Donna Karan is known for having revolutionized the working woman's wardrobe with her sleek urban clothes. But recently, Karan has been honing another concept in the loft-like Greenwich Village space that once housed her late husband's studio. Urban Zen Foundation is Karan's new philanthropic venture that hopes to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of advancing well-being, empowering children and preserving cultures. Alongside the Foundation is Karan's new retail concept, Urban Zen, where she sells a mix of her own creations and objects she has culled on trips around the world. Karan took some time out from New York fashion week to talk to Kate Betts about the mission behind her foundation and her drive to create a new philanthropic model.
How did you get the idea to start the Urban Zen Foundation?
I've always had the dream of having a center here. When [my late husband] Stephen Weiss built this place as his studio I said no, let's make it a health and wellness place. I was constantly going away to find the calm in the chaos and I thought, Let's create it right here. Then two years ago we hosted this amazing event here for his Holiness the Dalai Lama and at that moment I knew that this was going to happen. It wasn't a desire anymore; it was a reality. I had to do this. I wanted to create a new model of philanthropy here. I wanted to create a place that would bring like-minded people together, people who want to make a difference.
What are the initiatives behind the Urban Zen Foundation?
The main initiative is to create change and consciousness. We focus on three things: Well-being, empowering children, and preserving cultures. (Read "Making Capitalism More Creative.")
What made you open a store under the same name?
We hosted a Well-Being Forum that brought together 2000 integrative and conventional medicine leaders, healthcare practitioners and influencers. That's when I opened the store. The idea of the forum was to identify practical solutions to challenges facing patients and their loved ones. We're all going to be patients someday, and we know there is definitely something wrong with the medical system, so let's figure it out.
What came out of the forum?
One of our three initiatives is Well being. Our focus is to change the healthcare paradigm to include integrative medicine and promote patient advocacy. In my mind, this is going to be the wave of the future. Integrative therapists will incorporate the doctors, the nurses, and patients all in one. We're trying to make it part of the treatment in a hospital so that it's effortless, you don't have to ask for it. We are now trying to build a critical mass of integrative therapists. We are working through the nursing community, the yoga community. Right now there are 100 therapists being trained. And there is a pilot program at Beth Israel Medical Center to introduce integrative medical practices and study their impact on patients and caregivers.
What is the connection to fashion?
To me it's where philanthropy and commerce come together. It's conscious retailing. To be able to realize that if you purchase something you're making a difference in someone's life. And we don't just sell clothing, but also objects, jewelry, furniture, and lifestyle products. I think it's a new paradigm in retail because it's not about a season. The stuff we sell is timeless. It's not really fashion in that sense. It's clothes that feel really good that you can wear anywhere and for the rest of your life. A percentage of all the sales go to the Urban Zen foundation. (See Style & Design.)
How do you choose the designers that you sell in the store?
They're people whose clothes I've seen in my travels, or people with whom I've worked for many years, like Bonnie Young who designs the children's wear. My problem is the store is so small. I would love to have many more people there. But the store is kind of nomadic too. We change the theme. One day it's children, one day it's Africa, sometimes it's furniture or it's art. Because it's so small we can celebrate many different thing. It's like a journey because it takes you away from the mundane idea of what is retail.
How do you do it all?
Passion. And I have great teams of people who work with me who allow me to expand into all of these different passions.