Donna Karan is the founder of Donna Karan International, a lifestyle brand that addresses every age and lifestyle with womenswear, menswear, beauty, and home furnishings. She launched her first collection, Donna Karan New York, in Fall 1985, and introduced the now-popular DKNY in 1992.
Karan got her start as an associate designer at Anne Klein. After just three years, she was named successor, along with Louis Dell’Olio, following Klein’s death in 1974. Since striking out on her own, she has been honored by the CFDA six times and now sits on the fashion council’s board of directors. She is devoted to philanthropy, spearheading the CFDA’s Seventh on Sale benefit for AIDS and co-chairing the New York “Kids for Kids” events for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. In 2007, Karan founded the Urban Zen Foundation, which has three initiatives: cultural preservation, integrative wellness, and education. She is also passionately involved in developing Haiti.
When many think of Donna Karan, her beautiful gowns and classically wearable pieces come to mind. But there is a whole other side to this amazing woman that isn’t found on the runway. From her time spent in Africa, Bali, and Haiti to her endeavors to make change in the United States, she is on a mission to strengthen health care, education, and promote sustainability. She chats with AHAlife about her organization Urban Zen and their Hope, Help & Rebuild Haiti initiative.
What is Urban Zen? Urban Zen is all about preservation of culture, health care, education and Haiti was a perfect model - in mind, body, spirit. We align with people who are already on the ground doing what they do so well.
How and when was Urban Zen started? Urban Zen was created as a brand ten years ago with the mission of “How to Find the Calm in Chaos.” As someone who has always adored yoga (I have practicing it since I was 18 years old) and who has always been philanthropically driven, I felt there was a way of bringing together like minded people who wanted to create a change. Urban Zen is developed in three areas: (i) we are a foundation, (ii) we are a center, (iii) we are a retail component. So we are where philanthropy and commerce come together to create change.
Why did you decide to take this approach in Haiti? Sustainability is most important, as well as accessing the country’s biggest asset—which is creativity. Haiti has always had an extraordinary art community. But for sustainability in the long run, I feel there is a model to help support the artisans of Haiti and bring the awareness of their creativity to my fashion community, the retail community, and to the consumer.
What are your impressions of Haiti? I have travelled the country and met with the people. You can look at Haiti from a devastational point of view or you can look at it from the opportunity that it has. Every time I am there I am blown away by the opportunity of what their future could be in terms of their craft and their spirit. It is just extraordinary in Haiti, but it needs a different mindset. It should not just be about trinkets or tourist stuff, but about manufacturing for home, for art, and for design.
What has been the process working with the Haitian artisans? I have been working on the concepts with the designers, which is what is so beautiful. Collaborating with the designers, working with them, developing as I would be developing my own collection. But the pieces that we are developing are not just for Urban Zen, they are for the opportunity to expose other designers, like Marc Jacobs, to use them as a source that is only 3 and ½ hours away. It is a way to create jobs, education, awareness, and sustainability. This model can be used in any developing country and any place that has the opportunity, which they do have.
How much time of your time do you spend involved in philanthropy? 110 percent! It is a large commitment. Education needs a lot of work. I'm looking to integrate what we have and bring in what is missing.
What does the future hold for you? I have travelled to many places, and am excited about all the places I have yet to visit. My dream is to take one city, preferably Jacque Bell, and use our model in every way from health care to education, sustainability, and jobs. It is a magnificent place and it truly does have an opportunity to thrive.