After redefining fashion for women in the workplace in the 1980s and launching a global style empire, the tireless designer sets her sights on health, wellness and keeping cool in a chaotic world.
Author Mike Albo
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER
IT’S FRIDAY, and Donna Karan’s staff is trying to find a moment for me to talk to her. “She will be free in 10 minutes,” they say every 10 minutes for two hours. But then, the designer has always had a lot on her plate. Born Donna Faske in Queens, New York, to parents who worked in the fashion industry, she attended Parsons School of Design and took a job early on as an associate designer for Anne Klein. Her rise was rapid. In 1974, at the age of 25, literally days after Klein’s death, Karan became the label’s head designer. She had also just given birth to her daughter.
In 1984, with her second husband, sculptor Stephan Weiss (her first was Mark Karan), she started her own line, Donna Karan, and sent out the groundbreaking “7 Easy Pieces” that made fashion history, offering women a way to dress as The Boss: in control, businesslike and feminine at the same time. The pair then launched the lifestyle clothing line DKNY in 1989, “the pizza to the collection’s caviar,” which was bought by LVMH in 2001 and has since branched out into furniture, candles and even phone apps.
These days Karan devotes much of her time to her Urban Zen Foundation, a humanitarian organization (complete with an earthy clothing line) that collaborates with medical professionals to incorporate alternative medicines into their care regimens. The foundation came about after Karan lost Weiss to lung cancer in 2001. Seeing how aromatherapy and yoga helped him while he battled the disease, she became focused on patient care, approaching it with the same intensity that marked her abrupt ascent at Anne Klein.
When Karan finally called, she apologized for all the rescheduling, but she sounded busy and had to make it quick. She wasn’t rude. More like: intense. Like a boss with a lot on her plate.
HEMISPHERES: Your father was a tailor, your stepfather was in the apparel business, and your mother was a fitting model and saleswoman. It’s like you were totally immersed in your medium from the start. I guess you never thought you would do something else.
DONNA KARAN: No, no, no! I wanted to be a singer and a dancer. But I wasn’t good enough for that. Then when I was in high school I did my first fashion show.
HEMISPHERES: Oh my — a high school fashion show? Tell me what it was like.
KARAN: It was probably the same clothes I do today. I made all of them myself. A halter top, palazzo pants and prints in African tribal patterns.
HEMISPHERES: Was that when you realized you had talent?
KARAN: Was it an ah-ha moment? No, it wasn’t. It was what I did. But I have had a lot of ah-ha moments. When my daughter was born and my boss died and I had to come up with an entire line at the same time: That was an ah-ha moment. My entire life changed. It was a thunderstorm. Bigger than life. But I had to get the work done and I couldn’t think about anything else. You are in the moment. That is about as zen as you can get.
HEMISPHERES: When you launched your own label in 1984, did you know that you were making something that would be so transformative?
KARAN: It was actually selfish. I wanted to make clothing for myself and my friends. So that’s what I started doing. Then I needed the shoes, I needed the hosiery, so I kept designing.
HEMISPHERES: Is the Urban Zen collection notably different from your other lines?
KARAN: The Urban Zen line is for someone who has an ease and confidence in the way she dresses. I start with a bodysuit and leggings and build from there. I believe in clothes that have to go from day into evening. Basically, if you can’t sleep in it and go out in it, I don’t want to know about it. It’s not about a season. It’s not about doing wholesale. It’s about addressing the mind and body and spirit. With Urban Zen, I don’t have to design a collection every four months, like with DKNY and Donna Karan. I only show when I develop something new. And a percentage of the sales goes to the foundation.
HEMISPHERES: The Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program just launched its second year of training. How has the response been?
KARAN: It’s kind of mind-boggling. People who never thought it could be possible are reacting positively. The nurses respond to it, the doctors respond to it, as well as patients and their loved ones. Next we are teaching nurses in Ohio.
HEMISPHERES: Is incorporating Reiki into the program your way of trying to move people beyond its gooey new-age stigma?
KARAN: That’s exactly right. Right now I’m giving Reiki to someone.
HEMISPHERES: Right now? Who? Are you trained in Reiki?
KARAN: You know, I always had a high level of energy. I guess that’s pretty obvious. I can feel the “white energy” in my fingers. But I started practicing as we were incorporating Reiki into the program.
HEMISPHERES: How do you find the time to do all of this and still maintain your labels? You must have an insane schedule.
KARAN: I have an extraordinary group of people around me who understand the language of Donna Karan and DKNY. But I try to do yoga every morning. My morning time is very important to me, because once I get out of the house, it’s over. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I’m usually up till two.
HEMISPHERES: I wanted to ask you about your late husband, Stephan Weiss. You met him when you were 18, but when you saw him again after your divorce, you essentially realized you were soulmates. Did that make you think that love is a matter of destiny?
KARAN: I think love is out there for you. It’s interesting how many millions and millions of people are out there, and how you arrive at that one person. It’s all in the cards, quite honestly.
HEMISPHERES: So you believe in a path. Have you ever felt as if you are off it?
KARAN: Every day! There are two sides of me: feeling guilty that I’m not with my daughter and granddaughter enough, and then feeling like I need to constantly call the office. I don’t think that will ever change. But we can’t all be perfect. I heard that the Dalai Lama doesn’t like traveling on planes. See? Even the Dalai Lama has a thing. We all have our things. I am as much urban chaos as I am urban zen.
HEMISPHERES: Urban Chaos! Your next line! [Karan chuckles] Overall, you make me feel optimistic about someone using creativity to benefit the world around her.
KARAN: We are living in a world of chaos. We have to be responsible. Designing for me was about caring for the person. Then it just expanded to incorporate all of the aspects of a person. Especially if suffering broke into their lives.
HEMISPHERES: Is that a worldview you came around to after the tragedies you suffered in your own life?
KARAN: I had no time. My mother died the day of a show. My boss died when a collection was due. My husband passed away near a show. I didn’t have a moment. I think I spread out the mourning every day of my life in my work. But now we are doing the work every day at Urban Zen. And now I have to get off the phone. It’s Friday and everyone is freaking out. It’s called the Friday Freak-Out. Sorry. I gotta go.
MIKE ALBO, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has had Reiki before and kind of loves it.