As the designer gears up for her next chapter, in Haiti and beyond, her real work is just beginning.
They say there are no second acts. While this may be true in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t hold much relevance in the fashion industry, where designers seem to change jobs every few years. It is certainly not true where Donna Karan is concerned.
This past June, Karan stepped down from her namesake label, Donna Karan Collection; meanwhile, parent company LVMH announced the appointment of Public School designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne as creative directors of DKNY. Karan, 67, is sanguine when asked about all of these changes. “It’s incredibly difficult, but I haven’t had time to stop and think about it,” says Karan, who maintains that she’s just getting started on her real mission: changing the world. Not that she’s throwing in the towel on fashion, either. She continues to sell body-conscious luxury basics—formfitting leggings and body-suits, cashmere wraps, shearlings—under her eight-year-old Urban Zen label. Through the brand’s philanthropic arm, the Urban Zen Foundation, and its wellness division, Urban Zen Integrated Therapy, Karan is both “helping cultures maintain their craft and creativity in the face of globalization,” she says, and bringing education and integrative medicine to children worldwide, particularly in struggling countries like Haiti, where the designer has maintained a constant presence since the 2010 earthquake that killed 300,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless.
This past June, she opened the D.O.T. (Design, Organization, and Training) Center in Port-au-Prince, in association with her alma mater, Parsons School of Design. Graduate students will work with local artisans to develop products that can be sold in the luxury market-place. “There’s so much possibility, but they need supplies, tools, better ways of working,” Karan says. “We want a mentorship program that gives them a skill set at an elevated level.”
Artisans Karan meets in Haiti—as well as on her adventures in Thailand, Bali, and India—who make jewelry, accessories, and housewares sold at Urban Zen’s three stores in New York, Sag Harbor, and Aspen receive 10 percent of the profits (100 percent of those for anything made in Haiti). The brand’s foundation also awards grants to schools, hospitals, and other NGOs, all made possible in 2001, when she and her late husband—an artist and cofounder of Donna Karan International—Stephan Weiss, sold the company and its trademarks to LVMH for nearly $650 million. That’s significant seed money if you have the ability to think and act big, which Karan—a garmento’s daughter from Queens who changed the face of fashion—certainly does.
In terms of advertising and a working woman’s have-it-all ethos, Karan wrote the blueprint long before Sheryl Sandberg penned Lean In. Her 1992 campaign “In Women We Trust”—depicting model Rosemary McGrotha being sworn in as president—presented the promise of the first woman in the Oval Office nearly 25 years before the U.S. got close to a credible female nominee. “She really invented modern American fashion,” says retail vet Andrew Rosen, founder of Theory and CEO of Helmut Lang.
In 1974, Karan become creative direc-tor of Anne Klein, when she was only 25. She launched Donna Karan Collection 10 years later, in 1984. Her now legendary Seven Easy Pieces—the bodysuit, wrap skirt, charmeuse blouse, etc.—created a sensual yet functional modern uniform that got career women out of baggy pants and big-shoulder men’s-style suits. “There’s no reason women should feel like they have to dress like a man,” Karan said of her first collection. Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, Narciso Rodriguez, Mark Badgley, Edmundo Castillo, and Paul Andrew are just a few of the designers who cut their teeth with Donna Karan, as did Jane Chung, with whom Karan originally launched DKNY in 1989 in answer to her then 15-year-old daughter Gabby’s quest for the perfect pair of jeans.
My Journey, the memoir Karan released in October, offers play-by-play on her rise to the top with unexpected candor, humor—impromptu topless scenes during in-office fittings, her überglamorous fashion show with Anne Klein at a 1973 competition at Versailles—and, at times, quite intimate personal details about her two marriages and her quest for spirituality. Its final chapter, completed after the designer’s departure from DKI, also unflinchingly acknowledges the heartbreak of leaving her company. “I had to say goodbye to the people who have become my family,” she writes, “who have stood beside me through every professional up and down.” That’s typical Karan—she’s never been one to hold back. It’s probably the reason she’s both loved and respected, not only on Seventh Avenue and by celebrity besties (really, truly) Barbra Streisand and Demi Moore, but also a world away from all that, by the orphans in Haiti’s Cité de Soleil—where armed UN tanks still patrol—and by gang members on the streets of Haitian neighborhoods such as Croix-des-Bouquet, who on a recent trip I took with Karan referred to her as “down and dirty” Donna, in this case, a reference to her willingness to sit in the dirt and design products with craftspeople who not long ago were handling guns instead of metalwork.
Within weeks of the 2010 earthquake, Karan held a fundraiser in New York with Wyclef Jean and Mary J. Blige, raising $1 million to purchase portable, temporary housing and basic supplies. Her first trip to the region was at the invitation of the Clinton Foundation several months later; she then returned for a second time with Bill Clinton, who was leading a group of entrepreneurs to see what they could do to help Haiti rebuild its export business. The designer has returned on average every six to eight weeks since, developing businesses with everyone from voodoo priests and metalworkers to more well-known artists, like metal sculptor Philippe Dodard. “The Haitians like to say everybody came after the earthquake,” says Maryse Kedar, the former minister of tourism. “But Donna is the only one who stayed.”
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for Haiti,” Karan says. “I want to help bridge the gap by helping them use their resources.” To that end, this past summer four Parsons students spent seven weeks helping craftspeople refine their products, teaching them new techniques such as laser cutting. “Every one of them is going back,” says Karan, who raised an additional $1 million for the 2016 Parsons fellowships this past August at a fundraiser in Sag Harbor.
Karan’s own transition after seeing her namesake collection dissolved has understandably had its ups and downs. But then again, she says, “my life has always been about transitions.” As for her beloved label DKNY, which had its first show under its new designers at the new World Trade Center West Gallery this past September (Karan sat front row), she felt Chow and Osborne didn’t disappoint. “I liked it very much,” she says. “It was clean, professional, and modern, and had a kick, especially the pieces that riffed on menswear. I think it will evolve.” Evolution is also something she thinks the entire industry needs to consider. “What’s happening in fashion now is that there is a lot of individuality but there’s also more confusion,” she adds. “We’re not playing up enough to the customers and getting them what they want by selling clothes in season. I really want to work on trying to change that.”
Trying to shift the way the entire fashion industry does business, getting it to be in the moment, is a Sisyphean feat to say the least. But it is in many ways the role Karan has been preparing for her entire career. “Look, I’d like to see other people join me on this,” she adds. “It can’t just be about me.”
This article originally appears in the December 2015 issue of ELLE.
BY ANNE SLOWEY