CHICAGO — For Donna Karan, it was never just about the clothes.
“It’s not just about dressing. It’s about addressing the issues in health care, education and culture. Everybody is expecting one person to do it; really it’s about each and every one of us. That’s truly what Urban Zen is about,” said the designer and philanthropist, on a phone call last week while en route to Neapolitan Collection, a boutique located in the tree-lined Chicago suburb of Winnetka, to sign copies of her memoir “My Journey.”
“If I go to a store, I want to talk about your community. Yeah I could dress you, yeah my clothes are there,” said Karan, adding she was “so excited” about the event that day and to meet this group of women who shop there and to see Neapolitan owner Kelly Golden, who Karan said she immediately “hit it off” with. “Every time I’ve walked into a dressing room, I guarantee you the conversation goes to my mother, my husband, my daughter, dah, dah, dah. It’s not what I can do for them; it’s what they can do for them. It’s each one of us, our responsibility. I have a vision, there’s no question about that. I want everyone to come together to manifest this.”
That vision included the first female president, which Karan portrayed in 1992 with her “In Women We Trust” ads, featuring model Rosemary McGrotha as a fictional female president. The designer thought Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election.
“People say to me ‘Donna why do you still do this?’ There are issues that have to be dealt with,” said Karan, who was involved with the Clinton Foundation’s Global Initiative program for 10 years and whose designs were worn by former President Bill Clinton and the first lady.
“We’re living in a world problem and we need world leaders. Nobody is perfect, we all have our things, but I don’t know anybody who has brought the power of people together as Bill Clinton did,” Karan said. “If it wasn’t for President Clinton, I would not be the person I am. I’ll never forget when I was in the White House for the first time, I said to Hillary, ‘We’ve got to do something about health care; where is the care in health care?’”
President Trump’s win is something Karan doesn’t think “anyone has gotten over” yet.
“I’m appalled. I really am. I’m very sad about it,” the designer said. “The one thing is, I do think we have to be aligned and feel a camaraderie. Never in my lifetime have I seen anything like this. We’re in a period of chaos. The world is in chaos on every single level. When I started Urban Zen, I thought our biggest problem was Israel and Palestine. I thought once we can solve that problem we could solve every other problem. Now I think the world is an Israel and a Palestine. The only time we come together as one is, God forbid, something like Sept. 11. Nobody asked what religion you were, where you came from, we were all there for one another. People are afraid.”
Karan questioned the president’s push for U.S. manufacturing and Made in the USA, especially as it relates to the luxury market.
“[The idea that] everything has to be made here in America, our business is based on all the businesses we do outside America. This is not just about America — we are a world right now,” Karan said. “I’m not negating that jobs are needed, but we have to be creative. What are those jobs? Can you imagine? There will be no more Mercedes, no more BMWs, no more Louis Vuitton, no more Prada. We’re the world right now. We’ve been set back. I feel like I’m back in the Sixties or the Fifties. It’s also a [wake-up] call — we were not on top of it.”
Health care continues to be a big focus for Karan and she has a number of projects in the fire.
“I’m working on conceptual health-care places, working with artisans, people have asked me to get involved in hotels. We all go away to be taken care of; we need to live and be cared for in the same area, the cities are what needs it so badly right now,” she said. “I need my acupuncture, my massage, my yoga every morning and every night when I come home. I go to a spa and I feel great and then I come home.”
The solution? Karan wants to develop the living component to Urban Zen and said the ideal location would be downtown Manhattan near her studio.
“I want to live there,” said Karan, who has already developed the business model for Urban Zen Living, and said it would be similar to Parrot Cay, her home in Turks & Caicos, where she has a spa, yoga studio and health center. “It’s a community with health care, food, a center where we all come together and create change. That’s why I started Urban Zen; it was never to be just about the clothes.”
She was less specific on an opening date.
“Dreams are dreams and sometimes dreams take longer and sometimes they don’t. You put it out to the universe and sometimes it happens,” Karan said.
“It’s not going to happen like fashion. It’s not going to happen the next day.”