Donna Karan drops by A’Maree’s, takes time to dish about life and style
Designer and new author Donna Karan stopped by Newport Beach’s A’Maree’s Thursday to sign copies of her book “My Journey” and chat with us about her current passion–a small, beautifully curated and crafted line called Urban Zen.
Earlier this year, Karan, an iconic designer since the ‘70s who revolutionized womenswear in the mid-80s by creating functional wardrobes aimed at working women, left her namesake company Donna Karan and its lower end diffusion line DKNY for Urban Zen, her foundation to promote wellness and alternative healing in western healthcare, and to cultivate native cultures.
“It started about basically dressing and undressing the customer; realizing that it was not about dressing her on the outside but was going on her inside,” Karan says while chatting with us on A’Maree’s white Urban Zen platform couches. “I had always been involved in philanthropy and commerce since the the AIDS epidemic so I really understand what ‘conscious consumerism’ is about. And healthcare has always been a major issue in my life because I’ve lost many, many people to cancer (her husband, Stephan Weiss died of lung cancer in 2001) and I felt I knew what the journey was like. And we had a 10-day seminar at Urban Zen trying to see where was the ‘care’ in ‘Healthcare’?”
Karan explains that Urban Zen, which is partially funded by sales of the collection as well as donations, has instituted programs in hospitals that combine alternative methods — such as reiki, in-bed yoga, aromatherapy — with conventional treatments.
“We did a clinical test out of Beth Israel hospital we saved $900,000 on one floor of the hospital,” Karan says. “So now we’re at UCLA where we train nurses and doctors.”
Working with the foundation led Karan to Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010.
“As a designer, preservation of culture has always been very important to me and when Haiti happened, the person who ran the center at Urban Zen was from Haiti and said, ‘Donna we’ve gotta do something for Hiati.’ I (learned that) everybody there is an artist. And I said, ‘Well, instead of giving them money, lets create jobs.’ We created a program called D.O.T. (design, organization, training) and along with Parsons School of Design, we worked with artisans and created products.
“Like, this is made in Haiti…”, Karan points to a bold necklace of black leather discs arranged on a cord, wide black leather cuffs, and to a leather-wrapped bracelet adorning her wrists that were made by artisans in Haiti. One hundred percent of the profits from Urban Zen’s “Haiti Artisan” products goes back the artists, she said.
Looking at the jewelry — rendered in gleaming black leather and coppery wire and possessing a sophisticated edginess — I am struck by the uniqueness of the pieces. The pieces are stunning and statement-making and lacking the saturated hues and primitive patterns hawked by Caribbean tourists.
“Haiti is so colorful, though, and you’re known for wearing a lot of black; Urban Zen is very neutral,” I point out.
“That’s where I try to bring urbanism into these places,” she says. “Not to (offer) the obvious of what the country is about, but how do we make product that is internationally desired. That’s the beautiful part.”
The Urban Zen ready-to-wear collection is the perfect symbiosis between Karan’s renowned love for black and neutral colors, city-sophisticated but functional, multi-use clothing, and her effort to, as she calls it, “balance calm and chaos.”
The clothing, from a body-conscious black knit, hooded tank dress ($995) to a luscious black shearling belt bag ($1,095) to a Mongolian and lambskin wrap ($2,695) is luxurious, sharp, and above all, imbued with comfort.
Urban Zen hooded tank dress, $995; raw-edged, shearling waist bag, $1,095; at A’Maree’s.
That combination is a hallmark of Karan’s long career which exploded when she created her Seven Easy Pieces, a wardrobe for busy women that focused on clothes that could go from the office to an evening out and that could mix effortlessly with the weekend-wear of a busy mom.
“I’m a problem-solver,” she says. “If I see a problem, I usually see a solution.”
I ask if her approach to dressing a woman was a precursor to today’s less-is-more trend toward uniform dressing and so-called “capsule wardrobes.”
“Absolutely,” she says.
Did you know you were doing that at the time when you invented it, I wonder aloud.
“Well, I was frustrated as a designer and wondering as a woman what were the clothes that I really needed to wear? And that’s really how it all started,” she says with a laugh. “I say if you can’t sleep in it, go out in it, eat in it, I don’t want to know it.”
“Certainly at the end of the book, leaving Donna Karan, it was a very difficult decision for me to make and we’re faced with difficult decisions a lot of times …
“I got to a point in my life, in my age, where I felt … how much could I really do, and I was trying to do it all and I was exhausted,” says the 67-year-old designer. “And then I said to myself, “OK, how do I take care of myself?’ because I realized doing Donna Karan and DKNY and Urban Zen was impossible. Urban Zen was my baby and I had to take care of it.”
Does she still worry about Donna Karan and DKNY (the design of which is being taken over by a team of uber-hip, street-wear designers, Public School)?
“Of course, I’ll always worry about it. It bears my name.”
You can see the Urban Zen collection at A’Maree’s, 2241 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-642-4423 or at urbanzen.com.