The Label Is Anne Klein, but the Name That Keeps It Going Belongs to Donna Karan

updated 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

If most Americans are unaware that famed fashion designer Anne Klein died eight years ago, it's an ironic tribute to the work of Donna Karan. A design assistant before Klein's death from cancer at 51, Karan has so successfully kept the name and label alive that sales tripled to $150 million last year.

Hailed for her bold and innovative clothes, Donna, 33, resists any comparison with her late boss, noting, "If Anne Klein were alive today, God only knows what she'd be designing." A pioneer in women's sportswear, Klein persuaded women during the 1960s to trade in their prim, flowered "luncheon dresses" for more casual mix-and-match blazers, slacks and blouses. Karan has not merely turned out seasonal updates of Klein's now-classic look but has stayed on fashion's cutting edge. "She is open, adventuresome, daring," says Harper's Bazaar fashion editor Nonnie Moore of Karan's oversize jackets and blouses, sensuous mixtures of texture, and soft, draped leathers. The prices range from $120 for a silk blouse to $700 for a suede jacket. "Anne Klein was known more for precise tailoring," adds Moore, "but Donna's clothes are easier and more casual."

Despite success and industry recognition—in 1977 and 1981 Donna and her design associate, Louis Dell'Olio, received the coveted Coty Award—Karan admits she sometimes feels submerged beneath Klein's powerful persona. "It's weird," she concedes. "People think Anne Klein's still alive, and that I'm her—or her daughter. I don't get irritated, but I do want people to know there's a vital young designer at work here."

Born the daughter of a clothing manufacturer and a model turned showroom saleswoman, Donna Faske grew up on Long Island. After her second year at Parsons School of Design she approached Klein for a job. Taking the 5'8", 120-pound Donna for an aspiring runway model, Klein dismissed her with "Your hips are too large, dear." Later Donna was hired as a $75-a-week gofer.

Not for long. According to Klein's widower and business partner, Matthew "Chip" Rubinstein, Donna was soon "distracted" by her romance with a boutique owner named Mark Karan and "not pulling her weight." A disappointed Klein fired her in 1969, and Donna married Karan later that year. Then, deciding she wanted both career and marriage, Donna convinced Klein to hire her back in 1970. During the next four years Karan rose to become Klein's top design assistant.

But at 25, Karan had worked on only one collection by herself, and was seven months pregnant with her daughter, Gabrielle, when Klein fell gravely ill. Pitching in, Donna worked furiously until the last moments of her pregnancy, still giving orders as contractions forced her to head for the hospital. Karan recalls the next few days vividly: "My baby was born. She was dynamite. To me, the only thing in my life was that I had a baby girl." While nursing Gaby, she received a call from the office. "They wanted to know when was I coming back to work? I said, 'You're kidding. There's no way. The doctor won't let me!' "

So the office came to Donna. Models and salespeople were soon trooping out to her home in Lawrence, Long Island. Eight days after Gaby's birth, Anne Klein died. (Rubinstein, not wanting to "live in the dead past," later sold his interest in the firm.) Recalls Donna: "I could not believe Anne could do this to me. Along with the sorrow, I was angry because I had no time for this. I was a new mother." Nonetheless, six weeks later Karan had designed the fall collection, and New York Times fashion editor Bernadine Morris proclaimed her Seventh Avenue's newest star. Karan collapsed. "I couldn't stop crying," she says. "Suddenly I was frightened. I had done everything right so far, but I wasn't sure I could again."

She did—so successfully, in fact, that she felt "terribly guilty about being out of the house and leaving Gaby." Four years ago, determined to wind down her 16-hour workday, Donna moved into Manhattan to save commuting time. That signaled the end of her marriage to Mark. "He had been totally supportive about my career—too supportive," she explains. "I needed someone to call a halt to my crazy life."

Today she and Gaby live in a seven-room Manhattan pad with Donna's new man, sculptor Stephen Weiss, 43. "I'm her sea anchor," says Weiss, who has two teenagers of his own. "I keep her stable." Donna says that despite the current economic malaise, her sales are strong. For spring and summer she has a lineup of shorter skirts, cuffed, above-the-ankle linen trousers and suede pajama pants. Does it bother her that Anne Klein is still getting the credit? "Some people want to be famous," says Karan, "but right now I'm happy just turning people on to my clothes. It doesn't matter whose name is on the label."

From Our Partners