By: Stephanie Davis Smith
HOW DONNA KARAN’S FORWARD-THINKING MANTRA IS CHANGING CONNECTION ONE BEAUTIFUL GARMENT AT A TIME.
“The retail business has been a problem,” says Donna Karan in her signature raspy staccato, “even before the pandemic.”
For Karan, the creator of Donna Karan New York and DKNY clothing labels
who began cultivating a defined point of view about conscious consumerism long before it became the hot trend, she sees how the outbreak of COVID-19 has exacerbated all the issues her industry was already struggling with.
In the wake of a retail business spinning and fast-fashion ruining the environment, this icon’s message seems particularly clairvoyant.
“It’s about storytelling. Community. Connection,” she says about Urban Zen, her holistic lifestyle concept and philanthropic foundation. “Now more than ever people need a community to come to.” Karan has created her own style of storytelling through fashion in the jewelry artisans she curates and gives a platform to, in the Balinese furniture she brings stateside to her clients and the travel-inspired pieces of her 2021 spring/summer collection.
It’s Karan’s worldly, cultured lifestyle tinged with do-gooderism and purpose that attracts her ideal consumers. She’s laser-focused on speaking to them authentically in all ways. Urban Zen is for women who connect with her story and buy into the smart girl’s elevated consciousness that comes with sexy draped pieces and ornate sandals. To evolve and survive, perhaps the fashion business has to be about more than cranking out lifeless pieces for e-commerce.
From an aesthetic point of view, Karan’s brand is for women who gravitate towards neutrals (no flashy colors here) and want to be draped sensuously in light silks, linens and jerseys that hug them in the right places and forgive in the wrong ones. Post-pandemic, where everyone reembraced comfortable, lightweight clothes, it seems like Karan was perfectly poised to emerge triumphant. “I am embarrassed to say I had to reorder a lot of pieces because I didn’t have enough,” she says. The clothes are a backdrop to pair everything with big, bold statement jewelry. “Jewelry is so important right now because it’s an expression of yourself,” she says. Like her clothes, the necklaces and bracelets are weightless. “I can’t put any weight on my body.”
But in its search for a meaningful context in style, Urban Zen is for people who care about their community, want to participate in conversation about serious issues facing the world and then get about the business of fixing them. That is where the fashion industry could be taking notes. Tapping into meaning, story and depth. Do less. But do more with it. Find the authentic purpose in a limited clothing collection and then share it in all aspects of a client’s life.
Education is paramount to Karan’s efforts. If you’re coming into an Urban Zen space or visiting her website, she’s made sure your mind and heart is going to be engaged in multiple ways. In a graduate program she started at Parsons School of Design, Karan has been bringing fashion students down to Haiti for years so they can see the incredible work of artisans there and “so the two cultures could come together. Those kids didn’t want to leave. They loved it so much.”
Another subject that’s close to her hart is an integrative therapist program through Urban Zen Foundation. In April, she launched UZIT, a platform that aims to take care of the health professionals who take care of everyone else. “We need to find the calm in the chaos right now. When my husband was dying of cancer, he made me promise, to take care of the nurses,” she says. “The nurses need help.” UZIT is about blending Eastern self-care techniques within the Western medical community. The philosophy echoes her clothing brand.
The thing is, Karan doesn’t have to be doing any of this. Twenty years ago, she sold her eponymous company Donna Karan Collection and DKNY to LVMH for beaucoup bucks. With the rumored $643 million LVMH buyout, she could be enjoying life while lounging on the very Balinese furniture she is now selling. No one would blame her. Or she could sbe hobnobbing with famous friends like Barbra Streisand, Narciso Rodriguez, Iman or the Clintons.
Instead, Karan is starting over in a way. She is reimagining what retail could be like in this not so brave, new world. She created spaces where clothes, furniture, artisan work, causes, consciousness, health and family are all intertwined and working in concert. In Sag Harbor, her space intermingles with Tutto il Giorno, a restaurant owned by her daughter Gabby Karan De Felice. That way she’s surrounded by those who mean to her the most. “Everyone comes together, hangs out, talks and eats.” Sure, it’s now dining, but “it’s all part of the same philosophy, “explains Karan. “It’s still all about community and connection.”