by April Thompson
As a style icon, humanitarian and pioneer of conscious consumerism, Donna Karan has elevated fashion to a platform for change throughout her career, using her celebrity status to raise funds for AIDS research in the 1990s and more recently venturing into alternative health care.
Karan’s first collection under her signature label DKNY, which debuted in 1985, aimed to dress women in comfortable, professional clothes that embraced and flattered the female form. The brand was built on women’s strengths, rather than insecurities; her iconic 1992 “In Women We Trust” ad campaign depicted the inauguration of a female president.
Her latest multidimensional Urban Zen project (UZIT) supports cultural preservation, compassionate health care, and education. The affiliated brand integrates luxury and sustainability with multicultural traditions and modern trends in a multifaceted line of clothing, accessories and beauty care products.
UZIT fuses Eastern healing techniques and Western medicine in a patient-centric model intended to foster calm in the midst of the stress and chaos of illness. The complementary therapies program was born out of Karan’s challenging period serving as a caregiver during her late husband’s struggle with lung cancer.
Karan is a member of the Coty Hall of Fame and recipient of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award and Glamour’s Woman of the Year award.
How has your fashion style and philosophy changed over the course of your career?
For me, fashion has always been about “dressing and addressing.” It all started when the AIDS epidemic broke out in the late 1980s, and the fashion community came together to launch Seventh on Sale to raise funds and awareness for the disease that was taking the lives of so many talented designers. Now more than ever, we must address such issues. My philosophy and purpose have always been inspired by cultures, creators and artisans from all corners of the world, connecting past, present, and future. I launched the nonprofit organization Urban Zen to create a community of change through philanthropy and commerce. I want consumers to be aware that their purchases provide the power to help others in need.
How is the UZIT program enhancing health and well-being?
UZIT came about after witnessing the ones I loved suffer and going through their experiences by their sides. Launched in partnership with yoga instructor Rodney Yee, the program has trained members of collaborating healthcare and yoga communities in the healing modalities of yoga therapy, reiki, essential oil therapy, nutrition, and contemplative care.
The goal is to change the health care system by bringing care back into health care. Rather than just treat the disease, we need to treat patients, their loved ones and their caregivers. We also must express care for the doctors and nurses that are part of the story; they need gentle care every bit as much. We are all on this journey together.
Therapists at centers such as the University of California, Los Angeles, rehabilitation unit have seen results with patients suffering from stress, claustrophobia, headaches and back pain through these techniques. Many patients report feeling more relaxed, sleeping better and experiencing less pain and anxiety than they had ever experienced with medication.
Do you see some positive trends in fashion today?
More people are paying attention to sustainability in fashion today than ever before, and more designers are using materials and fabrics that respect people and the planet; for example, by using quality materials that endure. Recycling fabrics and materials are one way to contribute to sustainability. We work with the Apparent Project, which recycles cereal boxes to make beautiful necklaces, as well as with Paula Coles, who makes bags out of T-shirts.
Can fashion affect social change in the world?
I view fashion, design, and style all as platforms for conscious change. I use fashion to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of wellbeing, conscious consumerism and integrative education. Today, there is a greater emphasis on preserving our world cultures and maintaining the authenticity that comes from traditional artisans and artists. A collaborative mentality of “we” is far healthier than one of “me”.
Connect with April Thompson, in Washington, D.C., at AprilWrites.com