Today, I had the pleasure of sharing my story at the Annual National Retail Federation. It was an amazing experience and one that invited me to re-walk the path of my own life.
As I begin the journey of another new year, starting at the beginning of my story felt like exactly the right way to move forward. There is much on the horizon for 2013, and I am looking forward to sharing all of the details with you right here.
But, for today, I want to take you back to the beginning by taking you through the story of my life by sharing the speech I delivered earlier this afternoon:
For me, business has always been personal. I stand here today not just as a designer, but also as a consumer. I built my brand by being in touch with my own needs as a consumer and I haven’t changed.
I was born into fashion. My father was a tailor and my mother was a fit model. I never thought I’d end up in design, but the universe had chosen my path.
I launched my career in design at Anne Klein. Soon after while Anne was in the hospital dying of cancer and I was in the hospital delivering my daughter, Gabby, I found myself with a collection due, a company to run and a new baby to care for.
Talk about multi-tasking. Then the phone call came, “When are you coming back to work?” I said, “Would you like to know whether I had a boy or a girl… by the way it’s a girl.” Of course, in this industry, the show must go on.
After designing at Anne Klein and Anne Klein II for 10 years, I decided I wanted to create a small collection for my friends and I. The thing is, I am a very selfish person: I’ve been a yogi since I was 18 years old, and I wanted to create seven easy pieces around the body suit - a simple collection that would transition from day to night. This was the start of the Donna Karan Company.
As I grew into a working mother, juggling a small child and a growing company, my needs as a consumer grew and so my brand evolved to embrace a workingwoman’s whole lifestyle.
It was time to address the needs of a woman constantly on the go. From sunglasses, to hosiery, to the perfect bag to travel with and carry all my seven easy pieces, I designed clothing that could go from day to night, evolving with the ever-growing needs of the modern woman.
As I continued to grow as a businesswoman, my designs grew and the public interest in me grew with it. The press wasn’t always friendly, but it was surreal for me to see powerful women like Hillary Clinton wearing signature pieces from the collection. The thing I love about fashion most is when a design is ripped apart by the press, and winds up on the First Lady for her first White House dinner, unbeknownst to me.
I knew right then and there, that the kind of woman I was designing for was a woman who could and should run for president. (So I was a bit early.)
At the same time, my husband was getting into the act, and he wanted clothes. And since my father was a custom tailor, I gave it a shot.
My life as a world traveler and businesswoman took me to amazing places. The colors and the spirits of people and cultures inspired me. These elements were catalysts for my collections then and they continue to fuel my creative expression today.
I started DKNY for a simple reason: I needed a pair of jeans. DKNY was designed for New Yorkers and their busy lives running around the streets of Manhattan. New York has always meant the world to me, just as it does today. DKNY was built around all the customers who were taking subways and buses - from uptown to downtown. As my kids and their friends were all stealing from my closet, I realized I needed to have a brand for them, too. This was DKNY.
But my husband, Stephan, thought fashion was not enough. He believed we had to be in the fragrance business. He said, “Hemlines will go up and down, but a fragrance will last forever.” My husband, an artist and a Star Wars junkie, proceeded to create our first fragrance and bottle. Black and gold and black and silver, for me, were always iconic. It was always about the body - whether a bottle, or an evening dress. Dressing real women of substance was important to me…. Women like Cate Blanchett, Demi Moore, Milla Jovovich and Barbra Streisand (my best friend and sister) became my inspirations.
In many ways, my life has been defined by birth and death. When I started losing friends and loved ones to the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s, I realized I could no longer only dress people, I needed to address them as well. Perry Ellis believed that AIDS was a personal issue, but I couldn’t sit back.
Seventh on Sale was created because I had a vision of bringing designers, retailers, press and consumers together to create awareness. My designer colleagues like Calvin, Ralph, Oscar and Bill gathered together. I asked everyone to empty their design rooms and sell their merchandise for a cause.
