When the DKNY mural at the corner of Houston Street and Broadway in New York’s Soho was painted over in 2009, it marked the end of an era. For two decades, that image of the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty painted inside those four iconic letters had been a symbol of downtown Manhattan, beloved by locals and visitors.
It was so close to people’s hearts that when it was announced that the mural would be replaced by a sign – and adjoining mega store – courtesy of Abercrombie & Fitch spin-off Hollister, an uproar ensued, with people bemoaning the transformation of a quintessentially New York neighbourhood into an outdoor mall filled with fast-fashion chains.
Fashion-industry watchers, however, couldn’t help but notice that the removal of that sign paralleled the fortunes of DKNY, a brand that had once been the epitome of New York grit but gradually seemed to lose its way, challenged by rising labels such as Alexander Wang, which has made downtown cool its cri de coeur, and even mass retailers such as H&M and Zara.
When Donna Karan founded DKNY in 1989, she wanted to dress a younger crowd of women who weren’t yet ready for the bias-cut dresses and cashmere bodysuits of her main line. After 20 years in business, however, the label, which along with the high-end line has been part of French conglomerate LVMH since 2001, had become a victim of its own success, unable to keep up with the times and to adjust to the way young consumers shop.
Last year, LVMH came to the realisation that DKNY was in need of a shake-up and made the initially controversial decision to shut the main label, headed by its iconic founder, and focus its resources on DKNY, putting at the helm Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, the duo behind New York brand du jour Public School.
Although many saw this change as too drastic, you can’t deny that it was long overdue. After all, when you compare DKNY to other LVMH fashion labels that have been revived with surprising choices as creative directors – see Humberto Leon and Carol Lim at Kenzo and Jonathan Anderson at Loewe – you wonder why it took so long for the company to take action.
Chow, a New Yorker of Chinese descent, and Osborne, also a New Yorker but of Jamaican ancestry, were not the most obvious choices to replace Karan herself, whose Zen vibe and feminine touch seem at first to be a far cry from the urban edge of Public School. The pair are the latest darlings of the New York fashion scene, earning accolades from both press and buyers after building a strong business that, not unlike DKNY in its heyday, is inextricably linked to its home turf.
We met them last autumn in their DKNY studio located in Manhattan’s Garment District, where they sat down for a frank chat about the daunting task of taking over a brand so beloved by the public. Now splitting their duties between their own label and DKNY, Chow and Osborne are an unlikely fashion duo: super chilled and friendly; displaying no airs whatsoever; and totally honest about how they’re still grappling with this new responsibility.
“I think we’re going through it now,” says Chow when asked about how they tackled the challenge of designing their debut collection, spring/summer 2016, unveiled in New York last September. “What to fall back on and what to take a lead on. We had our ideas coming in and that’s changed a bit. But it’s such a huge archive and DKNY is just so relevant, the concept of what DKNY started out is so relevant today, it’s hard not to get some influence from the past.
“When we got in, we actually wanted to not look at the past and really try to set it forward. Then, when we got here, we realised there are such strong codes that live in DKNY that you cannot avoid them and you have to embrace them because they’re really good codes so you can alter them for now and make it modern.”
The first thing they did after taking over was to scrap the brand’s advertising campaign and replace it with an old black-and-white DKNY photograph taken by Peter Lindbergh, depicting a girl walking on Wall Street. It was a back-to-basics statement of intent that seemed to suggest an homage to DKNY’s history, but it felt instead more like a celebration of New York, the city they – and DKNY – call home.
“It’s amazing to see how many people she touched deeply and how the brand has touched people,” says Osborne. “And being from New York, it’s not more pressure but it’s more emotional and it really touches us in a different way, more so than if it was just another brand, because it embodies New York and it’s in the name, the logo. So we take up on our shoulder what it really represents.”
Even more poignant was their decision to stage their first show at Freedom Tower, the former site of the World Trade Center, a symbol, if there was ever one, of New York’s resilience. “It was definitely a statement,” says Osborne. “I think going into it, we were really excited about the space. Knowing symbolically what has happened there and the changes and everything that have been going on, what the Twin Towers and the Freedom Tower represent. It’s powerful, right?
“So having the show there and how the space there was broken down and rebuilt in a new way was something we kind of felt symbolically worked perfectly for DKNY. How there are a lot of changes now and it’s a new day and it’s a new space. Even the brand is in a new space.”
The collection they showed, a mix of easy-to-wear tailored separates and breezy dresses in a New York-appropriate palette of greys, blacks and some pin-striped patterns, echoed DKNY’s woman-friendly attitude but with a modern urgency that elevated the brand, moving it away from its more recent focus on denim pieces and printed baby-doll dresses.
What was on top of the duo’s minds was the fact that as a woman, Karan was particularly attuned to women’s needs – who can forget her signature seven easy pieces? – which is why, throughout the process, they reached out to her for some advice.
“Leading to the show we spoke to Donna a few times and she walked through the line and she put a stamp on it about femininity and about paralleling women with men,” says Osborne. “I think we’re well aware about what it was and what it is and how we’re going to push that forward and thinking about it in a woman’s mindset and with our point of view. It’s really about empowering women and the tension between femininity and strength is where we’re going to try to find our aim for DKNY.”
In spite of the challenges ahead, this is undeniably a good time to reinvent a label like DKNY. Just look at the recent rise of so-called “bridge” or “contemporary” brands such as the aforementioned Alexander Wang and other New York success stories such as 3.1 Phillip Lim – DKNY was a precursor to all that.
Shoppers, however, don’t pay attention to such obsolete definitions anymore, Chow explains. “I think terms like ‘bridge’ are only for the context of retail,” he says. “They’re solely for a retail discussion but nowadays the high and low are sort of coming in one space so there’s no need for bridge. People are the bridge. They bridge the gap themselves. They don’t need a brand or store or a company that says, ‘Here’s the bridge between the two.’”
The spring/summer collection started trickling into stores only last month and it’s obviously too early to see what the impact of this new appointment will be. Hype aside, it’s evident that the two are in it for the long run and that their formula of creating practical yet aspirational pieces bodes well for the rebirth of a label that is still a beloved emblem of the can-do spirit of the city it calls home.