One of America’s most prolific and impactful designers, Donna Karan has had a career arch that spans 4 decades. This year she will receive the prestigious CFDA’s Founder Award at the CFDA Awards this June. Marc Karimzadeh sat with the designer to discuss her career, digesting change, and what is next.
BY MARC KARIMZADEH
Calling Donna Karan a force of nature in every possible way is stating the obvious.
To quote her bestie Barbra Streisand in the foreword to the designer’s book, “My Journey” (Ballantine Books), Karan is at once “a designer, philanthropist and visionary” and “the most scattered, disorganized human being you’ll ever meet.”
Streisand, like anyone who has ever had the privilege to spend time with Karan, says this with nothing but affection— because at her core, Karan is a nurturing soul. A few years back, for example, during an interview on a Chelsea Piers bench, she artfully wrapped her cashmere scarf around my shoulders, sensing that I was woefully underdressed for the chilly winds coming off the Hudson River. I got to keep the luxury schmatta.
Karan’s chaos is also her creative engine and without it, there couldn’t be Donna Karan, the designer who became a fashion star with her groundbreaking concept of seven easy pieces in the 1980s.
Much has changed for the New York native in recent months. Last June, it emerged that she was leaving the brand that bears her name, and that the Donna Karan Collection – a pillar of New York Fashion Week for over three decades – was making way for the younger DKNY, now designed by Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne.
Karan admits that it would probably take a year for her “to digest the whole thing,” but she isn’t using her newfound extra time to take a breather. She spent several months on a whirlwind tour to promote her book—which included a shindig Streisand threw for her friend at Eric Buterbaugh Florals in West Hollywood, speaking engagements with the likes of Alina Cho and Sandra Bernhardt, a “Watch What Happens Live” moment with Andy Cohen, and more book signings than she probably cares to remember.
With “My Journey,” Karan tells the story of her life with refreshing – and inspiring – candor.
I love the reflection, the looking back on my life, realizing the passion that I had, the love that I had, and the wonderful life I have lived. And then there is the appreciation. When you get to be a certain age, you can’t believe so much has happened.
During a career that spanned some four decades, she famously flunked in draping at Parsons, spent a decade at Anne Klein and launched her own label in 1984. Karan’s woman-to-woman ethos and system of dressing with seven easy pieces shifted the fashion needle. Along the way, she picked up many CFDA Awards and spearheaded Seventh on Sale with Anna Wintour, galvanizing the American fashion industry in the fight against AIDS.
Reliving all of it again has been a wonderful experience. But at the same time, I am thinking, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do next?’
For a designer of Karan’s magnitude and drive, it’s a valid question, one that people seem to be asking her a lot these days. Anyone who knows Donna knows that there is no such thing as a finale. Far from it. There will be enough material for a second and third book.
“This was absolutely not the last chapter, but in a way, that’s what scares me,” she admits. “It was so easy to write the book and now I am looking at it and thinking, ‘What’s next?’ I will be designing Urban Zen, but every day, something happens. It’s the unexpected.”
Urban Zen, Karan’s “philosophy of living,” combines all of her passions, from humanitarian causes to philanthropy, to bringing together artisans from around the world and giving back to communities through the Urban Zen Foundation. Its mission is to “to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of Preservation of Cultures, Well-Being and Education.” Along the way, she touches on many Donna-isms, from finding “the calm in the chaos of life” to “a connection of mind, body and spirit” to her quest to create a “soulful economy” that “dresses people and addresses them” and is “about the We, not the Me.”
Urban Zen is on a growth trajectory. Karan recently opened the clothing line to wholesale, and showed the collection in Paris to international retailers. “The excitement for it has been incredible,” she says. “We are excited about new partnerships with new people. I didn’t expect it to take off the way it has. I like the intimacy of Urban Zen. Now that I have more time, I want to do more seminars on healthcare, education and culture. I want to recreate the community. I want to do what I have done in Haiti. I want to visit more countries. There were so many artisans all over the world I haven’t touched upon.”
In time for the holidays, Karan reopened her Urban Zen Soulful Economy Marketplace at 711 Greenwich Street, which sold her collection and work from artisans from around the world.
To me, being a designer means to work with other designers, whether it is Robert Lee Morris or William Morris or artisans whose artwork inspires me. I have so much work to do with Urban Zen.
“I am in a whirlwind,” she adds. “Nothing has changed.”