You would be hard-pressed to travel to anywhere in the world and not encounter the name Donna Karan, the New York fashion maven who set out in 1985 with a simple design mission – to make modern clothes for modern people.
Three decades later, the Queen of Seventh Avenue has proved her staying power in the fiercely fanged world of fashion by, well, being her balanced self. She relentlessly reinvents the working world’s wardrobe and rethinks black beyond basics. She’s never stagnant. But she never jumps off the deep end either.
With dazzling precision, Donna has been one of a handful who has truly defined design in America. Buoyed by a loyal following, the Donna Karan International empire has expanded to include fragrance, cosmetics, home accessories, eyewear, shoes and, of course, offspring DKNY and DKNY Jeans lines for men and women. And with strong women’s resort and spring 2013 collections, the Manhattan and East Hampton resident is nowhere near done.
Donna credits her late husband, Stephan Weiss, for all of it. Until his 2001 death from lung cancer, Stephan – an intuitive, passionate sculptor of bronzes – was Donna’s great business partner and served as her company’s chief executive, guiding the lucrative sale of Donna Karan International to French luxury conglomerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton the year he passed away.
“There would be no Donna Karan International if not for Stephan,” Donna says matter-of-factly. “It was his vision that allowed it to grow and prosper. Beyond business, Stephan taught me the wisdom of ‘connecting the dots,’ something I practice more than ever in my home, work and philanthropic lives. While he was alive, he always put me first, putting aside his creative love – his art – to dedicate himself to our business.”
Connecting the dots
In her striking new book, “Stephan Weiss: Connecting the Dots” (Assouline, $95, 208 pages), Donna explores Stephan’s first love, his art. In conjunction with the book, she has also installed his work in his former studio, which today is home to her Urban Zen Center on Greenwich Street in Manhattan.
“Stephan has been gone 11 years, 10 years when I was working on this book. With every passing day,” Donna says, “I appreciate just how much he shaped my life.”
“Connecting the Dots” is “a tribute to Stephan on every level, including putting his art out there, exhibiting it in one place so everyone can appreciate the scope of it.”
The book’s title is clearly not just an allusion to Stephan’s habit of drawing dots on paper and connecting them to form sculptural shapes. What do the three words mean to Donna?
“Stephan taught me about connecting the dots – based on the string theory of modern physics – when I was 18. I had no idea what it meant at the time and just thought it was about his art,” she acknowledges. “Now I’m obsessed with it. Everything I do is connected. It always was, but now I understand it’s supposed to be. You learn from the past so you live in the present and go into the future. You explore ancient cultures with a modern, global eye. You take care of the world so you can make a better world for your children and grandchildren. I love nature and it inspires my design. …There’s no separation in how you live, learn and love.
“There’s too much ego in the world, and it gets in the way of giving back and making a difference.”
Haiti, mon amour
It’s the kind of insight that spurred Donna and fellow designer Sonja Nuttall to launch the philanthropic Urban Zen Foundation, which focuses on education, health care and cultural preservation with a nod to ancient wisdom and forward-thinking action.
Donna is genuinely inspired by what might be called her “second career” of dedicating her time and resources to social causes and says, “When it comes to touching and helping others, it’s about “the we, not the me.
“President Clinton’s first Global Initiative was the inspiration behind Urban Zen – the idea of creating a place and a space where like-minded people can come together to find creative solutions to the problems we care about most.”
Though she says, “Having a foundation is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, I’m proud of our Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program that incorporates Eastern therapies with Western practices. We have over 100 certified UZITs working in and around the country today.
“I’m proud of the Haitian artisan communities we are helping to develop into sustainable businesses. And I’m so grateful for all the people that donate their time, energy and expertise to help Urban Zen help others. Stephan is my cheerleader, with us every day at Urban Zen. The Urban Zen was his art studio, so I very much feel his presence.”
Donna continues her relationship with Bill Clinton, whom she dressed in the past, through their international dedication to social issues. The two have worked particularly long hours to raise awareness and provide relief for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. This year, Donna was in for quite the surprise when Clinton called upon her to design the 2012 Global Citizen Award – and then presented it to her.
“I couldn’t have been more honored and humbled,” she says, “to be given an award like that from a man and organization I so admire … there is no better gift or validation for the path I’m on – especially how it relates to the work we’re doing in Haiti.”
In her book – filled with drawings, sculpture photographs, family portraits and event images – Donna often draws on quotes from her late husband, who once said, “You have one life. Live it with passion.”
“To me, passion is about caring, creativity, community, collaboration and compassion and commitment to change – all the ‘C’ words that motivate me and Urban Zen in all we do.”
Life for the designer has been about being brave in the face of fear, loss, confusion, regret and adversity.
“The biggest risk I ever took was to open my own label. I had been at Anne Klein – established with a huge company behind me. I was set up, comfortable and successful, designing with my friend Louis Dell’Olio. But I wanted to design a small collection for me and my friends. I knew I couldn’t do it on the side of Anne Klein. It had to be all or nothing. I was scared. I had no idea if it would work. Tomio Taki and Frank Mori of Anne Klein had to fire me to get me to go,” she confesses, but adds that soon after, “They became our partners at Donna Karan International, so it all worked out. But there were no guarantees of success going in.”
Then and today, she always keeps this message in mind, “Every problem has a creative solution.”
New York state of mind
Naturally, Donna knew design. She told women what essentials they needed in the mid-1980s, pushing materials like jersey and functional-chic wrap dresses and bodysuits and encouraging the art of layering. She’s never gotten out of touch with her demographic or mission statement.
Helping her develop that mission was her ambitious, hands-on husband. In Stephan’s obituary, The New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn poignantly described him as Donna’s “most trusted critic and muse.”
The two, both from Long Island, met on a blind date when Stephan was 28 and Donna was 18.
“Stephan and I had an instant and visceral connection,” she says, and yet, “the timing was wrong. It was only years later when we reconnected that we were able to grow and develop our creative partnership. Stephan was a visionary, who took a creative approach to business. He let me focus on design and he steered the business. It was only with our beauty company that Stephan brought his artistry to the business by creating the fragrances – he was what the beauty industry calls ‘a nose’ – and, of course, sculpting the now iconic bottles.”
Thinking about living and working in New York, the city that nurtured the couple, Donna says, “I see Stephan everywhere in the city, especially in the Village where his art studio was. That’s one of the reasons I love spending so much time at Urban Zen. His art is all over the walls. I’m excited to share his work in the book and in the upcoming exhibits.”
Outside of Urban Zen and Donna’s company, Stephan left a great gift behind for all New Yorkers to appreciate. He dedicated an enormous bronze apple sculpture to New York City. On a mild autumn day, kids on the West Side can be found climbing through the apple’s core to a perfect view of the Hudson River.
With her business, charities, growing family, a new book and a Zen state of mind, “I’ve got a lot of timeless mantras that I live by,” Donna says. “The first and foremost is ‘Accentuate the positive, delete the negative.’
“You can apply that to fashion or how you live your life.”
Visit urbanzen.com for more on Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation.