The American designer Donna Karan is best known for her eponymous fashion labels - less so for her philanthropic work and the efforts to improve health care that consume most of her time. During a stopover in Dubai en route to an ashram in India, Karan sat down to talk about why she's never felt more challenged or satisfied with her career.
Barbra Streisand wore a Donna Karan couture gown to the Oscars last month - what was the collaborative process like?
Barbra and I are like sisters. Working with her for as long as I have, I know how to accent the positives and delete the negatives. I'm aware of her sensitivities as a woman and having done her wedding dresses and I understand her body well. But Barbra's also a designer you understand [laughs]. It was a co-creation!
You're famous for your 'Seven Easy Pieces' - the stress-free guide to dressing. Have your style staples evolved over the years?
I still don't want to "think" about getting dressed, definitely not. My go-to outfit is a body suit, leggings and my number one most important piece - a scarf. You can wrap yourself up in it, do anything with it. It supports and holds my body, I feel protected in it. I just love it as a piece of fabric and stretch in materials is very important to me. And the reason I use black a lot is because it's a backdrop for anything, the same goes for white. In fact, I have a black and a separate white closet at home.
Your attention in recent years has shifted from "dressing people on the outside to dressing them on the inside", as you put it with your Urban Zen initiative. How did the project come about?
It's a holistic approach to health care and it's not just about what the woman is wearing on the outside, it's dealing with how she's feeling on the inside. I see it as unacceptable that there's no care in health care and before my husband Stephan Weiss died, he said: "Whatever you do, Donna, take care of the nurses." I had all the tools and the people around me to do that and I strongly felt there were some people missing in the health care system. One being a "patient navigator", for example, a person who might break the news to you that you have a certain illness etc. It's all about taking care of patients, doctors and nurses properly. So, I created Urban Zen Integrated Therapies and brought the programmes to hospitals, saving one floor US$90,000 [Dh330,560] in a year by using these methodologies. Having this as part of our lives and our workplaces is so important and I'm dying to take the concept further, doing a Zen Airplane and a Zen Hotel. Life is chaotic, we're all in chaos and I'm so "urban chaos" it's unbelievable!
Do you believe philanthropy is your true calling and that establishing your fashion empire was a prelude to this work?
Absolutely no question about it. Although Donna Karan and DKNY came so effortlessly to me that I was surprised how challenging establishing Urban Zen was. Putting philanthropy and commerce together and taking on the health care system is probably the toughest thing I've ever taken on in my life. I've only lived birth and death my whole life and I didn't understand what it all meant back then, but I do now. My father died when I was three then my boss Anne Klein died, followed by my mother, then my husband, some friends etc. I started wondering what was going on and soon took up yoga. For so long, I had no calm. I had everything I wanted, I was very fortunate and had been given a lot: success, a family, what could I possibly complain about? It was that I had no inner peace. I later began to understand I was on a spiritual journey and everything that went before was preparing me for now.
Do you ever think about slowing down, and succession where the business is concerned?
I always think about slowing down, but creativity is something you can't throw away, it's a gift that God gave you and there's this constant struggle between what you can and can't do. I also love succession - that's something I'm very good at - I love working with young people and if you think I do all of Donna Karan and DKNY myself, it would be technically and physically impossible! I have amazing people working with me, many of them from the beginning. So we're a great team but I do need to physically "touch" everything, I want to make sure the clothes feel great and fit perfectly. I just really enjoy doing it.
For more information on Karan's latest project, go to www.urbanzen.org
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