Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan: Two American Icons

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Ralph Lauren

As the most financially successful American designer, Ralph Lauren is also the quintessential aspirational lifestyle designer. He designed an American dream that was living the idea of the life of wealthy WASPs (White Anglo- Saxon Protestants– in case you’ve been living under a rock). Ralph dug deeply into their style and brilliantly translated and updated the way they dressed. He created a brand message that captivated large numbers of customers. Ralph’s success proves his instincts were right. He wasn’t the only one who admired that WASPy tasteful lifestyle.

The WASP Meme

Lauren’s great sense of color brought life to the staid, sometimes drab clothes of the subculture he emulated. He brought the dated preppy look into current fashion while keeping its traditional relevance. Ralph’s ability to sell his dream lifestyle was as important as his ability to create it. His portrayal of the models in his ads dramatized a lifestyle as much as highlighting the merchandise. Ralph came up with a new marketing concept. Instead of running single page ads in magazines and important newspapers, he ran portfolios of multiple pages several times a year. This way he could project the full story of the Ralph Lauren brand. It was a very expensive concept, but it made him the biggest advertiser in all of the important fashion-media outlets. That didn’t hurt, because fashion magazines are well known for providing lots of editorial coverage for their big advertisers. Ralph and his photographer, Bruce Weber, meshed beautifully together. It well may be the most successful designer/photographer team during the 70s and 80s.

“What I do is about living. It was never about buying a shirt or a dress — but rather being part of a dream,” Ralph Lauren. “I want not just to dress people, but to address them. It’s not about me it’s about we,” Donna Karan.

Even though he was marginally over five feet tall, he loved being his own model. He could be seen in his cowboy clothes on horseback as well as in his preppy blazers with jeans. No other designer came close to his ability to create a lifestyle that provided a complete wardrobe for a customer who bought into his memes. His products went beyond clothes to create immersion in his vision of living well. His line included a full range of home products, from furniture and accessories to sheets and blankets.

The Immersion Vision

One had only to walk into a Ralph store, or look at a Ralph advertising portfolio to be immersed in an idealized world of privileged, Old Money. In 1983, Ralph pulled it all together when he obtained a long-term lease on the Rhinelander mansion on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street. The French renaissance revival edifice was built in 1898 by Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo who never moved in. She decided to live across the street in a much more modest home. In 1976, it was declared a New York City Landmark, and it was to become Lauren’s New York flagship store.

Ralph spent three years designing the mansion’s interior into a spectacular experiential shopping environment of the Ralph Lauren vision. He personally designed and oversaw all wall coverings, flooring, fixtures, and the placement of portraits. It had the feeling of an aristocratic, old English home. The sales help was chosen for their WASPy looks and style. They were trained to almost undersell. No aggressive sales techniques with associates attacking customers were allowed.

Directly across Madison Avenue was another Ralph store with a line of sophisticated casual wear and athletic styles. It was lively with hip music, the direct opposite of its across-the-street relative. Eventually, it was redesigned, to sell Ralph’s women’s lines and home products and the Rhinelander Mansion became strictly a men’s store.

Ralph lives his dreams. Nowhere does he indulge these aspirations more than in the five homes he owns, including a Manhattan apartment, a mansion in Bedford, New York, a Montauk beach house on Long Island, a tropical retreat in Jamaica, and a major ranch in Telluride, Colorado. He said he was, “concerned I don’t have a suit that will go with my Bedford mansion.” Always an automobile buff, he also amassed a collection of rare cars estimated to be worth $300 million. “Some people buy art, I collect cars,” he said.

All the World’s a Stage

Ralph said many times he wanted to be an actor or a director. He certainly had an elevated ability to transform himself into different subcultures which he could then translate into fashions. It was not only fashion, though, where he used his acting abilities. I remember an incident when Women’s Wear Daily was hosting a conference for many of the retail CEOs at a hotel in Carefree, Arizona. Ralph was going to speak. He arrived dressed up as a cowboy. You would have thought he had his horse tied up out back. He asked, “Where am I going to be speaking?” I pointed to an open-air stage that had a podium in the center. He said, “No, I don’t want to use a podium, take it away. I want to do it the way Frank does it.” I thought for a minute, then said, “Frank Sinatra?” “Yes,” he replied. “You know, the way he walks back and forth on the stage when he’s singing. I want to do it Frank’s way. You know people mistake me for Frank all the time. I was walking down a street in Paris last week and someone came up to me and asked me if I was Frank Sinatra.” Ralph had the unique ability to transform himself into those images he emulated.

World Building

The New England WASP aesthetic Ralph was so into was the antithesis of how he grew up. He was born and lived in the Bronx for eighteen years. His mother wanted him to become a rabbi, carrying on the tradition of her family. She said instead of all his financial success she wished he had accumulated religious wealth instead. His father was a house painter and a decorative artist. Ralph was born Ralph Lifshitz, changing his name to Lauren when he was eighteen years old.

