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She championed the "common touch'

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Carrie Donovan, a fashion editor who could easily have rested on her laurels and leopard skins but came out of semiretirement to find a new and even more enthusiastic audience as "the lady from Old Navy," died Monday in Manhattan. She was 73.

She had been ailing for several months, said George O'Brien, a friend and former colleague, and died at New York Weill Cornell Center.

From the beginning, Donovan's career had a screwball quality worthy of Hollywood. Though she studied dressmaking at the Parsons School of Design, she could never master a needle and thread. She lacked a similar command of typewriters, and as a reporter for the New York Times, then as an editor for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and the New York Times Magazine, she wrote all her copy by hand.

And though she was among the first to applaud the designs of Donna Karan and Perry Ellis, and brought a virtually unknown Elsa Peretti to the attention of Tiffany, Donovan was something of an Auntie Mame when it came to managing her own affairs. Money was silk in her fingers, and the rest was often serendipity.

"She was perfectly cast for a fashion editor," designer Karl Lagerfeld said.

Donovan possessed an eye for talent and a nose for news, a combination that, with her inevitable pearls and outsized black glasses, set her apart from her fashion sisters. She loved the fantastical, but in her editorial pages, she was adamantly on the side of readers. She was French in her leanings, but in her translations of fashion's edicts, she was as American as Carrie.

As her mentor Diana Vreeland once told her: "My dear, you've got the common touch!"

Nowhere did she apply this more surprisingly than in her television ads for Old Navy, which began running in the fall of 1997. In all, Donovan appeared in 42 spots, including one that featured her piloting an airplane with a dog named Magic. If Donovan, the last of a trilogy of great fashion dames that included Vreeland and Carmel Snow of Bazaar, reigned in a small world, she now had fans everywhere. Teenagers and grandmothers alike hailed her in the street.

"She was tickled pink," said movie director Joel Schumacher, a friend since the 1960s. "It made her a celebrity."

"She gave us fashion credibility," said Dennis Leggett, Old Navy's creative director.

As a child in Lake Placid, N.Y., where Carolyn Gertrude Amelia Donovan was born on March 22, 1928, she craved fashion. At 10, she sent actor Jane Wyman sketches for a wardrobe and received a handwritten reply.

Her first job was in the hat department at Saks. By the time Donovan graduated from Parsons in 1950, she had formed friendships with two of the world's leading dressmakers, Norman Norell and Jacques Fath. More followed.

In 1955, recognizing her limitations as a designer, Donovan went to work as a fashion reporter for the New York Times, where, O'Brien said, she felt outgunned by more experienced writers. She persevered, snaring a 1963 interview with Vreeland when she went to Vogue, and Donovan soon joined the magazine as one of Vreeland's acolytes.

When Vreeland was fired in 1971, Donovan decamped for Bazaar. She returned to the New York Times in 1977 as the magazine's style editor.

Those 16 years were her best. She introduced readers to Karan and Paloma Picasso. She documented the opulence of the 1980s and ushered in the next decade by photographing the trendiest clothes on people in their 90s.

In the final months of her life, Donovan returned to the New York Times. She wrote in the magazine about a little-known designer named Marjan Pejoski, whose feathered-swan dress for singer Bjork caused a stir at the Academy Awards. She thought Pejoski had flair.

She is survived by a sister, Joan, of Cambridge, Mass.

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