Donna Karan Opens Up About Fashion, Failure and the Force That Drives Her

During a recent conversation, the iconic fashion designer turned social entrepreneur urged women just starting out in business to tune in to their gifts and where they’re being guided.

Riva Richmond By Riva Richmond

Editor’s Note: This is part of What She Learned, a new interview series with successful women entrepreneurs about their journeys and the lessons they learned along the way.

Interview with Donna Karan, Urban Zen founder and fashion business legend

Donna Karan, speaking at the S.H.E. Summit in New York in October (Photo credit: Sarah Lehberger)

As a young woman, Donna Karan had no intention of working in fashion, she recently told a rapt crowd of women entrepreneurs and corporate strivers gathered for the S.H.E Summit in New York City. She wanted to be an illustrator.

But she came from a fashion family — her mother was a model and her father, who died when she was 3, had been a tailor — and they shuttled her off to Parsons School of Design (where she failed draping, she says). By age 24, she was pregnant with a daughter, unhappily working in Paris designing a new collection for Anne Klein, and looking for an out, she said. Then Klein was hospitalized unexpectedly and died from breast cancer. Karan felt compelled to finish the collection herself and to take on a leadership role.

Karan became both a mother and a fabulously successful fashion designer, who not only carried on Anne Klein’s legacy but created her own. Designing clothing for the American working woman, she turned the Donna Karan and DKNY brands into household names. Now, at age 70, Karan is building Urban Zen, a fashion, beauty and home decor lifestyle brand that reflects her embrace of Eastern philosophies and combines her passions for commerce and philanthropy.

Those passions had me especially eager to speak with Karan after her appearance onstage at the 92nd Street Y. The Story Exchange has for several years now profiled women entrepreneurs pursuing solutions to social problems. So I went to the summit intending to grab a one-on-one interview with this legend and capture her lessons for women starting out.

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Don’t think you know what your path is going to be, was Karan’s central advice onstage, where she riffed like a jazz musician and was barely contained by her interviewer and friend, the author and humanitarian Zainab Salbi. “You have to find that energy that’s guiding you … not by doing, doing, doing, but by being.”

More than ever, Karan, who has practiced yoga and meditation for most of her life, feels guided in her work at Urban Zen and the higher mission of “conscious consumerism.” The New York company provides income opportunities to artisans, particularly in Haiti and Bali, who help make products that are sold in its own stores and at high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. Sales help support the work of the Urban Zen Foundation, which has initiatives in three primary areas: preserving cultures and integrating “mind, body and spirit” into healthcare and into children’s education.

Embrace Your Gifts, Connect to Where You’re Guided

After the onstage “fireside chat,” I hurried to find Karan and the summit publicist. “Come to the step and repeat now,” the publicist had texted. “It has to be quick!” Soon, Karan and Salbi appeared from backstage. Karan stopped for chit-chat, a few photos and to scrawl on a giant “commitment board” the actions she promises to take to advance women’s equality. Then, finally, we all walked to a spacious speaker and press room, where Karan and I sat on hard chairs for an easy conversation.

“I never wanted to be a big designer,” she told me, looking every bit the fashion icon behind big sunglasses and dressed in a dark Urban Zen ensemble, her hair pulled sleekly back. “I wanted to design for me and my friends, and I was good at it. But I loved selling clothes in stores, because I loved working with other people and showing them what they could do.”

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Keeping an eye on the future, recognizing her larger abilities — her “gifts” — and following their lead has been vital to achieving career success that has spanned a lifetime, she said. “People think I’m a little cuckoo. But I do a lot, I feel a lot,” she added, speaking with a New Yorker’s frankness and in a far more directed and concise way than on stage. “I don’t believe this is about me, it’s about something that I’ve been gifted.”

Karan said she has done years of “inward work” with an array of teachers and through spiritual practice to be able to understand her path. Every day, she wakes up early to do a daily morning practice that includes yoga, Pilates and mediation. “Everything is for me in the morning. I don’t start my [work] day before ten thirty. And then once I’m out there, everybody else has me,” often until after midnight.

But following her inner compass has not always made life easy. She founded Donna Karan International in 1984 with her late husband Stephan Weiss and built it into an empire. The French conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton bought it in 2001, and she stepped down as CEO, though remained chief designer. That same year, Weiss died of cancer, transforming Karan’s life and ultimately inspiring her 2007 founding of Urban Zen and its healthcare mission. Eventually LVMH and Karan’s visions for Donna Karan did not align, and she became dissatisfied. In 2015, in a move that shocked many, Karan stepped away from her namesake company.

“That was a failure for me. I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do,” she told me. But “I had seen the future was Urban Zen,” and it was as if the universe had intervened: “I basically was thrown out of Donna Karan to do what I do now.”

Building Urban Zen is the hardest thing she has ever done in business, Karan said. She is frustrated that it hasn’t grown as quickly as her earlier enterprises. “I think it’s scary because I am getting older, and I have a vision that’s very, very large. So I want it to happen.”

Many people are not yet ready for her vision — in particular, for her advocacy of “integrative” healthcare modalities, such as yoga, Reiki and mindfulness. Through them, she wants to put more “care in healthcare,” whether for the patient, loved one or medical practitioner. The need to raise awareness makes the work harder and slower.

[Related: When Pain Derailed This Doctor’s Career, She Started a $5 Million Nonprofit That Saves Pregnant Women’s Lives Around the World]

Find Collaborators, Create a Movement

Asked for the greatest lesson she would impart to other women starting their own businesses, Karan urged finding collaborators. Trying to build something substantial solo doesn’t work. “You, yourself, cannot do it, so let’s forget that. So how do you build a group that can help you do that?” Her answer: Find like-minded people who share your interests, who bring to the table their own gifts, and with whom there is a frisson of excitement, energy and ideas when you talk about what you can create together.

But you have to be patient. “Believe me, the way you find your husband is the way you find a collaborator,” she said, turning on her Queens-born Jewish mother self. “If you’re ready, it will happen. Don’t push it. It comes to you.”

Among Karan’s collaborators for Urban Zen have been Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative, which led to her work with Haitian artisans. After Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Karan worked with the Clinton Global Initiative to develop sustainable work opportunities for artisans there. And in 2015, she collaborated with her alma mater, Parsons, to open a vocational education center in Haiti called Design Organization Training.

With great collaborators on your team, you gain the ability to ability to build something big with outsized impact. You need “to create a community, to collaborate and help other women,” she said. “You need a movement.”

“And that’s why I do Urban Zen now,” she added. “It’s about creating something that will make a difference in the world. We’re in the most troubled times ever, on every single level. So we have to create communities to create the change that’s needed in the world.”

Karan was beckoned toward a video crew that had her next. She stepped in front of the camera, sat down and removed her sunglasses — and prepared to explain the Urban Zen mission yet again.

Posted: November 5, 2018

Riva RichmondDonna Karan Opens Up About Fashion, Failure and the Force That Drives Her