DKNY was absent from this week's New York Fashion Week presentations, but its presence was everywhere. For the line's spring/summer 2017 ad campaign, photographer Collier Schorr shot a towering Bella Hadid as the focal point to a blurred New York City skyline background. In the ads, she looks ... like Bella Hadid. Lackadaisical but on-the-go, she drinks an iced coffee, steps out of an SUV, wears glasses, and does it all looking like a social media–bolstered supermodel of the moment who gets paid to do such things. It was paired with a scavenger-hunt social media campaign, #FindBellaDKNY, which encouraged fans to hunt down images from the shoot and post them on Instagram for the chance to win $4,500 or meet Bella herself.
Hadid is being aggressively positioned as the new model of the DKNY girl. One headline, from W Magazine, reads: "Bella Hadid, a Real New Yorker, Says She Takes the Subway." "Of course I ride the subway!" Hadid is quoted in the piece. "When I first moved here, I only rode the subway. But then things got a little crazy. I had an app, but I still always got lost and ended up on the f--king other side of the world. It stressed me out. But I did it!"
Hadid is a girl who does a lot: The face-for-hire has fronted campaigns for Balmain, Marc Jacobs, Moschino, Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Botkier, and Fendi, just to name a few. This kind of ubiquity veers dangerously close to overexposure, and overexposure leads to indifference. (The Fashion Spot published an article about forum members feeling this Bella burnout titled "With the Launch of DKNY’s Spring Campaign, tFS Forum Members Are Suffering From Bella Hadid Fatigue.") DKNY’s new girl is not in danger of being lost in a crowd, except maybe when she takes the subway.
Bella Hadid in DKNY’s spring ’17 runway show.
DKNY did show at New York Fashion Week in September 2015, and the pressure was everywhere: It was the line's first show since Donna Karan had departed her empire in order to pursue her wellness undertaking, Urban Zen, a brand that intertwines spirituality, activism, and expensive earth-tone clothing, described as a "natural extension of [Karan’s] desire to find the missing link in the areas she cares most about." It was the fashion industry's first opportunity to see what DKNY looked like without the DK — its parent company, LVMH, had shuttered the label's flagship line, Donna Karan, shortly after the departure of its founder in 2015. Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School were brought in as creative directors. It was, to risk sounding dramatic, a new beginning. It did not go well.
Osborne and Chow styled the models with slicked-down side parts, sending them down the runway in a gray-scale parade of self-consciously deconstructed versions of the ’80s staples Donna Karan made great.
Times chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman was disenchanted, recognizing the show as a forfeited chance to reinvent the DKNY brand entirely. "Without the main line to dictate their course," Friedman wrote, "Mr. Osborne and Mr. Chow had an almost unprecedented chance to reinvent accessible New York dressing. That instead they played it coy seems like ... [a] wasted opportunity." At Vogue, Maya Singer bemoaned the emphasis on fashion over function, writing, "It would have been nice to feel that Chow and Osborne had thought a little harder about the lifestyle, today, of the DKNY woman, and what kinds of essentials she might need."
Donna Karan in the Anne Klein workroom in 1980.
Finding the perfect balance of function and fashion was always high on Karan's agenda. She got her start as a designer at the stalwart brand for sophisticated women of the 1970s, Anne Klein. In a New York Times oral history of fashion week, Karan revealed that the cutthroat culture of the label left her disillusioned.
"It was 1974," she recalled, "and I had just gotten the call that Anne Klein died. Nobody had wanted to tell me how sick she was. I was furious… My daughter was born the same week. I was in the hospital, and they called me, and it was, 'When are you coming back to work?' I said, 'Would you like to know whether I had a boy or a girl?'"
Donna Karan in the late ’80s.
She left and founded Donna Karan International in 1984 on the premise of “Seven Easy Pieces,” an early iteration of the capsule wardrobe: mix-and-match separates, anchored by a simple black bodysuit. Karan wanted to disarm getting dressed, as though choosing outfits was a danger. Her woman would know what she wanted to wear, and could wear it with easy power. Donna Karan's clothing was colorful and bold with an undeniably feminist bent; an ad campaign from 1992 depicted fashion's first imagining of a female president, who, in Karan's vision, was distinguished from her cabinet of harried men by her unflappability, her glossy, blown-out hair, and layers of oversize pearls. DKI defined an era as well as that era's kind of woman. Here was the type of woman who wore a cold-shoulder dress to her husband's first White House state dinner, or the woman who, wearing her seven easy pieces, could be elected herself. Above all, Donna Karan International represented the kind of woman who could run her own eponymous fashion brand. There was the Donna Karan woman, and then there was the woman, Donna Karan. For 30 years, they were one and the same.
Two Donna Karan looks from fall ’95.
