When Donna Karan announced she would be departing her eponymous label, the news sent shockwaves through the nostalgic fashion set. Donna had been an industry standard-bearer for decades. She heroically took over design duties for Anne Klein label after the founder’s death. And when Donna was later unceremoniously dumped by the brass at Klein, she sprang from the ashes to create an uber-luxurious namesake line. A conglomerate was born, spinning out perfume, licensed products and DKNY, one of the first-ever diffusion lines. LVMH bought the company in 2000, with promises to expand the brand worldwide.
Donna Karan — both brand and woman — is synonymous with New York City. Like a Pavlovian bell, every piece of marketing was designed to bolster this association.
Then things started to change. Rumors were rampant about tension between LVMH brass and Donna. As DKNY’s fortunes soared, the name recognition for Donna herself declined. In 2009, DKNY’s iconic mural (above) was painted over with an ad for tween surfer brand Hollister.
In 2014, Donna Karan’s flagship store was closed. It was a poignant end for a store that had been designed as a joyful alternative to the neighboring cathedrals of commerce, like Barney’s or Calvin Klein. “This store will beg you to come inside and play,” the Observer wrote in 1999. “To hang out, even: check your e-mail, listen to the latest club compilation.”
When the flagship closed in 2014, a DKNY spokeswoman said, “At this time, we are exploring other opportunities for a space more reflective of the spirit of our brand today.”
In April 2015, LVMH announced that it had hired new creative directors (Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, the designers behind indie-cool brand Public School) to helm the brand. Soon after, Donna Karan left her own company, her eponymous collection was discontinued and it was announced that DKNY would be the last remaining vestige of the Karan empire.
The cycle of creation was complete.
Earlier this month, I visited DKNY’s remodeled store in Soho — the physical incarnation of the brand’s new direction, both aesthetic and philosophical. Here’s what I saw.
While the old Madison Ave. flagship may have been “big,” “shiny,” and “mysteriously soaped up,” the new Soho space is monochromatic, serious and “fashion” (pronounced fash-un).
Let’s consider the ample white space that now surrounds the brand, down to the airy sans-serif logo stitched into the clothes. Gone are the familiar floor-to-ceiling skyscraper murals and neon lights.
To wit, the Soho store is stripped down, literally. When I first visited, the walls appeared as thought they were still being painted, and I nervously asked the security guard if the store was officially open.
Apparently, this sense of “unfinished-ness” is the point: DKNY is now aimed at women who are in a time of transition for their careers and family lives. They feel as if the meat of their lives are still ahead of them, unwritten.
The store is divided into mini-rooms divided by diaphanous curtains. These partitions were designed to echo the cross-section of Manhattan’s streets and avenues.
The clothes themselves are a complete departure from the brand’s last incarnation. This collection is more fashion-forward, avant-garde and unexpected — and it’s aimed at a significantly older customer with deeper pockets. “Our customers are our peers, everyone who is still on their journey, people who are successful but they don’t feel like they’ve reached it yet,” Osborne told WWD.
If you happen to have any DKNY lurking in your closet, you won’t see any connection with this new collection. (I can’t imagine my old DKNY dress on the mannequin above.)
When this re-tooled collection debuted last September, Vogue said it “simultaneously betrayed Chow and Osborne’s deep respect for the aesthetic codes of the house they’ve taken over, and their reluctance to embrace what those codes once meant.”
Translation? These pieces might make sense in the discourse of fashion, but they aren’t exactly practical for a 10 a.m. board meeting.
As I mentioned earlier, DKNY has long been intertwined with Manhattan, but not necessarily with Donna herself. When Osborne and Chow were named as the new designers for DKNY, Pierre-Yves Roussel, chairman of the LVMH Fashion Group, said “most people who buy DKNY did not even know it was by Donna Karan.”
The T-shirt above playfully references this incongruity by implying that most customers don’t even know how to pronounce the label’s name.
What do you think of DKNY’s new look? Are you digging it? Or do you long for the neon-drenched days of yore?