Walking through the conference hall corridors at the Grand Hyatt, Donna Karan carries herself with radiant energy, responding to repeated requests for photos, selfies and constant greetings.
Settling comfortably into a large chair, Karan leans forward and talks animatedly with WWD about her life, the uncertainty after setting out on her own last year and her long relationship with India.
WWD: You’ve spoken about a quicker turn around for fashion retail for years, and now the idea is catching on. Is it a burden of responsibility, having a strong voice in the fashion industry?
Donna Karan: I don’t feel burdened, but I do feel a little frustrated. Because I see the problem, and I can see the solution — but there are two strongly different points of view on this — like the Republicans and Democrats.
At one point I had to say that I had to do it my way, because I could not get the change that I felt was so needed. Now the industry is looking at the change in a very real way — to find ways of talking to the consumer much faster. Everything we have is changing with communication — from fashion to newspapers. There was a time when we would pick up Women’s Wear Daily and couldn’t wait to see what it read. And now, you get it five minutes later on your iPad or your phone! The same has to apply to fashion.
WWD: You’ve been saying that for a while. Is it vindicating that more people have started voicing this?
D.K.: Yes, thank god. Sometimes it takes a germ of an idea, which takes a long time to digest. The reason I think it’s changing is that business is not as good as it was and it has become a real question in the world of fashion. You see, bags and shoes don’t take on the seasonal quality that fashion does. A black leather bag can be good in any season, but you can’t say the same about fashion, particularly about fabrication.
WWD: Do you think the consumer is taking well to all this new and instant communication?
D.K.: I think it is confusing her; she’s changing and she’s frustrated, and she’s saying, “I can’t keep up with all this stuff!” She’s shown new styles in the moment, but she’s not going to get them for another six months — and I think that’s very confusing for her. She feels she’s seen it all by the time it comes around. She’s also a little bored. She’s really into [snaps her fingers],”Wear-now-buy-now.”
WWD: Is the global consumer changing the same way and looking for the same design?
D.K.: You look at the world situation, look at London, Paris, Italy, it is all basically the same as the U.S. Then you look at other places such as India, Bali, with warmer climates, you know the Southern climates, they are very different. I think there is a time and place for everything and in Australia, for example, it is completely the opposite. I don’t think we can be designing for that customer per se.
WWD: But the Indian customer seems very happy with U.S. designs.
D.K.: So many of the customers here are traveling all over the world so they need multiple types of clothes. That’s one thing about Urban Zen — it is seasonless and it is timeless. So it’s not about the fashion of a moment saying, “I have to have it now.” It’s something that you become a part of…sort of like a sari.
WWD: A lot of people still talk about the way your seven easy pieces changed their lives…
D.K.: And I still feel about it the way I did at that time; I haven’t changed my mind. [Smiles.]
WWD: But as you have gone through difficult — and sometimes tragic — circumstances, were you able to come up with a similar step process for handling life?
D.K.: I must say that the more you give, the more you get. Being able to find solutions, to help other people is extremely gratifying. My work in Haiti has been amazing. People say I glow when I’m there. Also, when I go to Bali, when I come to India and travel and see different cultures. I make sure I’m involved in the world out there, creatively, culturally.
WWD: So being involved is the key?
D.K.: Yes. And, at the same time, finding my truth. That’s a journey I’ve been on for many years. I mean, being a working mother, realizing that I have to make and find my balance. As I say this, I’ve been away for two months and haven’t seen my family. I speak to them every day though. I miss them, but I love traveling.
WWD: Does your own inspiration and creativity change with romantic love?
D.K.: It’s been such a long time that I can’t recall. But I do remember how sexy my collection was after I first got involved with Stephan [Weiss, her late husband]. That’s one thing I don’t have in my life right now and…if anything, that’s one thing I would love.
WWD: You wanted a fragrance inspired by the back of his neck….
D.K.: I know. Personally, I don’t use fragrance, and only use essential oils. Stephan said, “Donna, we have to do fragrance — fragrance will last forever — fashion goes up and down. And I said, “I love Casablanca lilies, I love the smell of your neck and I love suede. If you can combine these three together, we can discuss it.”
WWD: Are there particular essential oils that give you more balance?
D.K.: I love Thieves, it is therapeutic, if you’re not feeling well. It has a very strong scent but is quite wonderful. I also use lavender. Peppermint, when my stomach is upset.
WWD: Has India influenced your design in any way? You yourself are quite minimalistic.
D.K.: Not really. I’m more eclectic. I think Calvin is a minimalist. Maybe I’m minimalist in the respect that I love black…black for the winter, white for the summer, you know? But I love artisanal things. I love working in the markets, I love working with fabric. So I’m not that conditioned to one thing.
When I came to Delhi first and said, “This is not India. And then I was taken to Varanasi and there I loved, loved the culture. It was a beautiful journey. The way the people dressed – even the poorest people, and the fabrics! With vegetable dyes, and I was fascinated by the color.
But in the end I loved the men — all in white — so many shades of white. And I said, “What am I going to do? A color collection or a white collection?” I finally did a neutral white collection.
I was so overwhelmed by India when I first came — it still inspires me because I still go for the culture, I still go for the colors. I would love to work with the artisans and take it to another dimension, the same way I did in Haiti.