And, of course, it was Anna Wintour and Caroline Rome, then president of the CFDA, who made it all possible. It was then that I learned how effective conscious consumerism could be. Seventh on Sale was just the beginning of this movement; next came Kids for Kids, then Super Saturday.
When my husband Stephan - my partner in life, love, business and family - was sick with lung cancer, it was a wake-up call. Everyone was taking care of the disease, but who was taking care of the patient and the loved ones? It was then that I realized that there was a missing link in healthcare and education.
Everyone always makes fun of me for my C words. Cotton and cashmere, create, connect, collaborate, and communicate with a community for change. Inspired by President Clinton (another C!) and the Clinton Global Initiative, and my passion for bringing philanthropy and commerce together - Urban Zen Center, Foundation, and Retail was born at my husband’s studio.
I transformed Stephan’s studio into Urban Zen Center, a place to bring a community of like-minded people together to create change. It is a place and a space where we design forums, partner with existing organizations and bring together experts to define solutions and implement action.
Urban Zen Foundation raises awareness and inspires change by integrating mind, body and spirit into healthcare and education, while utilizing and preserving the wisdom of our cultures.
As a designer and a yogi, I’ve always been inspired by cultures. I am always a student, traveling the world and searching for knowledge. I am an advocate of bringing these tools to every consumer.
Before my husband died, he asked me to take care of the nurses. As someone who has practiced yoga for so many years, I realized what was missing in my husband’s care: yoga, meditation, essential oils, Reiki, nutrition and an understanding of palliative care.
Each and every one of us is a patient and a loved one. No one gets away with it. So I created the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program with my teachers, Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, to help support patients, loved ones, doctors and nurses, just like I promised Stephan I would do.
(The Integrative Therapy Program has a presence in many areas including, UCLA and Ohio, and our pilot study at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center has proven that there is a savings of $900,099 on one floor by bringing these integrative therapists to our healthcare system.) Of course, the first thing the hospitals ask me to do is design rooms and hospital gowns! However, my first mission is to care for the people.
This is why I cannot separate culture, healthcare and education – they are all connected and the use of the tools of meditation, yoga and nutrition positively impacts all of these areas. By using these tools, our children, along with their parents and teachers, will be much more apt to deal with the challenges that we are all faced with in our world today.
Urban Zen embodies not just my philanthropic passions, but also my passion for design – dressing and addressing people both on the inside and the outside. Urban Zen Retail is a total lifestyle experience from fashion, to objects of desire, to art and photography from all around the world. It is a timeless and season-less experience for men, women and the community…
Urban Zen is a business model where we connect the dots from philanthropy and commerce and a percentage of net sales benefit the Urban Zen Foundation.
We are further developing this model through our Haiti Artisan Project, an expression of our commitment to philanthropy and commerce and our commitment to rebuild Haiti. I’m often asked, “Why Haiti?” Haiti represents the 3 pillars of our foundation - culture, healthcare and education. I believe where there is creativity, there is hope. And Haiti is the most hopeful place I know.
After my first trip to Haiti, I knew that it was the backdrop for creating something magical. I immediately knew that I wanted to do a shoot there. And so we did a stunning ad campaign for both the Donna Karan Company and Urban Zen with supermodel Adriana Lima, fashion photographer, philanthropist and my nomadic partner in crime Russell James and filmmaker David Belle (who created the Cine Institute in Jacmel).
My job as a designer, and the gift I’ve been given, is to inspire and create. I stand here before you today, not only as a designer philanthropist, but also as a mother, grandmother, wife, and a woman of the world. Through my experiences, I know for certain that now is not the time for business as usual.
It is my belief that there is no time more pressing then the current moment, when our world is in such chaos. Now is the time to use vision and passion to propel the only platform that makes any sense: conscious consumerism. This is a big ask and it takes a community.
Urban Zen is just one model of creating change and as consumers and global citizens it is paramount that we come together, address what is needed and decide to do business differently. What I know for sure is that when we come together, there isn’t anything we cannot do.