While a Parsons student, Karan interned at Anne Klein, where she cut her teeth as an associate designer in New York City’s Garment District. After Klein’s death in 1974, Karan was appointed head designer of the company at the age of 26.
With her husband, Stephan Weiss, Karan launched her eponymous company in 1984. When Karan debuted her first collection — the first iteration of what would become her iconic “Seven Easy Pieces” wardrobe — she quickly carved her niche in fashion, designing for a clientele of working women who needed luxurious but functional garments. In contrast to the maximalist styles of the early 1980s, Karan’s ready-to-wear staples represented a streamlined system of dressing made up of pieces that could easily transition from office to evening.
Karan’s collections often combine synthetics such as Spandex with sensuous materials like cashmere and leather. The aesthetic epitomizes a new kind of glamorous modern urban uniform. One of Karan’s “easy pieces,” the bodysuit, was the base for the rest of an ensemble and could be paired with suiting, sportswear, or eveningwear. The “cold-shoulder” dress — a high-neck, formfitting dress with exposed shoulders worn by both Hillary Clinton and Liza Minnelli — is still popular today.
Karan’s audience grew in 1988 with the premiere of DKNY (Donna Karan New York), a lower-priced sportswear line. She subsequently launched a menswear collection, DKNY Jeans, and a house fragrance, establishing her company as a lifestyle brand. In 1993, Karan opened a store in Hong Kong, becoming the first American fashion brand with a brick-and-mortar presence there. French luxury conglomerate LVMH acquired Donna Karan in 2001. After 31 years at the helm, Karan stepped down from her line in 2015.
Karan’s numerous accolades include six acknowledgments from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA, of which she is also a board member), most recently a 2010 nomination for the Womenswear Designer of the Year award. In 2007, Karan received an honorary doctorate from Parsons and was an honoree at the 2012 Parsons Benefit, where the school announced the Donna Karan Fashion Design and Society Scholarship Fund to support rising talent in Parsons’ master’s fashion program. One of Parsons’ most committed graduates, Karan has offered her time, talents, and resources in myriad ways, serving on committees, hiring graduates, and advising the community broadly.
Since 1998, Karan has worked with the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. One of Karan’s current projects is Urban Zen, a luxury lifestyle store and foundation dedicated to the preservation of cultures, which she established in 2007. Recently the Urban Zen Foundation collaborated with Parsons students and artisans at the Design, Organization, Training Center (D.O.T) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Karan is directly involved in developing products with Haitian artisans and devising new entrepreneurial models employing design as a tool for local community empowerment.