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A Natural (Urban) Woman
Hal Rubenstein | Photo: Urban Zen photo by Yonghee Joe; Donna Karan photo by Christine Morden | August 12, 2014
In recognition of her iconic label turning 30 this year, the indefatigable Donna Karan talks with author and InStyle Editor-at-Large Hal Rubenstein about creative outlets and Hamptons magic.
Because her 7 Easy Pieces collection redefined the way a modern urban woman dresses; because her 15-story-high billboard in Soho not only branded retail’s most recognizable acronym—DKNY—but cemented the connection to her and Lady Liberty’s hometown; because she built her career on the trust of women around her who hail taxis, ride subways and strut pavement to work and do so while showing off their curves in clothes that let them move with speed, ease and confidence, Donna Karan is still—after three decades—New York’s favorite daughter of fashion. But Karan no longer spends all her time surrounded by concrete canyons. Exotic ports attract and inspire her. Other less tumultuous cultures call to her. East Hampton’s Northwest Woods calms and nourishes her. And Sag Harbor makes her just plain happy, for, oh, so many reasons.
You’re standing in your store in the rustic, tranquil, picturesque, seaside town of Sag Harbor. Yet it’s called Urban Zen. Is there a clash of ideas here?
Absolutely not. Because the reality here is that so many people in Sag Harbor have escaped the city looking for some peace and a chance to breathe. And that’s exactly what everything we do at Urban Zen is about.
Give “it” to me in one sentence.
Urban Zen is a place in a space like the home you desire, where the indoors meets the outdoors, where comfort is everywhere you look and where everything on display here—whether clothing, home furnishings or art—has an artisanal quality about it to highlight the wonder of individuality and the need for community.
Describe the eclecticism of the store to someone who has never been east of Queens.
If you could move London’s Kings Road to a sunny space, that would be Urban Zen because it thrives on eccentricity, on not working according to a formula. What you see all around you—from photographer Martyn Thompson’s jacquard pillows and linens, to the pottery made by our friends in Haiti, to the clothes that I frankly live in from the morning till night—are chosen because they celebrate exciting personalities living in a soulful economy creating lasting beauty.
Are these clothes just for summer, for fall, of the moment?
You know me better than that. How many times have you heard me say that nothing is a bigger waste of time than going for something that is of the moment. Oops! Now, it’s old. You want to know what these clothes, what everything in Urban Zen is about? It’s about luxury because true luxury is about feeling your best without effort. True luxury is taking the time to enjoy and savor all that you surround yourself with. Look at the Balinese sofa, that Haitian chandelier, that raw silk long skirt. I love them. I could stay in this store all day. In fact, I think some of the staff thinks I sleep here.
What is your day in the Hamptons like?
I’m actually very boring because I’m so organized about what I want to do. As part of my integrated therapy I do yoga every morning. Then I get my juice from Juicy Naam. Then I go watch my granddaughter if she’s riding. Then I hang out here. And at night, I go next door to my daughter’s restaurant, Tutto Il Giorno.
What made you first come to the Hamptons?
To be honest, I was happy being a Fire Island hippie, but my late husband, Stephan, wanted to race his motorcycles and you can’t do that on the boardwalks in Fire Island Pines. So I came here, reluctantly at first.
But now you are a semipermanent resident. What turned you around and made you love the Hamptons?
The nature. The water. The rocks. The air. The sand. Not having to get dressed. I can still stay in my yoga clothes, the modern version of my 7 Easy Pieces, all day long, unless I have a dinner, and even then... my daughter lets me get away with it at Tutto, which is probably one of the reasons why I’m always eating there.
What bugs you most about living in the Hamptons?
Eventoholics. There is this obsession that if you are not throwing, attending or being invited to an event every night of the week, you are not living the life. No one has to go out that much. Unfortunately, I’m just a girl who can’t say no. But I have just about reached my ‘Great to see you again’ limit.
Then what’s the alternative?
Bali. I’m going there to have more furniture built, but to be honest that’s just an excuse. To me, Bali is the perfect model for the rest of the developing world. It’s a world that seamlessly mixes soul, spirituality and creativity. The island is a designer’s drug. The aesthetic of my house in Parrot Cay is modeled after what I discovered there. All my furniture and dishes are made there as well. If I could commute. ... It’s heaven on earth.
Are you rejecting New York?
It’s impossible. That would be like rejecting the world.
I’m just talking about your hometown, not the world.
But, Hal, you’re a native New Yorker too. So you know that New York is the world because everyone from everywhere congregates here. When you go to Spain you’re aware of the fact that you’re in a foreign country. The people are Spanish. The food is Spanish. The culture is Spanish. The same in France. You’re very much aware of being surrounded by the French. But on this little island, the culture, the music, the food, the language, the business, the arts and even the philanthropy is inspired by the world. Living in New York is the opposite of isolation. Because we are attuned to the world and the world comes here to learn what they are missing.
What’s the most surprising thing to realize after four decades in the business?
You would think that after 39 years it would be a breeze. But designing is still so dreadfully hard. That’s because the business now moves faster than light. You can’t avoid the exhausting rush to discover what is new on almost a daily basis.
But shouldn’t fashion always be about what is new?
Yes, but only when it’s connected to direction, editing and reality. Otherwise it’s just too much information being fed to an increasingly confused customer who is now staring at magazines featuring winter coats while she is sweating her ass off on the beach.
What’s the solution?
I can’t change the world. Look, none of us really changes. We adjust. I still love being a designer. I will always be a designer because for me it’s the perfect creative outlet. So I guess, besides doing my collection, creating Urban Zen is my answer.
What are you most proud of?
My family. My husband’s stunning body of work. My daughter and son-in-law having crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s to create three working restaurants. My philanthropy and the goodness of my friends and the length of our friendships.
You and Calvin Klein are likethis?
We met when we were both just starting out. I was at Anne Klein and he was just becoming Calvin. We actually worked in the same building. I always thought there should be only one Klein. He would do winter. I would do spring. Look, Calvin is a genius. Ralph Lauren is a genius. Both of them are my heroes. All three of us never surrendered our uniqueness to time or pressure. Two prime examples of that are that Calvin’s new oceanfront home in Southampton may be the most creative thing he has ever done. And yet, when this year’s Met Ball attire called for pure, uncompromising white tie and tails, Calvin went to the one designer he could trust to do him up right—Ralph.
What’s the biggest difference between you and Calvin?
Though we have traveled together, even to Africa, I like to go in the gutter, get lost and wander. Calvin... let’s say he likes placement. He wants things organized. It’s very cute.
What else amuses you?
Almost everything makes me laugh. If you can’t look at life with a sense of humor, why bother? It’s too hard. Hey, fashion is nothing more than how cleverly can you wrap a bolt of cloth between and around your legs. OK, I’ll stop there.