By Charlotte Cowles – Harpers Bazaar Magazine.
Donna Karan and Barbra Streisand reflect on friendship, fashion, and the sweater that changed their lives.
Stephen Trupp/Globe Photos/ZumaPress.com
“When I was a teenager, I wanted to be Barbra Streisand,” says Donna Karan, who was a freshman at Hewlett High School on New York’s Long Island when the singer’s Grammy-winning debut, The Barbra Streisand Album, became a smash hit in 1963. “I cut my hair to look like her, and I listened to her music nonstop.” While gathering materials for her new memoir, My Journey (out this month from Ballantine Books), Karan came across a photograph of herself, “probably around 10th or 11th grade,” doing her very best Streisand for the camera. “As you can tell, I practiced for hours—with my hand on my jaw and everything.”
Of all things to bring Karan face-to-face with her idol, it was a sweater that led to their introduction in 1977—specifically, a burgundy chenille pullover that caught Streisand’s eye when she was flipping through Harper’s Bazaar. Karan, then at the helm of Anne Klein, had designed it for the fall collection, and Streisand wanted one. “I got a call from my friend, the interior designer Ilene Wetson, and she said, ‘I’ve arranged for Barbra to meet you. She just bought one of your fur coats and would like something to match,’ ” says Karan, who was so beside herself with anticipation that she cleared her calendar and got her hair and makeup done on the day of their meeting. “When Barbra walked into the office, I was so nervous,” she remembers. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I told her I had to sit down to compose myself. She just looked at me like I was weird.”
Streisand immediately zeroed in on the sweater and its matching hat, but there was a problem: A month earlier, both pieces had to be recalled from stores after Karan accidentally ignited one of them with a cigarette—in her shrink’s office, no less. Extremely flammable, they were deemed too hazardous to sell. “I told Barbra she couldn’t have them because I could just see the headline, BARBRA STREISAND GOES UP IN FLAMES IN AN ANNE KLEIN SWEATER,” says Karan. Undeterred, Streisand even offered to sign a legal waiver, but Karan stood her ground.
Nevertheless, Barbra being Barbra, the singer somehow managed to get her hands on the sweater and hat anyway. “They’re soft, cuddly, and not itchy—I can’t wear wool,” Streisand says. She’s not sure what became of the sweater in the years since, “but I still have the hat!”
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw a picture of her wearing them,” recalls Karan. “It was my first lesson that Barbra doesn’t take no for an answer.”
The relationship between the two women progressed from worship to friendship in the mid-1980s, and today they consider each other family. (Karan even has a special “Barbra’s room” in her house, where Streisand stays when she visits.) “The more Barbra and I got to know each other, the more we realized how much we had in common,” says Karan. “Our insecurities were similar. Deep down, she was still the girl from Brooklyn, and I was the girl from Queens. You never get that out of your DNA.” Streisand felt a sense of kinship as well: “Donna was very generous, caring, and sweet,” she says. “We sounded alike, with the same accent.”
They also shared struggles with work-life balance. “I felt the guilt of not being there for [Karan’s daughter] Gabby; the guilt that she had, perhaps, for not being there for [Streisand’s son] Jason,” says Karan. “We were very Jewish. Call it Jewish guilt.” Their families traveled and spent holidays together, and Streisand was close with Karan’s late husband, Stephan Weiss. “He adored her,” Karan says. “Every time I wanted something, I’d ask Barbra to call him. He would never say no to her.”
What’s more, the sweater sparked the beginning of Streisand’s love affair with Karan’s designs, leading to decades of collaboration. “Barbra taught me to understand the body on a different level,” explains Karan. “She knows every angle of how she looks because she’s used to being onstage and on camera, and her attention to detail is beyond the beyond.” In 1998, when Streisand married James Brolin, she asked Karan to make her wedding dress. “She sent me drawings of what she wanted, but I disagreed,” says the designer. “Her sketch was bias cut, more flowing, and I wanted her to wear something more toward the body and drapey. So I made both dresses for her and let her choose. She chose mine.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR.