When you walk into Donna Karan’s New York apartment, the first thing to greet you is the heady smell of essential oils. It is the first indication of the importance of meditation and spirituality in her life. Further evidence is provided by artworks depicting the 72 names for God, photos of the Dalai Lama (one of her acquaintances) and shelves of books on Kabbalah. Karan may be renowned as a fashion designer with a multi billion-dollar company, but she is also a yogi who first became interested in the benefits of alternative therapies when she was 18. “I have chosen a spiritual path,” she says, “because without that, life makes no sense to me.”
Karan describes her 7,000 sq ft apartment as “a one-bedroom bachelorette pad”. Situated on the 16th floor of a historic 20-storey block (Calvin Klein used to own the penthouse), the space was originally divided into three apartments that she gutted and transformed into a huge, loft-style space.
Rice paper walls and swing doors separate the sleeping, bathing and living areas, but in effect this is one elongated open-plan space with its entire frontage facing east over Central Park. Visitors barely have the chance to take in the white glazed walls, black lacquered woodwork, limestone floors and Balinese furniture, before Karan hustles them out to her terrace – a walkway that encircles the apartment. “If you want to see New York – here it is!” she says. Indeed it is a stunning view, not only of the Park itself, but of Harlem in one direction, downtown in the other and the Hudson river on the west side.
This is not her only home. Together with her late husband, Stephan Weiss, Karan brought up their children and later entertained their grandchildren (Karan now has seven) in the Hamptons. Since Weiss’s death in 2001, Karan has also built houses for herself and each of their children – her daughter, Gabby, by her first marriage, and Weiss’s son and daughter, Corey and Lisa – on Parrot Cay, in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
“When Stephan knew that he was dying, it was his biggest fear that I would not be able to hold the family together, so I built this series of homes that we call ‘the sanctuary’, the place we go to really get away,” she says.
Karan and Weiss both grew up on Long Island, New York. They met on a blind date when she was 18 and he was 28. More than a decade later, after they had both married other people, they met again and were married on Long Island in 1983. Weiss was not only her co-chief executive, the business brain who masterminded the company going public in 1996 and later negotiated a handsome deal with the luxury goods company LVMH, but also a talented artist. It was he who designed the seven Donna Karan fragrance bottles, each inspired by the curve of a woman’s back. This year will see the launch of an eighth design by Zaha Hadid.
It was Weiss, too, who chose this apartment for Karan, although he did not live long enough to see its transformation. “I had been looking for a new place to live in New York for a while,” says Karan, “and Stephan could not stand my indecision any longer, so he said, ‘You have no choice – this is where you are going to live.’ You might say he placed me here.”
By then, they both knew she would be living there alone. But although Weiss may never have lived in this space, his presence is everywhere. At the head of her bed Karan has hung one of his paintings showing a plus and a minus sign: “Stephan used to say that you could either look at the plus or the minus in life – that is your choice. When I was crying that he was sick with cancer, he would say, ‘You could be run over crossing the street tomorrow. I am right here beside you, so what are you crying for?’”
Her favourite space in the apartment is her yoga area, where she spends at least an hour and a half every morning. Now in her mid-60s, her youthful figure and healthy glow are testament to this commitment.
As you might expect, there is also a huge closet for her clothes – “as most of them are black, it can be incredibly frustrating trying to find the ones I want.” Karan favours the sort of easy, mix-and-match pieces that propelled her to stardom in the 1980s. “If I can’t sleep in it, do yoga in it and go out in it, I don’t want to know,” she says.
There is no guest suite at Karan’s home, which she shares with Steph, a chocolate Labrador who sleeps on her bed every night. But there is plenty of “guest furniture”: low Bali couches in the TV and yoga areas, for example, provide extra sleeping space when required.
Weiss used to tease her about her passion for alternative therapies, yoga and nutrition, but Karan has founded the Urban Zen Center in his honour, based in his former 8,000 sq ft art studio on the border of West Village. This month, she is showing his work there for the first time in public and launching a book to accompany the exhibition.
“What Stephan did believe in was the need for change in the world,” she says. “He taught me the importance of a process he called ‘connecting the dots’. He used this literally within his own work, inspired by the string theory of modern physics, making random dots on a piece of paper that he then connected with painterly strokes. But over time, he also showed me that connecting the dots is a metaphor for our complete existence”.
The Urban Zen Center is a community meeting space that hosts forums, conferences, lectures, concerts, art exhibitions – and, of course, yoga classes. In many ways, it is the tangible side of Karan’s philanthropic Urban Zen Foundation, established in 2007. That was driven by her desire to change the healthcare system into a wellbeing system, integrating eastern and western practices. Urban Zen champions the idea of “connecting the dots” through initiatives that include taking care of doctors and nurses, as well as patients. Karan says: “Each and every one of us is, or will be, a patient or a caregiver. Nobody gets away from illness.”
Haiti, just half an hour by plane from Karan’s island home, has been a major beneficiary. The Foundation became heavily involved after the 2010 earthquake, providing homes and practical help to the displaced. Earlier this year, Karan was recognised for this work as recipient of the 2012 Clinton Global Citizen award.
Although she loves her own apartment, Karan says that in many ways her home is really Weiss’s studio. “It has the most amazing energy – pure Stephan. Friends often say I should move in but I don’t think of it as belonging to me.”
In her own hallway is a Francis Bacon painting that she bought Weiss shortly before he died. “Bacon was Stephan’s favourite artist. We had a deal that I would only spend x amount of money without his approval, but on his last birthday, I broke that deal. It is Bacon sitting down, twisted into several poses, but for me it is also Stephan and I – me the yogi and him the artist, the electric red background being our love.”
Karan’s favourite things are works by her late husband, Stephan. One is a patinated bronze model of “Camera and small roll of film” (1998). Its stylised form comes directly from the “connecting the dots” method he used to make his sketches. The roll of film was later reincarnated in the Larger Than Life series of monument-sized pieces (2001-2003). As Karan says, “Stephan loved photography, both personally and as a study for his work.” She also adores the patinated and lacquered bronze “Shoe” (2000), with its abstracted high-heel – a design, she says, that she is dying to make for real.
‘Stephan Weiss: Connecting the Dots’ runs until December 31 at the Urban Zen Center, New York. A book of the same name is published by Assouline, $95