Philanthropy

Legendary Designer Donna Karan Reflects on Fashion, Philanthropy, and the Future

At 70, the fashion icon shares why she’s never looking back.
IMAGE COURTESY DONNA KARAN/URBAN ZEN
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On her 70th birthday, Donna Karan, a pioneer in everything from the capsule wardrobe and “cold shoulder” cut-outs to feminist fashion and philanthropy, could justifiably take a swig of champagne, blow out her candles, and bask in the legacy of her career.

But she has no intention of doing that.


Donna Karan New York's "In Women We Trust" advertisement came out in 1992 featuring Rosemary McGrotha.

“What I’ve done, I’ve done and I appreciate it, but I live in the moment,” the legendary designer told T&C. And at the moment, Karan is wholly immersed in Urban Zen, the center and foundation she’s created to promote children’s education, partnerships with local artisans in Haiti and Ethiopia, integrative training, holistic wellness, and more.

“I like to joke that Urban Zen should be called Urban Chaos, but it is really about trying to find the calm today, which isn’t easy,” Karan explained. “There is so much happening in the world. Urban Zen is a space and a place where people who want to make a change in the world come together. It is about educating the mind, body, and spirit in so many different ways.”


"I have always wanted a store where the product supported a foundation, but of course Urban Zen is so much more than that," Karan said.

Karan will soon host the Apple Awards, which she created in honor of her late husband Stephan Weiss. (Truth be told, she wanted to hold this year’s awards on her birthday, but her daughter persuaded her otherwise.) This year’s honorees are photographer Jimmy Nelson, model Iman, and Joel Towers, the executive dean of the Parsons School of Design.

“I honor people who have made a difference in the world,” she explained. “It started with Bill Clinton, who took me to Haiti and really opened my eyes to what is going on there—he was the first recipient.” Other Apple Award honorees include Hilary Clinton, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and Nadja Swarovski.

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Karan at work in the early days

When asked what it has been like to take a step away from fashion, Karan thinks for moment. “Let’s put it this way: Everything is about dressing and addressing. Fashion for me was always about life,” she said. “I was always in the dressing room, hearing stories. It was never just about the clothes.”

She goes on to point out that she started practicing yoga and meditation “way back when it was really whoo whoo and everyone thought I was a whacko,” and put a juice bar in DKNY before there was one on every street corner. “Designing clothes is kind of selfish really,” she laughs. “I make clothes for real women because I am a real woman and I designed everything I needed. When my daughter started stealing my clothes, I started DKNY so she could have the clothes she needed too.”


Karan in Ethiopia. The clothing, home goods, and accessories stocked in Urban Zen are made by or in collaboration with communities around the world, including Ethiopia and other parts of Africa.

Ultimately, fashion alone didn't fulfill Karan after a series of personal tragedies. Her mentor, Anne Klein, passed away when Karan was still in the hospital after giving birth. She had to head right back into the studio to finish the collection, a jarring and painful experience. When her husband died years later, Karan became committed to supporting integrative training, which offers support and creates a buffer against grief for patients and nurses alike.

“Because I’ve always been involved with health and I’ve had so many people close to me die, I realized how important it is to take care of the people taking care of you. One of the last things Stephen asked me to do was, ‘Take care of the nurses.’ So a big part of Urban Zen is palliative care and integrated therapy.”

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The way Karan tells it, there are a lot of "big parts" to Urban Zen, and a lot of little parts too. The dizzying offering makes it seem as though Urban Zen is her attempt to save the entire world—she doesn’t disagree. “I feel it all; I am so sensitive, but I am also really grateful to be where I am. Tragic times like this one make us wake up—you can’t help but not wake up.”


Karan with her grandchildren

As for the future? She’s not too worried, “Our children are a hell of a lot smarter than we are, they can see the future and they are taking action.” As always, her prescient eye can envision brighter days ahead.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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