WWD: Would you start a vocational college in India, similar to the one you have done in Haiti?
D.K.: I don’t think it’s necessarily me doing that but finding cooperative relationships with other designers who would be interested in doing it.
WWD: Did your last trip to India in 2014 foster some of this?
D.K.: The last two years have been chaotic. Last time I was here I spent two weeks at the Sadhguru’s [Jaggi Vasudev]. It was a wonderful experience. It was very different from what I normally do — earlier I used to do Ashtanga [yoga] all the time. Now my yoga teacher is Rodney Yee. I’m very involved with Pilates as well; you have to be careful. I can’t do headstands any more, I have a neck and a spinal problem, but I used to do it.
WWD: You’ve always had such creative energy, turning out collections for more than 30 years. How is this energy transforming after leaving the company bearing your name?
D.K.: I think I was always inspired by seeing a problem, and finding a solution. If you look at the world today, there are as many solutions as there are problems. I think that is a big part of creativity. That’s why I started Urban Zen. Because I wanted to dress and address people. I have tried to hold my philanthropic passion to fashion, because I think this is very important, and I realize I need to delve even deeper into it.
WWD: You have earlier spoken about creating calm out of chaos with Urban Zen. Do you feel that within yourself as well now?
D.K.: No. With all the yoga and meditation that I do, when the chaos happens it happens. But I’m not as affected as a lot of people — I don’t react as much. I just let things drip off my back a little bit. I’m not as obsessive-compulsive about certain things; I give a lot of latitude to people and support people. I know that I can’t do it myself and that you’re only as good as the people you have behind you. I celebrate my people a lot and that’s why people stay with me as long as they do.
WWD: Does being in the public eye so much exhaust you?
D.K.: The interesting thing about me is that I don’t play that role. I’m very involved in my business and with my family and my friends. I don’t play the social world very much, and not to promote my product. I do it for the philanthropic problems because there I feel that I’m making a difference, and that I’m helping. So I do it in a soulful way.
WWD: Are you concerned about how the U.S. is being seen outside, in terms of the politics and its culture?
D.K.: Yes, I’m very alarmed by it. I believe Hillary [Clinton] should be the president. I believe having her and her husband in the White House is what the country needs at the moment. I think they are completely versed on world issues. I’m not a fan of Donald Trump. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think violence is the answer to anything and I think, hopefully, she will be our president.
WWD: In 2016, will Urban Zen be the key focus for you?
D.K.: Yes, but not only from the fashion point of view. It will be from the culture, the artisan point of view, and to really talk to the consumer. I did Urban Zen for myself, to make clothes for me and my friends, a similar philosophy to when I started Donna Karan. Except this time I hope it will stay that way so that I will be able to support young designers and mentor them.
WWD: Are you pleased with the retail expansion of Urban Zen at this time?
D.K.: I would like to go very slowly. I have four stores and am opening Bergdorf Goodman this week — that’s why I have to go back so quickly. I like to spend at least three weeks in India….This season we are opening up L.A. again — I had a store there, which we closed and are reopening in September. I have Manhasset opening — it used to be a Donna Karan store. And I’m selling a major retailer so that’s going to be a very interesting experience. Online will be growing as well.
WWD: Your book “My Journey” seems to allow great clarity about your past…
D.K.: I think we’re on a journey….It was very easy to write about my past in my book, but writing about the present is all a new chapter. I hope that people find this journey fascinating, informative and educational. I loved the writing of it. I worked with a writer, Kathleen Boyce. It was a wonderful experience…but I didn’t expect that the last chapter would be the last chapter of Donna Karan. That was probably the biggest shock.
WWD: You said many times over the last few years that you would be working on your last collection each fashion week — were you really ready to finish long before?
D.K.: I knew I wanted it but was afraid to say it. You know, like, you’re getting a divorce…it takes a while? You don’t just get divorced like that. Then there comes a time when you say, OK, I’m prepared to do it. Still, it took a lot to be able to actually do it. It wasn’t easy. I thought it would be easier than it is…
WWD: Still hurts to think about it?
D.K.: It’s not that…but there are certain parts of it that I miss. I like the idea of having many different ways to express myself. There is a part of me as an artist and a creator who would like to express myself in many different ways. But then at the same time I know I have limited hours in the day, and I can only do so much successfully.
I also miss the support that I had of so many people. You know I’m a very Ma and Pa operation right now, and I was used to having everything working for me. It was a similar situation when I left Anne Klein and started Donna Karan. All of a sudden I was working in my apartment and it was, “Oh my god, what am I doing?”
WWD: Does the yoga and meditation continue despite all of these changes?
D.K.: It is different everyday, but usually I do a practice in the morning first and then meditate. I’m fortunate that I can do it in a car, in a bus, in a plane.
WWD: Some people like to sit in a cupboard and mediate…
D.K.: I know a lot of people who do that, and they love it. It’s a way of shutting off the world. It’s hard to keep the energy going sometimes, that’s why I like to go with a group of people who are meditating. I love meditating in groups, it’s fantastic.
WWD: As your trip to India comes to an end, are you looking forward to going back?
D.K.: Going back to New York? No. I would rather stay here!