days of yore, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to learn she’s stepping away from the company, which will suspend her namesake collection, and is likely to focus instead on DKNY, newly energized with the appointment of designers Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow.
Karan made it known she was disappointed in a lack of support from LVMH, and has been increasingly focused on Urban Zen, her lifestyle store and foundation, and traveling to work with artisans in Haiti.
Thirty years since Donna Karan’s launch, her legacy of flattering, comfortable, and interchangeable pieces for women who work, travel, and care for themselves and their families still feels practical, modern, and like something worth striving for.