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Donna Karan Meditates, Gives Keynote Speech

Leave it to the designer to lead an impromptu meditation session in the midst of her keynote address at a business conference at Harvard.

Donna Karan speaking at Harvard.

BOSTON — Leave it to Donna Karan to lead an impromptu meditation session in the midst of her keynote speech Saturday at the Intercollegiate Business Conference at the Hynes Convention Center here. As the designer guided a full ballroom of power-suited Ivy League women through a series of visualizations, one could almost hear breaths drawn deeper and jaws unclenching.

For this event — a career-development day organized by Harvard’s Undergraduate Women in Business club, which draws coeds from more than 70 universities — Karan was frank in previewing the tensions women experience between career and family.

“What comes first is a big question, and it’s a tough one,” said Karan, who flicked through slides of her first ad campaign, in 1986, which featured a harried woman in an evening dress reading a newspaper while an infant plays with her string of beads nearby. She talked about failing draping as an undergrad at Parsons School of Design, and being rejected by WWD when she sought work as an illustrator.

“Get ready to be slapped in the face a lot,” she told the crowd. “Put on your padding.”

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Before she triumphed at Anne Klein as its designer, she sharpened pencils, ran errands and fetched coffee.

She injected plenty of humor into the talk, quipping at a childhood slide of herself: “There I was, 10-and-a-half pounds at birth, a fat little baby girl. At that moment, I decided clothes had to fit and be comfortable.”

As one who sees infinite nuances in the color black, she was delighted the crowd was wearing so much of it (that, and arty glasses, were the main sartorial statements).

“God bless black,” she said, prompting applause. Karan herself was clad in an all-noir ensemble that highlighted the amber tones of a large horn necklace and a sleeve of bracelets made by Haitian craftspeople. She called her work with the earthquake-devastated country, for which she recently received the Clinton Global Citizen Award, “One of my life’s highlights.” But for Karan, philanthropy always mixes with good storytelling and her flair for commerce. She flies to Haiti once a month, hopping on the back of a truck to journey to Jacmel, a seaside artist community where she designs and produces items for her three Urban Zen stores. She snatched up the résumé of one Babson College student who stood up to say she’d recently visited Jacmel and was impressed by its workshops.

Inspired by what John Hardy did for jewelry making in Bali, Karan is working with the Jacmel community to market itself globally and to reimagine its traditional arts. Instead of using papier-mâché just to make masks, for example, Karan has reimagined it fashioned into basket-weave totes, which are a much easier sale. She’d like to expand the Urban Zen concept, and plans eventually to take it into e-commerce, although there are no specific time frames on either.

“I believe there’s a place and a space for a collection for a conscious consumer,” she said.

Despite a packed schedule, Karan shook off any notion that there’s a next chapter coming where she’d tend just to the hearth of her family (seven grandchildren) and her many philanthropies.

“Once a designer, always a designer,” she says. “Anne [Klein] taught me that.”