How Donna Karan Finds Serenity in Today’s Tumultuous Fashion Landscape

Two words: Urban Zen.

Donna Karan
Donna Karan

In June 2015, Donna Karan left her eponymous label, nearly 31 years after its founding. The collective response from the fashion industry was nearly audible: What would the remarkably driven designer do next? Keep working, of course. The 67-year-old was now free to focus all of her attention on her philanthropic brand, Urban Zen, which supports creativity in emerging nations through the sale of products including intricate wooden furniture and upcycled beaded necklaces from Haitian artisans. The nonprofit also created an alternative medicine program, the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program. Additionally, Ms. Karan, who met the Observer in an airy, open loft above the Urban Zen shop in the West Village, designs a luxurious range of clothing under the same label, churning out buttery suede jackets and cushy cashmere dresses. But still, comfort is king. “If you can’t sleep in it and go out in it,” said Ms. Karan, “I don’t want to know from it.”

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You’ve already created so much through your Urban Zen Foundation. What’s one thing you have yet to achieve? I have a whole vision for a living facility, where all the things that you need, from acupuncture to body work, massage therapy and alternative health care are right there for you. I wanted to have a restaurant that was all healthy food and an exhibition center, where people can come together to make a difference in the world. You could get taken care of first thing in the morning or late at night and never leave the apartment, except to go to work. That’s my dream. I want to live in that space.

Currently, you’re expanding your Urban Zen stores, including a shop-in-shop at Bergdorf Goodman. We’re also opening a pop-up store in the Americana [on Long Island] with the whole lifestyle product line. We’re reopening in Los Angeles, on Nemo Street. It’s a tiny little street, but we have a parking lot, a kitchen and an outdoor garden. I like my stores condensed. I like the intimacy of dressing and addressing people.

When you left your namesake brand, did you turn to your good friend Calvin Klein for any advice? No, he just said, ‘Let’s travel.’ We [recently] went to Vietnam, Burma, India and Morocco. We started traveling two and a half years ago, when we went to Ethiopia, which we loved.

Do you think fashion’s fixation on youth is an issue? It’s wonderful to have young designers, but it’s wonderful to have a brand statement. If you think of Ralph, Calvin and myself, you know what we’ve designed. You can pick it out. I don’t think you can do that anymore. To build a brand is not just being a designer—there’s so much more that goes into it. It’s a continuity of understanding the customer. I look at my clothes then and now—they haven’t changed. Maybe I’m boring.

That’s not boring. That’s just a signature. Right, it’s just who I am. Black is black, and I’m not going to take it back. Stretch is stretch, jersey is jersey, and it’s comfortable.

Do you mentor any young designers? I mentor kids at the Parsons School of Design, and let me tell you, I feel like I’m talking in cyberspace. Designers today are so technologically oriented, where as I’m more visceral. I work with the body, I work with the fabric, and it talks to me. I see them as much more flat-patterned, more artisanal. I’m curious to see where that’s going to go.

Would you say that you have an aversion to technology? Technology and I do not get along. I failed typing in high school, but I love Instagram! I took it on as something fun, but now I think it’s turning into a business, and it’s over my head a little bit.

So are you on email? I can do it on the phone, but I have to tell you, this [iPhone] was a real challenge, as everyone around me knows. 

How Donna Karan Finds Serenity in Today’s Tumultuous Fashion Landscape