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Donna Karan’s Vision Quest

In the eighties, she changed the way New York women dress. Now, with the radical new life that came with the sale of her company and the death of her husband, she’s much more interested in the inner Donna. A portrait of a seeker in mid-voyage.


Now, when you watch Out of Africa, all I can say is—I’m on the phone with my grandkids, and elephants are sitting there right in front of me—10,000 wilda-bee, we were in a wilda-bee migration—you’re talking hundreds of thousands of acres of land around, and I go, ‘Where is everybody?’ Nobody’s around. It’s just you.”

Forty-eight hours after returning to her house in East Hampton from a three-week safari to Botswana and Kenya, Donna Karan has had her assistant, Marni Lewis, set up a slide show of her photos, all 4,000 of them, on her new G4 PowerBook. Karan’s hairstylist and her publicist Patti Cohen gather around. “I figure, ‘Okay, I’m going to Africa,’ ” says Karan, 55, a tall, powerful woman with gripping green eyes and a flamboyant way of speaking, accented in the deepest Long Islandese. “I didn’t connect anything to it; I had no connection. I figured, ‘Oh, Africa—it’s, like, a country?’ It’s a continent.”

“Do you buy things?” asks Cohen, as a group of elaborately garbed Masais fill the screen. “Like, if you wanted their beads, could you give them a candy bar?”

“Oh!” says Karan. “All the Masais do is light. They are light. All they do is have light. The way they live, they live in these mud huts—tell Marni to come in here, because the contrast is off. I said I must’ve been a warrior in my last life because all I know how to do is wrap and tie a scarf. You get these connections. I say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ”

“All I want to show is that we are one,” says Karan. “We are all one. I’m a traveler. I’m an explorer. I live nowhere. I live on my mat.” She’s referring to her yoga mat, on which she spends a couple of hours a day.

“Yeah, sure,” comes the chorus.

“See, these people are pure; there’s no need, they don’t want, they’re happy being happy,” declares Karan. “They don’t even know how old they are, and all they are is giving offerings. It’s not about me, me, me, me, me.” On the screen, backs of hippos rise out of a river like boulders—“My hippos!” she shrieks. “Do you believe these hippos?” She sighs. “No offense, but if the collection doesn’t do well, what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” she asks. “I don’t want to be in a house anymore. I don’t think I ever want to go to a city again. I don’t want to be anywhere.” She squints at the screen. “Marni!”

Karan doesn’t have to be anywhere these days. She sold her trademarks and her publicly traded company to LVMH in 2001, for $643 million, at least $400 million of which went into her own pocket. That was the same year her husband, Stephan Weiss, an artist and her longtime business partner, died of lung cancer; she still talks about him constantly. Today, Karan, who remains chief designer of the company, has a new face-lift by Dan Baker, a trim figure courtesy of a raw-food diet, and a 30-ish boyfriend, male model J. J. Biasucci, who recently accompanied her on a trip to Bali. Clad in a red patterned wrap skirt and her most famous fashion statement, a black bodysuit, Karan has the blossoming vitality of a teenager back from an exotic summer abroad, one so excited by the world that she can’t be bothered to speak in full sentences or even observe basic precepts of grammar. Sexiness isn’t necessarily the first thing you would think about her, but it’s there: She wants to be sexy, so she is. Today she isn’t wearing any jewelry, her toes and fingernails unpolished, though clean (“You should’ve seen them in Africa—tar city,” she says). A carnivore, she says she can now understand why people become vegans. “I see an alligator bag now: I said, ‘You got to be kidding me,’ ” says Karan. “They say, ‘These are farmed.’ I say, ‘Honey, I was just hanging with them; you’re killing them.’ ”

Nowadays, Karan sees fashion as just one link in the greater chain of being. “All I want to show is that we are one,” says Karan. “We are all one. I’m a traveler. I’m an explorer. I live nowhere. I live on my mat,” she says, referring to her yoga mat, on which she spends a couple of hours each morning. “I don’t do either/or. I’m very in the inclusive. I’m very in the dichotomy. In Africa, I get off the plane and the first thing I see are the zebras. I say, ‘Whoa, black and white.’ ” Black is a design theme in Karan’s new 7,000-square-foot Central Park West apartment, complete with a yoga studio and wraparound views; the two houses on her surprisingly modest property in the Springs are decorated in varying shades of eggshell. For a while, too, she was dressing in black in the city and white in the Hamptons or on Parrot Cay, in the Turks and Caicos, where she has bought property but has yet to build her imagined compound. “I’m thinking I want tents instead,” she says.

What Karan wants has always been important. When she started her company in 1984, after leaving her position as head designer at Anne Klein, it was part of the marketing strategy that Karan designed for herself: a mature, accomplished, sexual, confident woman who wanted comfortable clothes that showed off her curves in a way Armani suits didn’t, who looked good in things that kept everything in, like jersey dresses and opaque Lycra tights that lengthened the leg and rarely sprouted runs. Karan was a hit, and anyone who was paying attention to magazines those days could tell you about her tireless work habits, devotion to charitable causes, tendency to cry tears of joy, and how she feels about her hips, which have a normal-gal circumference. She was such an incarnation of ubiquitously chatty, unassimilated New Yorkiness that a New York Times article characterized her as “Ed Koch in a stretchy black dress” in the early nineties. She’d even show up unannounced at department stores housing her collections and personally foist on customers the right wool bodysuit or sequined wrap skirt. The company encouraged something of a cult of Karan among customers, focused on the needs, wants, and body of Karan, such as it is—and that cult still exists. But today it is centered on Karan transcendent. Perhaps, even, Karan as shaman. “People say, ‘As long as she does high heels with urban clothes, we’re fine—give us New York City Power Woman,’ ” says Karan, munching on a flaxseed cracker. “Do I look like a power woman in New York?”

More recently, Karan has talked of working with energy and light the same way she once spoke of working with women’s lumpy backsides and unimpressive chests. Spiritual lingo infuses each of her monologues, which are lengthy and can rarely be diverted. Assistants are instructed to have vegetable juice ready for any trip in a car, and to light candles and have relaxing music on the stereo when she steps into her home. Karan has been a yoga devotee since 18 and was an est groupie in the seventies. In more recent years, she has become interested in the East—Deepak Chopra’s teachings, Reiki, crystals, hypnosis, colon cleansing, past-life regression, bodywork, juicing, trance dance, therapeutic screaming, and, since last Passover, Kabbalah, at the behest of friends Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, she says. Her first glimpse of a world beyond came on the sands of Gardiner’s Bay, in front of her East Hampton house, fourteen years ago. “I had everything, the career, the family, and I was reflecting, What keeps driving me?” she says. “Then all of a sudden a poem came out of me about this rock, a little potato rock. I said, ‘You’re so still, and I’m so moving, and the water comes over you and me.’ For six weeks, I had this whole dialogue with the rock. Then I lost the rock. I was really upset. Then I had to learn how to detach from the rock.”

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