BY ELIZABETH E. THORP | August 15, 2014 | People
Donna Karan celebrates 30 years in fashion with her eponymous brand and shares her strong commitment to conscious consumerism.
The Stephan Weiss Studio in New York’s West Village used to be the center of creativity for artist and entrepreneur Stephan Weiss, late husband of fashion icon Donna Karan. Now, it is where Karan feels most at home. The loft serves as a center for raising consciousness and inspiring meaningful change in the areas of well-being, cultural preservation, and children’s empowerment through Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation. I met her at this stunning, 8,000-squarefoot, two-level space with walls of windows and filled with Weiss’s art and curios from their travels and life together; it’s beautiful and very personal. We have much to discuss, as Karan has had a big year; she is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Donna Karan International.
Patti Cohen, Karan’s longtime friend and her executive vice president of marketing and communications for 30 years, welcomes me and offers me food that is laid out on a huge wooden table, explaining which items are vegan, which are gluten-free. A naturally tightly wound, type-A person, I find myself relaxing immediately and think how lovely this environment is—tranquil world music, healthy foods, a fresh breeze entering from the attached Japanese-style rooftop garden. The studio feels miles away from the hustle and bustle of a big city.
I’m experiencing Karan’s and Urban Zen’s mission concomitantly: Like her foundation, she shares the principles of holistic living and encouraging wellness through a lens of spirituality and connectedness. This is how Karan lives her very big life and no doubt has had a positive impact on her 30-plus years as a visionary in the fashion industry.
Karan launched her eponymous company with Weiss in 1984. Her first collection focused on “Seven Easy Pieces” that could be mixed and matched and take women from day to night. The core of the collection was a bodysuit.
Arriving to the studio in a robe, fresh-faced, with damp hair, Karan looks a lot younger than her 65 years. (I make a mental note to take up yoga.) Our chat takes place while Karan gets her hair and makeup done. She is curled up in a chair, ready to talk, totally oblivious to the people working on her. Of her big anniversary, Karan says, “It seems like yesterday [that it all began], although the middle area gets a little gray. I’m in the midst of writing my autobiography right now. I’m reflecting back on the whole thing, and it’s really interesting how much I’ve forgotten!”
For the Donna Karan brand 30 years later, Karan espouses that—funny enough—it feels more valid today than it was in the beginning. The bodysuit was based on yoga, and Karan practiced yoga before it was cool. We joke that only Karan and Sting were the only token yogis back then. “Everything I designed then is much more understandable now,” she says.
Remember the Donna Karan dress that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton wore to the Governors Ball at the White House 21 years ago? It was Karan’s cold shoulder dress that was widely discussed by mainstream and fashion media. Her concept for this dress is very simple: No one ever gains weight on their shoulder. “It is the one place I guarantee that will never show a wrinkle, never gets fat,” says Karan. “The shoulder is always your best asset. Everything else, you can cover up.”
Karan remains just as focused on her philanthropic endeavors as she is on her clothing brand. She realized early in her career that she could only dress people on the outside, not “address” people on the inside. She reveals that she just lost her assistant, Clarissa Block, in April to ovarian cancer, which Karan first tackled philanthropically with the late Harper’s Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Liz Tilberis in 1998 when no one ever discussed the disease. That year, Karan founded Super Saturday New York in the Hamptons with Tilberis, to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, of which Tilberis was then president. “For me, philanthropy and commerce was always something that I believed in very, very strongly. We started this with the Seventh on Sale Gala [in 1990] to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic. How do you bring consciousness to the consumers, to the retailers, and to the world at large?”
Belted embroidered coat ($12,000) and over-the-knee, open-back suede boots ($1,995), Donna Karan New York. Neiman Marcus, Mazza Gallerie, 202-966-9700. All other clothing and accessories are Karan’s own personal Urban Zen clothing.
Over the past three decades, Karan has focused on conscious consumerism. It’s who and what she is, and the core of her personal and professional philosophies. Through her Urban Zen Foundation, she hopes that the educational system will embrace teaching students about yoga, the body, the mindbody connection, nutrition, and meditation. Knowing that I have three daughters, Karan talks about a workshop she went to on spirituality for kids, and she notes that these are basic teachings that we don’t make time for anymore in our lives.
