When Donna Karan announced yesterday that she was parting ways with the company she founded 31 years ago, it marked an end to a design career that always had real women's concerns at the forefront. Unlike many designers who work with an abstract concept of womanhood in mind, Karan knew her customer because, as she's often pointed out, she was her customer: a working woman balancing career, family, and a spiritual life. After spending her early career at Anne Klein, Karan launched her own line with her much-vaunted Seven Easy Pieces collection in 1984. It was a move that would be endlessly copied over the years as designers released so-called "capsule collections." But the original version was meant to truly serve as a modular wardrobe, with versatile pieces that included a simple bodysuit and a classic white shirt.
It was a welcome gust of simplicity at a time when the main options were either man-tailored power suits or the expensive furbelows of Nouvelle Society designers like Christian Lacroix. Karan's aesthetic occupied the significant space between pinstripes and poufs. Critics were enthused, to say the least. Bernardine Morris of the New York Times celebrated the fact that the designer didn't make her woman look "like a clone of a male executive." Karan's alternative was a kind of soft power, which felt inherently feminine without reverting to anything infantilizing or cutesy. Even her famous "cold shoulder" cutout dress, as worn by Hillary Clinton and Liza Minnelli, was made with regular women in mind — after all, as the designer put it, "the only place you never gain weight is your shoulder."Her still-talked-about 1992 campaign envisioned a female president. »