Urban Zen is Donna Karan's second act. It launched first as a mission to raise awareness of and advance the causes that were most important to her: healthcare, preserving cultures, and empowering children, and soon became a lifestyle brand with an ethos of "conscious consumerism" that promotes her principles through five stores, which sell a variety of artisan-made goods, high quality knits, and the best skinny pants you'll ever own. Below, We talked to Karan about the virtues of living well and giving back.
Why did you choose Los Angeles for Urban Zen's newest location (after Manhattan, Manhasset, Sag Harbor, and Aspen)?
LA is a second home to me. It's filled with creative, like-minded people who embrace wellness in mind, body and lifestyle, as well as value the artisan spirit and expression – all the things that Urban Zen stands for.
How did you go about designing a unique space (and inventory) that would reflect the community?
From day one, we've always wanted to be in LA, but finding the perfect place was the hard part. This location, which is off the beaten track, has everything – it's open, filled with light, has a very LA-like indoor/outdoor flow with gardens, and has a parking lot, which is essential here. It even has a kitchen, which allows us to serve the kind of delicious, nurturing food we believe in. I design everything as if it's my home. Everyone immediately wants to move in.
Will there be LA-only artisan collaborations?
Absolutely. Our plan is to be a part of the community with exhibits, lectures, and collaborations. The local component is essential and we're just now scheduling what's to come.
What's your favorite item for sale in the LA store?
There are so many objects of desire – artisan scarves, cashmere sweaters, leather jewelry. But I have to single out the new stretch skinny pants. These are the best I've ever done – they make you look longer, leaner and leggier. It doesn't get sexier.
You've really embraced the "buy now, wear now" movement. Why?
I've been passionate about this forever, since way before I started Urban Zen. I've never understood the point of showing clothes you can't buy or wear for months. Buy now, wear now was part of the reason I opened Urban Zen – I wanted to synthesize showing and selling. I call it finding the calm in the chaos of fashion. Fortunately, the industry is now catching on.
Can you tell us about the work you do with the Urban Zen Foundation and why it means so much to you?
I've always been actively involved in philanthropy, dating back to establishing the fashion industry's Seventh on Sale to benefit AIDS, helping with Kids for Kids, Elizabeth Glaser's Pediatric AIDS benefit, and the on-going Super Saturday in the Hamptons, which I founded 20 years ago with Liz Tilberis to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. All of this led to Urban Zen in 2007, which spoke to the most personal of all my concerns. My husband Stephan had lung cancer and all I kept thinking at the time was "where is the care in healthcare?" which inspired our integrated health care program. At the same time, I was traveling around the world for creative inspiration and saw that we were losing so many ancient artisan traditions through modernization. That led to our Preserving Culture initiative. And finally, as a mother and grandmother, I worry about the future and the kind of leaders we are raising, which resulted in our Empowering Children program.
Has our new political reality had an impact on the way you plan to go forward with Urban Zen's mission?
Urban Zen is philanthropic, not political. Our goal is raise awareness and inspire change where needed. We're happy to collaborate with anyone who serves the same vision. We're also advocates of gun safety and the Not One More movement. We sell collectible black leather bracelets, made in Haiti, to promote awareness and funds for the cause.
Tell us about the foundation's recent projects and initiatives, like rebuilding Haiti.
It's an exciting time at Urban Zen Foundation. Our UZIT program is thriving and has expanded into several major medical care facilities throughout the country. Recently, we've been actively involved with the emergency relief efforts for Haiti after the catastrophic Hurricane Matthew. We've worked to raise funds and organize countless barges of food and supplies to be distributed throughout the country. Fortunately, the location of our vocational school D.O.T. (Design Organization Training Center) wasn't hit by the hurricane, so it's still operating at capacity.
As part of our commitment to help Haiti help itself, we have been marketing and promoting Naturally Haiti, our initiative of Haitian artisan crafts. We're also involved with Nomad Two Worlds with my friend, photographer Russell James, which supports indigenous cultures through art and mix media. We just hosted a silent auction fundraiser in Houston. We always have something going on, including at our store, which is why I encourage everyone to keep checking back to our website, urbanzen.org, and see how you can get involved.
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