Few people have been associated with America's biggest and brashest city as much as iconic designer Donna Karan, whose DKNY collections always summoned a New York state of mind. But now that the 68-year-old designer is no longer associated with DKNY, she is looking west, with her new fashion-with-a mission Urban Zen home and lifestyle lines, and a fresh new attitude.
"I was really in it from an artistic point of view but now I'm doing what women really want to wear," she said about her Urban Zen collection. "I really am making my clothes for myself and if people like it great. That's how I started Donna Karan. (The clothes) don't go out of season, they evolve, and women love it."
Last year, Karan left her role as chief designer of Donna Karan International, which was acquired by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 2001 and sold to G-III Apparel Group in July, and threw her energies into the Urban Zen Foundation, which she founded in 2007.
The new brand combines philanthropy with commerce. It offers a wide array of clothing, jewelry, furniture and accessories made by artisans from around the world and also touts alternative wellness practices such as yoga, aromatherapy, meditation and reiki at hospitals, meditation, yoga and nutritional education in schools, and programs to prevent gun violence.
Wearing her hair in a pulled back pony tail 'do — she joked that the look gives her "a little lift" — and a swirling Urban Zen bodysuit, Karan recently charmed a Houston crowd at a fundraiser for the Nomad Two Worlds Foundation at LifeHTX. She joined her good friend, noted fashion photographer Russell James, to support the non-profit, which promotes and celebrates indigenous cultures through art.
The designer was delighted to meet one woman at the fundraiser who was dressed in vintage Karan, including an original cold shoulder top, pant, belt and bag. "I said, 'Is that mine?' Karan said with a laugh, before taking time out to talk with CultureMap about her life now.
CultureMap: Tell us about Urban Zen. What's happening?
Donna Karan: There's so much happening. I just opened my store in LA. It's like my baby. From the moment I opened it I loved it. It has a kitchen and a garden. It's very much like Urban Zen in New York. I always said I was going to move to Malibu my whole life and everyone said yeah, yeah, yeah. But now that I'm not doing DKNY, I really have more opportunity to spend time out on the west coast. I love it out there. My dream is to build a center of change where we live in it and have all the healing instead of having to go out to spas.
CM: Some are calling the new store DKLA.
DK: Yeah, I know.
CM: Are there any plans to do an Urban Zen store in Texas?
DK: For me, what's most important is about a community. If the community wants to get involved in health care, education, culture, I want to help support the community because I know how to do it. It goes along with my whole philosophy of dressing and undressing — from the health care point of view, from the educational point of view. And from the preservation of culture. That's why Russell and I have so much in common.
CM: There seems to be a bond between the two of you. He asked you to come to Houston in the middle of the week and you're here.
DK: We share the same passion — the preservation of culture. We love art, we love the cultures of art. I did his first (photo) exhibition at Urban Zen. Then he asked me to go to Australia to the Outback and it was right up my alley. Then I said to Russell, 'We're going to Haiti.' And he fell in love with it like I did. We worked together on Haitian projects. I said, 'Let's make T-shirts and scarves, so we can sell it, not only the artwork, to help the people.' The T-shirt that Russell is wearing is from one of his artists.
We share an enormous amount in common. I really feel like he is my soul brother, in terms of philanthropy and causes.
CM: There seems to be something going with you now, almost like you've got your mojo back. Or did it ever leave?
DK: It's very exciting when you have a vision and you want to manifest it. I have just come from LA, which has been extraordinary. I am very, very happy. Does (Urban Zen) belong here in Houston? Probably. But I don't want it to be about me. I want it to be about the people of Houston.
CM: Will you continue to have a presence at New York Fashion Week?
DK: This fall we showed fall (fashions) to the consumer live in the (Urban Zen) store. I've been talking about this for over 10 years. It's been driving me crazy that the customer will see these clothes, and everybody was knocking them off and we didn't get them in the stores for six months. And now with technology, they want instant gratification and they can't have it. I want to do it when clothes are in the store so the customer can just walk in and shop. That's one reason why I started Urban Zen.