“We are all—myself included—so overwhelmed with the issues we’re dealing with today. What’s happening in Washington is really scary. You’ve got two forces fighting one another instead of saying, ‘We need to solve this problem.’ We’re so stuck in our own dimension that we’re not considering what’s the best end result. This is why I started Urban Zen.”
When Karan first launched her brand, she’d intended to start a little company that filled some fashion needs—like trying to make a pair of jeans that actually fit. She jokes that it was because her daughter Gabby was pilfering her clothes. “My daughter would go in my closet and wear my $20,000 beaded gown… and wear it to school with her cowboy boots. That’s why I started DKNY, because she was stealing all my clothes,” says Karan with a laugh. “And then I had to put a lock on my closet door!”
Karan is very grateful that some of the people who started with her all those years ago still surround her, including Cohen. This core, longtime loyal team helps Karan stay balanced and participate in all areas of her life—fashion, philanthropy, family, and friends. An active grandmother to seven grandchildren, Karan starts her yoga and meditation practices at 8 am daily. She likes to have the early morning to herself—once she gets going, it’s a million miles an hour until night. While she’s always been tireless, she recently felt so exhausted that she went to her doctor only to be diagnosed with Lyme disease. However, she credits her yoga practice for warding off a bad case of the disease and helping her most severe symptom, lethargy in the morning.
Quickly and enthusiastically, we change tracks and start talking fashion, focusing on a rack of gorgeous Donna Karan clothes from the Fall 2014 collection. For Washingtonians, Karan recommends her stunning black and gold belted embroidered coat from the fall line (see photo opposite). It can be worn over pants, jeans, or a black dress, and offers just enough “bling” to be sexy but also sophisticated. Karan loves this collection because it balances masculinity and femininity and is—in her own words—“iconically Donna Karan.” I tell her how I appreciate that her clothes are friendly to women who have curves. “Yes! Oh, they are! They’re for real women,” says Karan. “I’m a real woman.”
Her other favorite pieces in her collection include the scarf dresses, specifically this season’s belted halter handkerchief cocktail dress. It’s all about the scarf and the body, and harkens back to the first collection with the bodysuit. You can cover up what you want or need to cover up, and show what you want to show. “I love doing it,” says Karan, “because you can play it any way you want to play it, and go from day to night easily with the tailoring and the chiffon.”
Following our interview, I get a tour of the studio. Karan shows me her late husband’s photo book and points out some key pieces in the studio that she loves. She gets dressed for the first set of shots, looking radiant, simultaneously making sure everyone is being “addressed” on the inside. Karan asks if I have eaten and tells me to check out the Stephan Weiss shoe sculpture on the first floor before I leave—it’s one of her favorite works. I spend some time appreciating the shoe sculpture and am warmed by the living love letters that Karan has created to her late husband. Though she starts to walk me down to show me personally, she is wrangled back to the photo shoot. For a woman with a glamorous, billion-dollar fashion empire, she sure is normal—nicer than normal, even.
When asked if she has any specific goals for the next 30 years, Karan thoughtfully responds, “It’ll take more than 30 years to accomplish all I want to do—my Urban Zen Foundation is just taking off; I have endless design ideas, wellness centers I’d love to create, so many new places to travel. Like I always say, it’s what I haven’t done that excites me. To be continued....”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RANDALL SLAVIN; Makeup by Berta Camal; Hair by Joyce Cohen; beauté: Armani Luminous Silk foundation in #9 ($69). CUSP Georgetown, 3030 M St. NW, 202-625-0893. Tom Ford Traceless foundation stick in Tawny ($80). Saks Fifth Avenue, 5555 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, 301-657-9000. Guerlain Terracotta bronzer in #4 ($52). Neiman Marcus, Mazza Gallerie, 202-966-9700. M.A.C. Mineralize blush in Warm Soul ($27), eye shadow in Mulch ($15), and lipstick in Freckletone ($16). Bloomingdale’s, 5300 Western Ave., Chevy Chase, 240-744-3700. YSL waterproof eye pencil in Black Ink ($30). Neiman Marcus, Mazza Gallerie, 202-966-9700. Kérastase Volumactive spray ($40).