When he was in his late teens, a friend brought him to a polo match. Ralph never looked back. He was overwhelmed. The whole scene: the players on horseback swinging their mallets, the stands full of sophisticated fans, and the entire ambiance was a transformative experience. It provided Ralph with a logo and a name for many of his fashion lines. Just as importantly, for an extremely visually creative person, his dreams could be real.

By Design

While not the kind of designer who could sketch or develop a prototype, he knew down to the most minute detail what he wanted. Once the shirt or jacket was made based on his concept and specifics, he fussed with it, changing buttons, the width of the shirt collar, the cut of the trousers, and so on. He was an absolute perfectionist. He could not stop tinkering, to the point of sometimes making products late for deliveries.

In his third year in business, he started showing a women’s line. While it never came close to matching his revenues in men’s, it did provide him with a bigger stage to continue to build his image. Women’s fashions got much more media coverage than men’s did.

It was his basics—polo shirts in multiple colors, khaki trousers, and fragrances—that initially paid the bills. Ralph put his creative energies into his high-end luxury collections and creating accessories for the brand. It was his significantly lower-priced, broadly marketed products that made him worth an estimated five to six billion dollars, making him the richest of the American designers. The high-end fashions that he showed in his collections provided a marketing umbrella that screamed luxury, but rarely showed a profit. Ralph’s company was basically a copy of his luxury line. A Polo shirt in cotton instead of cashmere looked just fine.

Amassing Wealth

In 1997, Ralph took the company public. It opened at $27 a share and he became an instant billionaire. Prior to going public, he did what he wanted and spent the company’s money on his pet products and marketing ideas. And spend he did. It is estimated he spent between $25 and $30 million on the Rhinelander mansion. Whatever he was interested in, money was no object. It worked. He built a strong international brand with his quality products and creative marketing efforts.

Once Ralph Lauren Inc. was a public company, he had to show consistent growth each quarter as well as new product ideas for future growth. He had to bring in new financial executives and, eventually, a CEO. Ralph, however, retained the title of chairman and chief creative officer. Now some 80 percent of Ralph Lauren retail revenues come from his various groups of outlet, off-price stores.

Donna Karan

A Donna Karan woman could change from a simple blazer to a sequined top, maybe even in a restroom, and go from serious office attire to a glamorous evening look. The Donna Karan woman did not want to be a fashion victim or a Barbie doll. She wanted to have a special presence, a Lauren Bacall, throw-them-some-attitude look. I can compete with anyone man or woman. Don’t mess with me.

Seven Easy Pieces

Donna Karan was passionate about a new way to design clothes for the busy, professional New York woman of the 1980s. She believed New York was the cultural, artistic, and most creative city in the country. And she also believed what professional and busy New York women wanted would resonate across the United States. Basically, Donna was designing for herself with her eponymous New York label. She understood the busy New York woman needed a select, interchangeable wardrobe with a high degree of flexibility with fashions that could be worn during the day and with minimum changes, be transformed into a look for the night.

Her seven easy pieces were a bodysuit, skirt, sequined top, sequined skirt, pants, blazer, and a coat thrown in. That is what Donna needed for her own busy life, and as it turned out, a lot of professional women across the country wanted it too. Donna provided women, especially professional women, with an alternative to wearing Armani-styled suits for business. Her clothes, while feminine, also projected a professional vibe.

Barbra Streisand, after falling in love with Donna’s cashmere sweater on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, came to see her and wanted to buy it. Donna wouldn’t sell it to her because the sweater was found to be very flammable and she had taken it off the market. Barbra offered to make out a non-indemnity clause right there and then if she could buy the sweater. Donna refused again. Barbra left, and a week later she turned up with the sweater from another source. Donna was impressed with her tenacity and it was the beginning of her closest female relationship. They became lifelong friends. Barbra said she was amazed Donna was able to accomplish so much, because her middle name was chaos.

Spiritual Iconoclast

Donna clearly marched to the beat of her own drummer. In her personal life she readily accepted new ideas, embracing spiritual practices and energetic healing. She used her celebrity as a designer to promote these beliefs. Donna established Urban Zen as a foundation that included her new Urban Zen fashion brand. The profits are dedicated to various charities concentrating on mind, body, and spirit in healthcare. The foundation promotes the practices of yoga, Reiki, essential oil therapy, and alternative care. She has worked closely with Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and nursing schools throughout the country to help them understand the Urban Zen programs. Donna donated $850,000 to Beth Israel because it was the most advanced alternative medicine-thinking hospital in New York. She oversaw the renovation of a floor in the hospital’s cancer center. She introduced the concept that yoga, meditation, and aromatherapy can enhance the outcomes of chemotherapy and radiation.

Donna also dabbled in experimentation. Donna and another of her good friends, Demi Moore, traveled to Austria to visit a healing center that included daily enemas/colonics and treatments with leeches that were applied to toxic or stress points. Donna said, “The leeches would sit on my body for half an hour until they were so blown up with blood they practically fell off.”

She consulted her psychic regularly. One instance was when her plane suffered electrical problems. It couldn’t take off, but the problem was expected to be a quick fix. She called her psychic and asked him if she should wait for it to be fixed. He told her no, that the number of the plane was a bad number. “Don’t fly on it,” he warned her. She didn’t. Nothing happened to the plane.

Kal Ruttenstein, former fashion director of Bloomingdale’s, told me that after he had just been released from the hospital after a serious illness, Donna paid him a visit. She told him about a special tree in Central Park that he needed to hug to improve his health. There was a period when she was said to require her design team to work barefoot so they could feel the earth’s vibrations.

One of the officers of her company invited her to a meeting with two potential licensing customers. Halfway through the meeting, she began “speaking in tongues.” Fortunately, the Donna Karan executive said, they were foreigners, and their English wasn’t great, so they didn’t pick up on it!

An Empire Strikes Back

After attending Parson’s School of Design, Donna went to work at Anne Klein in the late 1960s. Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Taki joined the Anne Klein Company and provided Donna with the structure and support she needed to grow and flourish as a designer. He was a significant investor in the already successful Anne Klein Company where Donna was associate designer. After Anne Klein died in 1974, Taki invested in the brand. His partners and executives in the company wanted to replace Donna with an outside, big-name designer. Taki was adamant that Donna should be given the job. He bought out his partners and placed Donna in charge of design. Donna was only twenty-five years old and seven months pregnant.

Despite being into the final months of her pregnancy, Donna dove right in. Together with her former classmate and friend, Louis Dell’Olio, they not only continued the Anne Klein brand but provided new products to substantially grow the business. Taki was wrestling with the idea of building a new bridge line for the company, which would be the first bridge line in the United States. “It was a huge expensive challenge,” he told me. “The rewards seem to trump the risks. First, we had to increase the prices on the designer line so the bridge line would be recognized as a less-expensive yet still high-quality product.” The new bridge line, called Anne Klein II, was an instant success.

After launching Anne Klein II, Taki said, “I knew our arrangement with Donna would be short-lived if I didn’t do something. I could lose her to someone else willing to take the necessary risks.” Donna wanted to start a small collection under her own name within the Anne Klein Company. Taki thought a second line in Anne Klein would cause confusion, so, they started talking about a separate company. Donna was nervous about a new company, as she had never made a name for herself since she worked under the protection of an established brand.

Taki said, “I knew Donna had a lot of untapped potential. One Friday afternoon I called her into my office. I fired her. I also directed her to report on Monday morning to the conference room on the fourth floor of 205 West 39th Street.” The new company did not have a name, a collection concept, or staff. Taki and Donna started looking through magazines to get a feeling for ads they liked. One ad, done by Peter Arnell, who had own advertising and public relations firm, caught their eye.

They named the first collection Donna Karan New York. Arnell came through with flying colors with a distinctive logo and look for the new company. The next big challenge for Arnell was to develop a look for a more causal, diffusion brand. Again, he came through, even coming up with the name DKNY. The Donna Karan New York and DKNY brands flourished for a good twelve years. Donna joined the very top level pantheon of American designers.

Close Encounters

Donna fell madly in love with Stephan Weiss while she was married to Mark Karan. Weiss was also married. They each divorced and married each other. She began to bring Weiss, who was an artist, more and more into the business side of the company and began to rely more on him and less on Taki. After the company went public in 1997, Donna, who controlled the company as CEO, made her husband Steven Weiss a full partner in running the business. Sadly, Stephan battled cancer for seven years and died at age sixty-two. Going public, in many ways negated the steady creative management that had built Donna Karan International into one of the most important fashion brands. In fact, Donna came to hate being a public company because she had to report to a board of directors. She could no longer spend money on projects that she wanted without first getting approval. In 2001, Donna Karan International Inc. was sold to LVMH for $450 million. Donna continued to design the line. In 2016, LVMH sold the company to G-III FOR $650 million. Karan left the company in 2015.

Zen State

She remains hyperactive in Urban Zen. Her Urban Zen fashion line is sold in three wholly owned boutiques and select department stores. She vigorously promotes her spirituality and healing practices. In his last days, Stephan told her repeatedly, “Take care of the nurses.” Donna is doing that and more. She was not glamorous, like Halston or Calvin, and recognized most New York working women were not size-two, model types. Her clothes gave women a significant confidence, “I am somebody. Look!”



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