Aspen Times Weekly Voyages: The travel inspiration behind Donna Karan’s Urban Zen |

Aspen Times Weekly Voyages: The travel inspiration behind Donna Karan’s Urban Zen

On a sunny March afternoon I stepped into fashion designer Donna Karan’s Urban Zen store on Dean Street, just steps from the gondola. Dressed in black, I found her sitting among her team, on furniture she herself designed in Bali. Known as the “Queen of Seventh Avenue,” and the “America’s Coco Chanel,” Karan has been a bastion of womenswear for more than four decades. Today she is turning that legacy of design and commerce into something for the greater good.

In 2001, after losing her husband and business partner Stephan Weiss to lung cancer, Karan was compelled to create the Urban Zen Foundation which funds integrative health care, combining eastern and western modalities such as yoga, meditation and reflexology. The foundation trains teams of caregivers, often family members of patients, as well as doctors and nurses to provide a more personal and spiritual approach to healthcare.

To help fund the foundation, Karan created the Urban Zen retail store. The retail stores, with shops in Sag Harbor and New York City, in addition to Aspen, sell a combination of her clothing, furniture designs and a collection of home, art and accessories by artists and artisans Karan has discovered or helped mentor in both Bali and Haiti.

“For me, Urban Zen is community-driven,” Karan says. “It’s not only about clothes; it’s about philanthropy and commerce coming together, dressing and addressing people. The concept is creating a community of consciousness and change in the past — in preservation of culture — the present and future in health care, in education, in mind, body and spirt. And who doesn’t like to shop and make a difference in the world?”

While Bali is a place where Karan can see herself living “in a nanosecond,” it is Haiti that has captured her time and attention. Since the 2010 earthquake, Karan has been traveling to Haiti quarterly (first with the Clinton Foundation) to work with local artisans. Inspired by the people and the artistry she discovered on her first visit, she began to invest in the artisans, providing micro-loans and offering them design and business expertise.

“What I saw there was limitless potential,” says Karan. “I thought there might be an area of artists, but didn’t realize the entire country was full of artists.”

She is such a strong believer in the design potential of Haiti, Karan is opening a design/business school in Port-au-Prince called D.O.T (Design Organizational Training). Karan’s mission is to educate the Haitian people and help them develop an economically feasible contemporary design industry. D.O.T. is slated to open in June.

To help with teaching the artisans, this fall Karan is launching a new program at Parsons The New School for Design (her alma mater). The graduate program will send a select group to Haiti where they will teach modern design concepts to D.O.T. students. The resulting work (accessories, jewelry, home décor, furniture) will be produced and sold at her three Urban Zen boutiques, as well as other high-end design stores worldwide. (100 percent of profits return to Haiti.) Karan hopes the Haitian experience will also teach the Parsons students, “what took me my whole career to understand,” that quality design is not confined to Seventh Avenue, it comes from all corners of the world.

“In my big picture dream, I see building a community like what John (Hardy) did in Bali,” she says. “Where people could live, have access to education and healthcare centers. To me creating community is the most important thing. Community creates the change. We all need education. We all need healthcare, and we all need to be inspired.”

Amiee White Beazley writes about travel for the Aspen Times Weekly. Reach her at or follow her @awbeazley1.

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