As the Donna Karan empire grew throughout the 1980s, keeping in step with giants like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, Karan's body of work far outpaced the single digits (Karan once joked it could be called "seven easy trunks"). Toward the end of the decade, Donna Karan International began to splinter off into lifestyle and specialized diffusion lines. Karan explored denim, menswear, and a cheaper contemporary line called DKNY. It was a move that kept pace with the explosive success of Calvin Klein, whose licensing deals on fragrances, denim, and underwear were paying off.
The target of this diffusion line was significantly younger and less glamorous than Donna herself (though, oh, could she still rock a power suit). Karan then (as now) counted Barbra Streisand among her best friends, and hit the town in her own bold, colorful creations, cutting more of an aspirational figure for the DKNY girl. Karan herself distinguished between Donna Karan International and DKNY as "the limousine" versus "the street," a sentiment that speaks more to the lines' respective customer bases than two sides of the same woman. DKNY was initially for the woman who wanted to wear DKI but couldn't yet afford it — a younger, wilder version of Donna Karan herself, still working at Anne Klein.
DKNY, spring 1996.
Toward the end of the Donna Karan-helmed era there was a different sort of DKNY girl, known only by her handle: @DKNYPRGirl. In 2012 she was revealed to be Aliza Licht, the SVP for global communications at Donna Karan International. The DKNY PR Girl was characterized as ambitious, successful, working long hours, and suffering gladly for the fashion-industrial complex. She had hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, inspired similar accounts at Oscar de la Renta and Bergdorf Goodman, and kept DKNY on the tongues and timelines of the same population still heartbroken over Lauren Conrad's decision not to go to Paris.
When Osborne and Chow came on, the @DKNYPRGirl account was unceremoniously purged, leaving a vacuum for the conceptual, motherless daughter of Donna Karan. It was this girl, critics argued, who was missing from Osborne and Chow's first stab at DKNY. In the two DKNY collections that followed, the critical darlings seemed to fall into a more cohesive understanding of who they were dressing today, while respecting the utility and flexibility that compose the brand's iconic DNA. But just more than a year after Donna Karan had announced her departure, DKNY underwent another major change in parentage: For only the second time ever, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton sold off a fashion brand.
Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow after the DKNY spring ’17 show in New York City.
Today, DKNY is known more for its Cara Delevingne- and Bella Hadid-starring ads than for its origins. When LVMH Fashion Group Chairman Pierre-Yves Roussel chose Osborne and Chow to head up the diffusion line in April 2015, he remarked that he "knows for a fact that most people who buy DKNY did not even know it was by Donna Karan." At the time, DKNY accounted for 80 percent of Donna Karan International's sales. The subsequent jettisoning of the luxury core of the DK empire gambled on those odds. Donna Karan was in the Urban Zen game now: Who was to say her initials couldn't live on without her? Who was to say the street couldn't survive without the limousine?
DKNY was one of LVMH's two US-based fashion holdings (along with Marc Jacobs), and it no longer adhered to the conglomerate's preferences in branding. Diffusions were secondary to its primary luxury focus. In a July 2016 interview with the New York Times regarding the $650 million sale of DKNY to the American-based G-III Apparel Group, Roussel admitted that the line was "not what we know. It’s a different animal." The sale avoided a larger question, one that went beyond methods of transportation: Where does DKNY fit in 2017?
Donna Karan’s peers, such as Calvin Klein, have experienced something of a millennial renaissance. That label draws attention and profits from its strategic marketing, including a massive ad campaign starring Justin Bieber, and cosigns from social media giants like the Jenners and Hadids. In the meantime, DKNY's experiment with keeping one foot on the street and one foot in the limousine had failed. This past December, Chow and Osborne announced they’d be leaving DKNY after just three collections. (DKI CEO Caroline Brown announced her departure at the same time.) In the weeks since, G-III's strategy for DKNY has seemed to be something of a follow-the-leader game: tapping well-known faces and talent to reestablish millennial recognition of the brand, rather than striving for high-fashion credibility.
Without a presentation for fall/winter 2017, it's tough to tell where DKNY will go from here. The resounding effects of shuttering the luxury core, plus the departure of its iconic founder and shifting financial tides, have all taken their toll on the brand. This Donna Karan girl, who works her ass off and succeeds on her own terms all while wearing Seven Easy Pieces — and, yes, taking the subway, and the street, and maybe an SUV now and then — is not dead. She's slightly older than the girls who taped up Calvin Klein's Justin Bieber advertisements, and she idolizes designers rather than models. She knows who the Hadids and Jenners are, but prefers Rihanna and Solange. She understands there's no fast track to success, and knows what she'll be wearing when it happens. She's old enough to remember Hillary Clinton wearing that cold-shoulder Donna Karan dress, and she voted in a race that almost saw Hillary Clinton become president of the United States. Now she's marching with other women (pink hat not necessarily included). That girl is everywhere. She's just not wearing DKNY.