The Queen Is Dead, Long Live The Queen
Donna Karan isn’t dead, I remind myself, feverishly changing the lock screen on my phone to a picture of her as a shrewd young designer, inclined against a bolt of mulberry fabric.
DKN-WHY, we wonder, in the wake of her resignation from Donna Karan International after 30 years at the helm. Donna Karan isn’t dead. Donna Karan is almost certainly having an early lunch with Barbara Streisand, and they’re talking about new beginnings, because that’s where Donna Karan is right now—not stepping down from anything. She has her lifestyle brand, Urban Zen, to think about. The queen is dead, long live the queen.
What dies is our conflation of the brand and formidable woman who symbolized the look she engineered—feminism as seven easy pieces, infinitely wearable. If you couldn’t wear Karan’s cold shoulder dress to a White House function, you could pair a floral skirt with a black bodysuit to feel implicitly part of her world, with it’s voluminous simplicity; its strata of blacks and occasional jacked-up neoprene vests.
To me, Donna Karan was originally about discreet Bat Mitvah dresses and Act 1 Scene 1 Cher Horowitz copycatting. But then she went next level thanks to her wardrobe for Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 adaptation of Great Expectations, (one of) the horniest movies of my adolescence*. It wasn’t strictly the dimly lit sexual misery. What I remember most are the clothes, ingeniously devised by Karan to seduce and repel, hook the eye before dissolving into a leafy background. What remained were luminous slivers of skin so narrow you might’ve been dreaming them.
While it’s hard to precisely recall pre-GOOP Gwyneth, it’s nice to know that she was once draped in pure, aestheticized misandry. Karan dressed her in nothing but green; mint, olive, emerald, hunter—Cuarón insisted. Greens so vivid you wondered what other color could look so luxurious, so cruel. And then, the burnout dress in the rain: Karan’s heart-stopping velvet devoré slip—threatening to disintegrate and suspended on straps that crossed the back with a meanness you wanted to take scissors to. The dress was originally shot for a Vogue spread by Peter Lindbergh in 1996, worn by Peak Demi Moore (Moore’s still flawless but let’s accept that ’96 was a good year for her vintage). It’s the rain-soaked burnout velvet that haunts me to this day—a dress that promised the simultaneous fulfillment and penance of sex you absolutely should not have.
Donna Karan International won’t be Donna Karan anymore. Urban Zen won’t be Donna Karan International, and I will change my lock screen back to Rihanna by next week. But in my mind, she will always be the cause of that velvet burn.
* No getting around Cruel Intentions
Naomi Skwarna now glances side-to-side during horny movie scenes.