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Donna Karan On Finding Calm In Chaos

The designer’s new venture, Urban Zen, is the epitome of her: a dedicated yogi, spiritual seeker, and explorer of global handicraft.

Donna Karan On Finding Calm In Chaos
[Photo: Flickr user Tucker Sherman]

“I just traveled back from Europe . . . Europe, and California, and then back to Europe. I travel around a lot. Next I have to go to China. You never know where I’m going to be!” That’s Donna Karan, the famed American designer known for revolutionizing the way that working women dressed in the 1980s, answering a query about whether she still spends most of her time in New York City. Karan recently announced her decision to step away from her eponymous brands, Donna Karan International and DKNY, and turn her efforts towards Urban Zen, the luxury marketplace she launched to prove her belief in both cultural preservation through commerce and the power of self-care (the stores support the nonprofit Urban Zen Foundation).

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Donna KaranPhoto: Ruven Afanador

Karan also recently released a memoir, My Journey. In it, she retells the incredible history of her over 30 years in the fashion industry. Starting at the right hand of Anne Klein when she was just 19 years old, she then launched and swiftly ascended to the top of her own empire spanning womenswear, menswear, fragrances, beauty products, hosiery, and homewares, and now is focused on growing Urban Zen. She’s done it all, too, while navigating an emotionally complicated early family life, motherhood, divorce, and remarriage, the untimely passing of her husband and business partner to cancer, spearheading major philanthropic efforts like the first Seventh on Sale benefit with Vogue and the CFDA in 1995, and more.

In the midst of this journey, Karan found herself trying to “find the calm in the chaos” (a mantra she repeats often). Fast Company recently spoke with Karan about just how she manages to do that:

Keep Calm and Yoga On

Fast Company: I know you’re a very spiritually curious person. When and how did that start to play a real role in your life?

Donna Karan: I was on the beach one day and I said, “I have everything in my life. What is missing?” I was living a very chaotic life, constantly on the move, constantly going, and then I realized that the environment in general sometimes is so still. You know a rock on the beach, or a tree in the ground . . . I started to become very attuned to nature and the environment, and I continued to ask: How did it all stay still [while] I’m moving at such an amazing pace? How could I find the calm in the chaos?

So how do you? What do you do to routinely to seek that calm?

I try to practice yoga once a day, and I meditate as part of my yoga practice. I work with two teachers: Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman from Yoga Shanti. I usually do it in my own home in the morning, and on the weekends I go to the Yoga Shanti [studio] out in the Hamptons.

I also study kabbalah and go to kabbalah classes once a week with my teacher, Ruthie Rosenberg. There is a HUGE amount of people there, and I think the world of yoga right now is becoming one of the most commercialized ventures. It shows [that other] people need and desire to find that calm, too.

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What led you to try yoga the first time, back in high school?

I don’t know! I was walking by a gym and saw they had a yoga class so I just joined. And I thought, How great! because I love to dance and I love the body and the movement of the body. It is all so reflected in the work that I do designing, and it’s [core] in yoga.

You’ve mentioned the beach and nature in general, but what are some places more specifically that you like to visit when you’re feeling chaos?

It can go from Central Park, or the Hudson River (by my Urban Zen store), where my husband’s apple sculpture is located. Or I go out to Turks & Caicos, or the Hamptons.

We created Parrot Cay (a 10-plus-acre resort home) in Turks & Caicos . . . to create a place for family, where all my friends and family can come together. My friend Christina Ong built it, and what she did was basically bring Bali, which I love, to the island. [Everything] that I love to do—yoga, health care—it’s all built into Turks & Caicos. I also wanted a place and a space where my family can come together, where we weren’t interrupted. Just an amazing environment to keep everyone together.

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To Maximize Face Time With Friends, Bring Them To Work

Speaking of family and friends, I know you’re one who likes to find ways to work together with them.

Well, I find that there are only so many hours in the day . . .

So you have to bring your friends to work with you?

Or vice versa! Either my friends come into my work, or I become friends with the people who are at my work. Like, Patti (Cohen, Karan’s tennis partner-turned-EVP of public relations), who’s sitting next to me right now! And think about the fact that my biggest partner in my life was my husband (Stephan Weiss, who served as co-CEO of the Donna Karan company). And believe me, that was not planned.

Were there ever any issues along the way? Any challenges that work threw into the way of a friendship?

No, I think it’s something you just have to take responsibility for. It probably was the most difficult with my husband, because he got so engaged with my work, that I went, Hey! Where’s our personal life? But I guess I kind of just had to accept that my husband was the genius that he was.

All Travel Is Work Travel

You travel a lot. For you, what defines a work trip versus a personal trip?

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All of my trips kind of circle back to work. It’s very rarely that I go on a trip and it doesn’t affect one of my collections . . . I’m sitting here now looking around at all my pillows made in Africa, my furniture made in Bali, I’m looking at the pieces I did in Haiti. All of these pieces [represent] part of the native craft, their culture, and how I interpreted it and was inspired by it. Everything that I see, feel, and touch comes out into an expression of work.

When you travel to new places, like Africa or Tibet, what kinds of things do you like to do there? What’s your game plan when you touch down?

Well, it depends where I am, you know, on so many different levels. I usually go to marketplaces, I like to look at the people, I love to see what they’re wearing. I’m very sensitive to color, and to patterns. I use my instincts and follow my senses.

For example, I had a feeling before I went to Haiti right after the earthquake, and I asked around about which were the most creative areas. They told me Croix-des-Bouquets. My immediate reaction was: Croix-des-Bouquets, that’s a great name for a fragrance. What do they grow in Haiti? They grow vetiver. I thought, Oh, what a great way to do a fragrance. It all started from there. There are so many creative people all around Haiti, I was constantly being inspired by them, and have been designing a tremendous amount with different artists there, everything from pottery to jewelry. I try to go at least once a month, sometimes once every two months. I’ve taken a lot of friends down with me, and they’re always shocked. They fall in love and ask, “How can I help?”

Would you say that your travels are what led you to found Urban Zen?

Maybe, yes. Culturally, I was very inspired. I wanted to create with local artisans and I wanted a place to sell and to show and exhibit a lot of the work that I’d seen. If you come in to my marketplace [at Urban Zen], you feel like you’re taking a trip around the world.

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Traveling so often doesn’t get in the way of your yoga practice?

The mat is a place to find the calm in the chaos, but just taking a good, deep breath is [also] a yoga philosophy. Breathing is the most important part of yoga.

My yoga teacher always reminds us that you can find tadasana (a standing yoga pose) waiting on the subway platform.

Exactly! I agree with that completely.

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