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Donna Karan 1992 In Women We Trust Lindbergh Rosem

How Donna Karan’s ignorant words undermine her own legacy

For a designer who sought to empower women, Karan’s victim-blaming comments cast a shadow over the reputation she built – writes Susie Lau

“You’ll look chic, sophisticated, and as authoritative as any man in the room. Only you’ll look like a woman.” That’s the raison d’être of Donna Karan, the brand, as explained by the woman herself in her memoir My Journey, published in 2015. As a mission statement it sounds dated, but back in 1984 – when Karan founded her label – you could forgive the parochialism. Read that sentence in light of Karan’s baffling comments responding to the allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein, and you’ll find yourself recoiling.    

“How do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality? And what are we throwing out to our children today about how to dance and how to perform and what to wear? How much should they show? You look at everything all over the world today and how women are dressing and what they are asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.” It’s the default excuse, one still touted time and time again – “She was asking for it” – only this time, instead of coming from an on-the-backfoot politician or a mansplaining judge in India, it hailed from a designer whose clothes emancipated women.

Looking at the original video, there doesn’t seem to be any misquotation, nor was it an off-the-cuff remark. It appeared to be a lucid and mediated opinion that frankly throws dark shadows on what Karan achieved as a designer. Her Seven Easy Pieces launched her career with a pragmatic way of looking at how women dressed by distilling it down to cornerstone pieces such as a black bodysuit and eschewing season-to-season shifts. In a landmark 1992 ad campaign entitled “In Women We Trust” (lead image) Karan and photographer Peter Lindbergh photographed model Rosemary McGrotha (pointedly a US size 8) being sworn in as President, sitting in the Oval Office and boarding Air Force 1. It was an imaginary scenario that sadly didn’t come to pass but set in motion Karan’s USP as a strong female fronting her own company, and in turn designing for would-be-leaders, boardroom participants and generally, women who were levelling up to their male counterparts.

And all the while, Karan sought to ensure you’ll still look “like a woman” while doing all that glass ceiling breaking. That’s a problematic sentiment today, but what she was trying to articulate at the time was that you didn’t have to put on a man’s suit in order to make advances in your career and gain parity with men. As she said to New York Magazine, “I’m not trying to elevate women at the expense of men, but to say a woman could go for it.”

So how do those former DK codes of cold shoulders, plunging necklines and form-fitting bodies worn with sheer tights figure into this hyper-sexualised way women are supposedly presenting themselves as bait to men today? What would Karan consider to be the appropriate wardrobe for women to wear now, one which doesn’t invite the advances of the Weinsteins of the world? Is there more than a hint of bitterness in her comments as a designer that has since stepped down from her own brand in 2015, and whose name is slowly fading as an icon of American fashion?

“How do those former DK codes of plunging necklines and form-fitting bodies figure into this hyper-sexualised way women are supposedly presenting themselves as bait to men today?”

Karan has since backtracked with an apologetic statement but the damage is done. “While answering a question on the red carpet I made a statement that unfortunately is not representative of how I feel or what I believe. I have spent my life championing women. My life has been dedicated to dressing and addressing the needs of women, empowering them and promoting equal rights.” 

If you levy the charge of the commodification of feminism in fashion, then the bigger crime is surely basing your brand and aesthetic on female empowerment, while secretly believing that it is what a woman wears which leads to sexual abuse and misogynistic behaviour at the hands of men. Karan (who stepped back from her brand in 2015) is no longer at that power table shaping what women wear today, and that may well be a good thing after these remarks have come to pass. It’s still disappointing that a supposed pioneer of the fashion industry has marred her own achievements with one callous comment. If “looking like a woman” invites the sort of conduct that Weinstein has reportedly committed, then we might sadly have to give Karan’s sartorial legacy the cold shoulder.