The Apple of Her Eye

Monday, October 22, 2018


Donna Karan wasn’t keen to advertise that October 2 was her 70th birthday, until she realized that her team had created a hashtag for everyone at her morning yoga and meditation celebration to use. #DKat70

With the energy of a whirling dervish and the kind of flexibility that most people only have as infants, she is correct in thinking that, had her age not been hash-tagged, people might have had a hard time guessing. 

The celebration began a little after 9:30 a.m., with a yoga class at Karan’s Urban Zen space in Greenwich Village, taught by her close friends and personal yoga teachers Rodney and Colleen Saidman Yee of Yoga Shanti.

Karan came to the celebration late, a fact that seemed to amuse her friends before they started teaching. She arrived during the ensuing meditation session, her voice and laughter echoing before she crossed the threshold of the space, which was her late husband Stephan Weiss’s artist’s studio. The class broke its silent spell to surprise her with “Happy Birthday” as she walked in, and then joined them.

As the class ended, Karan addressed the participants, individually thanking friends for attending; wondering where her daughter Gabby was, before guessing that she was getting a blow out. 

“My day is connecting the dots,” she later said in an interview, which took place on the outdoor terrace just outside the second floor of the Urban Zen showroom. Karan sat on the couch, her legs bent underneath her. Relationships and bringing people together have always motivated her, but no more so than with Urban Zen, her store and foundation that focuses on education, healthcare and cultural preservation.

Karan founded Urban Zen in honor of Weiss, who, as he was going through treatment for lung cancer, would ask his wife, “Who’s taking care of the nurses?”

“Taking the mind, body and spirit and bringing it to healthcare, bringing it to education, is really what Urban Zen is about,” said Karan. “It’s not about the me, it’s about the we.” We was actually a working title for what eventually became Urban Zen—“When you flip it upside down, ‘we’ becomes ‘me,’” she says. As much as Karan strives to help other people, Urban Zen also focuses on the idea that you can’t pour water from a dry well.

To celebrate and honor people who epitomize the tenets of Urban Zen, Karan founded the Stephan Weiss Apple Awards. The apple is a reference to Weiss’s bronze apple sculpture in the Millennium Garden at Hudson River Park.

“Today was my birthday, and I wanted to have the Apple Award today because the biggest present I can [receive] is giving to others,” she said. “I love traveling and I love working with artisans all over the world,” she continued, clarifying that her birthday wish is to do that even more people. 

This year’s awards will be held on October 24, and will honor Iman, Jimmy Nelson and Joel Towers. Past honorees have included Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Nadja Swarovski and Hillary Clinton. Proceeds benefit Urban Zen.

“The whole concept of Urban Zen has always been about dressing and addressing—it’s not about what you’re wearing on the outside, but more importantly, what you’re wearing on the inside,” Karan said.

But, a retail clothing store was not initially a part of the Urban Zen plan. “The Foundation started first,” she clarifies. Karan began Urban Zen after she sold her name, “and I felt I had a vision for something far greater than that, which was a living environment…I have a very, very large plan for Urban Zen,” she says, before distilling it down to “creating a community of consciousness and care.” 

The company got off to an auspicious start, with the Dali Lama attending some of the first meetings. Urban Zen has grown to encompass three retail spaces—New York, LA and Sag Harbor—as well as hospital affiliations, where patients and caregivers can receive treatment in conjunction with western medicine; and a cultural preservation arm, whereby artisans can learn how to make their craft economically viable. 

“Just take a breath,” Karan said during our interview, when asked how she manages it all. “Take a breath. We can sit here right now. Do you feel the difference?” I do. I tell her I don’t do that enough.

“Nobody does,” she says. “I don’t. I’m the most urban, chaotic person you’ll ever meet. Urban Chaos is a much better name for me.”


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