In a fashion world filled with air-kissing designers sipping champagne with movie stars, Donna Karan is definitely a little something different. Draped in variations of Asian monk robes (in black, her one totally New York trait), she's more likely to be discussing her decades-long yoga studies and her dreams to help people heal than dressing starlets for the red carpet. Like Auntie Mame beckoning her nephew to "Live!" Donna invited me to her Urban Zen Foundation -- where guests are urged to "create, connect, collaborate, communicate, change" -- and walked me through a parade of alternative approaches to life. Vow of silence, anyone? Sipping vegetarian soup, I was warmly introduced to the world according to Donna.
When you first started, you were a modern woman who dressed modern women. Where did this spiritual journey start? Was there always that part of you in it?
I still think I'm doing the same thing. More or less what we're talking about is dressing and addressing. It's not dressing somebody only on the outside, but addressing their inside. When the AIDS epidemic hit, Seventh on Sale [a clothing sale whose proceeds went to AIDS charities] was about being able to dress somebody but then being able to address their needs. I was not looking at myself as a designer, but as someone who was understanding people and where their lives were going. I guess having practiced yoga since I was 18 -- that's where the bodysuit, the leggings and all that kind of stuff came from. I then just took my yoga philosophy and everything that I believed in to another dimension -- one for a holistic person.
Do you feel this sort of spiritual journey is a part of your design as well? Or do you feel that it's two separate things that balance you? I get up every morning and I practice: I do yoga, meditation. I also do Pilates. I don't think it's either/or. I'm doing it right now, you know: being in the present moment. And appreciating the world of giving. Giving is very important to me. It's not only what I can do, but what I can do to make a difference in dressing and addressing people's lives.
People think that the fashion business is so shallow. Do you find that?
In the fashion business, you're discussing the body. You're discussing the humanness of dressing people. And of course the addressing comes in there; it can't help but come in there. I think the fashion industry is one of the most philanthropic organizations... [it] comes together if there's a problem. I keep going back to saying dress and address the needs of the people. Every person's a patient. Every patient is a loved one. Every one of us is going to be hit in one way, shape or form.
It seems like the fashion system keeps getting faster and crazier.
I think it's on an acid trip.
Does that make you un-Zen? Do you ever get hysterical?
If I don't find the calm in the chaos, then I'm really in trouble. I also feel that, after all these years, calm is a lot easier for me to find. I have an amazing team of people. I'm able to oversee Donna Karan, DKNY and Urban Zen. For me it's also supporting young designers. I started a master's program at Parsons School of Design. Education to me is really important. My mission is that every child realizes that, once in a while, it would be nice to get off the computer and off the technology and get into a quiet space. I believe in yoga and meditation being very important tools, because I think we're given too much information, and of course your mind goes AAAAARRRGH!
Do you think you would ever miss the excitement and the energy of New York? You're so associated with this town...
I'm very creative, so wherever I am I'm going to create. Would I miss hair and makeup? No.
You're working on a book. Do you like looking back?
It's reflective. I've seen that history repeats itself. I got up to a chapter, I can't remember what chapter it was, and I said, "This could be the end of the book because I'm reliving it all over again. It's a verbatim experience that I had many years ago, that I've had again!"
Consistency! That's a good word. Everything about me is "C": create, collaborate, communicate, change, celebrate, candles, cashmere, cotton, country, curate.
Do you see yourself being a teacher to others?
I consider myself a student. I'm a student of yoga; Rodney [Yee] and Colleen [Saidman Yee] are my teachers. They say, "You're a teacher, Donna," and I say, "No, I want to be a student." [laughs]
If you're always a student, you're never ready to graduate. Is the Urban Zen marketplace permanent? I'd like it to be permanent so I can permanently be traveling! I think you feel the soul of it when you come in -- it's like taking a journey. If you can't get to Africa, if you can't get to Bali, you come here. Let's take a tour around the world. That's what I love about it: you feel the energy.