Urban Zen. Taken separately, the words evoke entirely contradictory sensibilities: one bristles with energy, activity, even chaos the buzz and intensity of everyday life while the other conjures up feelings of peace, tranquillity and calm.
As different and conflicting as those contrasting worlds are, however, bringing them together makes perfect sense to Donna Karan. The designer's latest passion, the Urban Zen Foundation, a New York Citybased philanthropic organization that she created in 2007, is all about exploring the intersection between the complex reality of our busy lives and the simplicity and focus of a more spiritual existence. "It's about finding the calm in the chaos," she is fond of saying.
The quest for that balance has taken Karan far from her studios on Seventh Avenue and landed her in the middle of a cancer ward at Beth Israel Hospital on Manhattan's east side. Through the foundation, Karan has transformed an entire floor of the hospital into a living laboratory to test the idea that integrative therapies, such as aromatherapy, massage and yoga, can improve patient experiences in the hospital and possibly even better help people heal.
For Karan, taking on the role of alternative health-care ambassador is a perfectly logical step. A born entrepreneur who has always followed her instincts, she has become a leader in the fashion community not only for her work in design but also for her broader perspective from the Seven Easy Pieces collections she designed in the 1980s, which gave professional women a solution to the daily conundrums of the modern world, to her linking of commerce with a cause when she conceived of Seventh on Sale, an annual sample sale of the industry's most coveted labels to help those living with HIV.
Always energetic, often to the point of frenetic nervousness, Karan is described by those who know her best as "passionate," "wild," "insane" and, at times, "cuckoo." It's no surprise, then, that the runways have never been able to contain the Queens-born Karan. She still ends the program notes of her shows with the phrase "To be continued," reflecting her conviction that her education in style, design and inspiration is an ever evolving process one that often takes her far beyond runways and studios.
Well traveled, Karan is passionate about learning, particularly studying different cultures and disciplines. Fascinated by Eastern philosophies on spirituality, the longtime yoga devotee is now consumed with exploring the world of integrative medicine, an emerging field that combines traditional medical practices with those that are still considered a bit fringe meditation, yoga, massage and aromatherapy by most members of the medical community. And Karan, typically, is asking, Why? Why can't these practices be a bigger part of modern medical care?
Just a few floors above the bustle of people and traffic on Manhattan's Central Park West, the 60-year-old designer folds her famously long legs into one of the deep, plush banquettes that have become a hallmark of the Donna Karanlifestyle look and prepares to answer that question in her own hands-on way. Here, white natural-marble benches encircle the living room; an exotic and soothing mixture of clove flower, lemon, cinnamon and eucalyptus scents the air; and an enormous array of white orchids cool, elegant and crisp stretches out from a bowl centered on a glass table. It's peaceful, relaxing a sanctuary from the city.