The Donna Karan empire grows step by small step

July 29, 1992|By Pat Morgan | Pat Morgan,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

If you want to try Donna Karan New York, the fragrance, you could wait until September, fly to New York and buy a bottle at the one retail store -- as yet unannounced -- that will sell the fragrance until January.

Or you could pick up the phone today and order a sample vial by calling 1-800-647-7474 any time.

And so Donna's dynasty grows.

Come October, you'll be able to buy Donna Karan Intimates (read: underwear) at stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Already, Ms. Karan offers women's clothes from three different collections -- Donna Karan New York, DKNY, DKNY Jeans -- as well as menswear, hosiery, eye wear, jewelry and shoes.

Expansion lines and licensing are hardly new. But Ms. Karan's Midas-touch success is staggering.

There is no denying that Ms. Karan is fashioning an empire. She ranks second only to Ralph Lauren when it comes to selling an entire lifestyle concept -- and Mr. Lauren's been at it for 25 years; Ms. Karan just started her own label in 1985, after more than a decade co-designing the Anne Klein collection with Louis Dell'Olio.

But if Mr. Lauren's fantasy life is one of discreet gentility, Ms. Karan's is of modern sophistication, from her sexy-but-strong business suits right down to her underwear, which is both chic and controlling. Can furniture, a la Ralph, be far behind?

The fragrance, meanwhile, marks the launch of the Donna Karan Beauty Co., for which Ms. Karan is said already to have a 10-year expansion plan.

From the beginning, Ms. Karan has seemed uncannily tuned into the minds of fashion-conscious women.

She guessed, correctly, that women were making their own money and buying their own luxuries, perhaps because she was doing so herself. She gambled, successfully, that those women wanted clothes that would allow them to look sexy and strong, feminine and firm.

While those ideas may not seem revolutionary today, with so many other industries courting self-sufficient females, Ms. Karan was one of the first to acknowledge and bank on such notions -- and it paid off.

She built a loyal following during the conspicuous-consumption '80s, focusing on working basics that exposed the '70s dress-for-success formula for the nonsense it was. She was also an early advocate of the comfort movement that has resulted in the ubiquity of stretch fabrics.

When she started expanding, Ms. Karan played it safe and smart. Each time, she began slowly, and each time, her instincts proved golden. Her signature line was first sold only at Bergdorf Goodman; her menswear collection was available only at Barney's. And now the phone-orders-only fragrance.

"Donna believes in starting small each time, so if she makes a mistake, it's a small mistake," says Lisa Pomerantz, spokeswoman for Donna Karan Intimates, which, ironically, is not getting the small-time introduction.

The lingerie will be housed in its own boutiques inside many of the department stores that carry Ms. Karan's ready-to-wear collection.

"Donna felt safe going ahead with a bigger roll-out because of Intimates' connection to her ready-to-wear," says Ms. Pomerantz. "Customers can buy a body toner with a plunging V-neck that will not show under their clothes, because it's been designed to complement the clothes exactly."

How convenient.

Not to mention costly. While simple cotton bras will sell for only $30 or $35, the body toners will cost about $100. And the line's truly luxurious items carry downright obscene price tags: a terry robe at $800; a brocade version at $8,000.

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