Fashion may have made Donna Karan a household name, but she’ll go down in history for changing the world. In 2007, the designer founded the Urban Zen Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to empowering children, promoting well-being and preserving cultures worldwide.
When Karan’s not (stylishly) traveling the globe helping disaster stricken communities, she’s focused on creating a brighter future for tomorrow’s leaders.
“The idea started as a desire to create a sophisticated wellness center in New York City where like-minded people could find the calm in the chaos of their lives,” explains the 64-year-old Queens native. “A place where all the things I love—yoga, meditation, nutrition, helping others and giving back—would come together under one roof. Over the years, the idea evolved and crystallized into something far more specific and foundation oriented.”
Through interactive forums and partnerships with existing organizations, Karan and her team bring together experts to define solutions and implement action, especially concerning the health care industry. “We’re passionate about taking a holistic view towards health, incorporating eastern philosophy and western science,” she asserts, for this is a subject that hits extremely close to home.
Karan’s husband, Stephen Weiss, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996. Despite top-notch medical care, his condition worsened and the pain became increasingly unbearable. “He was open to trying anything,” she admits. “I’d always been a believer of eastern healing practices, which Stephan called my ‘woo woos.’” Armed with bottles of essential oils and bags of nutrient-rich foods, plus her Iyengar yoga instructor and massage therapist, Karan stood by her husband’s bedside hoping for a miracle. “And it all helped,” she says proudly. “Stephan became a believer. He even took it a step further, imploring me to care for the nurses too.”
“We can’t hope to leave a better world if we don’t change how we educate and empower our children.”
After a seven-year battle, Weiss lost his fight to cancer in 2006. Shortly after his death, Karan recognized the need for standardized medical treatment that addresses the mind, body and emotions of the patient and their caretakers, in addition to the disease. “It’s not an either/or proposition,” she explains. “We can do both at the same time.”
Multi-tasking seems to come easy for the fashionista turned philanthropist. Helping Haitian residents recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake is another top priority for Karan and her foundation. Seeing great promise in the country’s cultural community, Karan started the Haiti Artisan Project, which strengthens the local economy by creating a sustainable model of commerce using the country’s natural resources such as stone, metal, recycled paper and tobacco leaves. “So many of the crafts were passed on through the generations,” Karan notes. “For these people, it’s an intrinsic part of the culture, and therefore, way of life.”
Having visited Haiti more times than she can count, Karan says that one of her most memorable experiences took place last year while shooing the Donna Karan Collection Spring advertising campaign featuring Adriana Lima. “It was creative, spontaneous and fun,” she recalls. “So much of it was photographed on the street. At one point there was a traditional parade passing by and we grabbed one of the masks for Adriana, which became one of my favorite photos.”
When Karan’s not (stylishly) traveling the globe helping disasterstricken communities, she’s focused on creating a brighter future for tomorrow’s leaders. “We can’t hope to leave a better world if we don’t change how we educate and empower our children,” she declares. “That includes teaching them to find peace within themselves, teaching them to preserve the culture and wisdom from our past, and lastly, teaching them how to care for themselves early on…. to exercise and embrace sound nutritional habits so they live healthy and vibrant lives.”