Donna Karan might not have graduated from Parsons, but that doesn’t mean the New York fashion icon isn't full of sage advice for the 2017 class of seniors. The entrepreneur joined a group of the most talented new designers this past Monday night—along with the school’s deans Burak Cakmak and Joel Towers, and, of course, this year’s honoree, Rihanna—for the annual Parson’s Benefit. And we can’t help but wonder if her 18-year-old self, who dropped out of the design school to pursue her career, would have guessed she’d land here.
Now, years and quite a few successful labels—namely DKNY, Donna Karan Collection, and Urban Zen, the latter of which is her focus today—later, Karan says it’s passion and knowledge of the “world of conscious consumerism” that she finds honorable in young designers. She’s certainly already an example for those just getting their start, but when we had a chance to talk to Karan, we learned that there’s much more advice the designer and philanthropist has to dole out. You don’t need to be a student to listen to it either.
Scroll down for our full exchange with the industry vet.
WHO WHAT WEAR: What was your experience like collaborating with Rihanna for the Urban Zen collection? Are there any surprising similarities between you two?
DONNA KARAN: As a child, I always wanted to sing and dance, and then I wound up being a fashion designer, and Rihanna sings and dances, and she wound up being a fashion designer. She does remarkable work, she has a passion for the body and understanding of the body. Working together with her at the D.O.T (Design Organization Training) and Parsons School of Design is a dream come true to bring awareness to Haiti. In fact, giving jobs, job creation, and experiencing the creativity in Haiti is what I’m looking forward to the most.
WWW: Do you feel like it's important to collaborate with women who might not necessarily work in the same field as you?
DK: Absolutely! Particularly in philanthropy, it’s not about the “me,” it’s about the “we” on every level. We each have our passions, and when we collaborate, that’s when you really can address the issues at hand, and that is what Urban Zen is all about—creativity, collaboration, and change.
WWW: What’s your best piece of advice for Parsons graduates—and perhaps all graduates—as they enter a new chapter of their lives?
DK: Travel. People should go see the world and be inspired before taking that leap into a business that they’ll probably never leave.
WWW: Is there any advice you would give women, specifically, who are looking to create their own career success—in fashion or otherwise?
DK: Create a posse. You’re only as good as the people you have around you.
WWW: And finally, having stood in the Parsons students’ shoes before, what do you credit to be the best first steps you took in your career?
DK: I think the most important thing as a fashion designer is to work at retail, which I did prior to going to school and then continued doing after school. It’s one thing to design, and it’s another thing to understand what the customer needs and what she can wear. Also, it’s important to work for another designer to have the experience and learn from someone.
WWW: Okay, on the flip side, what was your first big career misstep? How’d you deal with it?
DK: I got fired from Anne Klein right after she hired me in my junior year of Parsons, and after that, I didn’t walk into a large organization. I walked into a much smaller one, and I was able to really learn from Patti Cappalli at Addenda, which prepared me to move forward and work again with Anne Klein. Learning about fabric, color, the body, fit … it’s so important. You can’t be a designer if you don’t understand these fundamentals.
Up next: Take a look at the advice everyone who wants to work in fashion should read.