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Donna Karan talks growing up on Long Island in new memoir 'My Journey'

Donna Karan's new memoir,

Donna Karan's new memoir, "My Journey" (Ballantine, $30), covers her life, from gangly girlhood in Woodmere to iconic American fashion designer and philanthropist. Credit: Christine Morden

She was supposed to have been a stay-at-home mom.

That was the plan, when Donna Karan gave birth to her daughter, Gabby, in 1974. But just a week later, trucks rumbled up the quiet cul-de-sac in Lawrence to the new white house where she and her first husband, Mark Karan, were starting a family. Out tumbled racks of clothes, seamstresses and an unfinished pre-fall collection for her then-boss, Anne Klein. Karan had thought her workmates were coming to coo over the baby. She'd even bought bagels.

Soon after, Klein died unexpectedly, and it fell to Karan, then an associate designer at the label, to finish the line.

"I stood in the chaos of my dining room, my infant in a basinet, barely absorbing the news," Donna Karan writes in her new book. "I had no choice but to react quickly and march forward."

Just 25 -- and terrified -- she took a leap of faith. And a fashion superstar was born.

Karan's eagerly anticipated new memoir, "My Journey" (Ballantine, $30), written with Kathleen Boyes and due out Oct. 13, covers her life, from gangly girlhood in Woodmere to iconic American fashion designer and philanthropist. Along the way, she recounts her loves (she'd eventually divorce Karan and marry "soul mate" and business partner, Stephan Weiss), losses (her father, at age 3; her mentor, Klein, then Weiss, both too soon, to cancer) and what she wore (at George W. Hewlett High School it was gladiator sandals and fedora hats).

And, of course, it covers what she designed, starting with her very first fashion show, part of an art project with a classmate at Hewlett High.

"Back then, nobody had any expectations of me, so I felt no pressure," she says, speaking in an exclusive interview by phone from Italy. "I could've shown a paper bag over somebody's head."

Karan, who recently stepped down as chief designer of Donna Karan International, will forever be linked with New York -- her clothes channel the energy of the city, she writes, with "patterns that echo subway graphics . . . palettes that mimic glistening pavement." But it's her early days on Long Island that nurtured her artistic sensibility and environmental awareness, two driving forces in her life today.

Karan, 67, moved from Kew Gardens to Woodmere with her mother, stepfather and older sister when she was 6, living first in a three-bedroom split level in the Saddle Ridge Estates section, then in a smaller, two-family home near the railroad tracks. Karan's mom wasn't like most -- she worked as a showroom model, and was stylish, temperamental, bipolar. Her daughter grew up cautious, insular.

"I felt a little different from most people, even as a child," Karan says.

Still, the suburbs provided a safe haven. There were Saturdays at the beauty parlor, Sundays on horseback at the Hempstead Riding Academy, and many a summer at the El Patio Beach Club in Atlantic Beach. She discovered she was a savvy merchandiser when at 14 (she lied about her age) she started working at Shurries in Cedarhurst. And at Hewlett High, revered art teachers (Don Dunn, Geraldine Petersen, Kenneth Goode) gave her direction, confidence -- and taught her how to draw.

While many young artists move to New York eager to shed their small-town roots, Karan liked living on Long Island, she admits, and commuted back and forth, first to Parsons School of Design as a college student, then to work in the early years of her career. She eventually moved to the city, but maintains a home in East Hampton next door to her daughter's.

"I need to be by nature, and I think the importance of that came from growing up on Long Island," she says. "Nature is part of my DNA, part of who I am."

The book tracks all of this and more, through collections and fashion trends, motherhood and motorcycle rides, chats with the Dalai Lama to gin rummy with Barbra Streisand.

Today, Karan's focused on building her Urban Zen brand and foundation, which promotes health care, education and artisans in struggling cultures around the world.

Recalling that first crazed collection, produced on the fly in her dining room in Lawrence, Karan chuckles at the irony of it all.

"It was the last thing I ever expected," she says. "I expected to stay home and be a mom. That's why I say God has a way of guiding you. I was guided. There was a path for me, no question about it."


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