92: Donna Karan – How to Create a Career in Fashion

Health & Wellness, Money & Business, Non-Traditional Creative, Podcast, Weekend Warrior

“I wanted to sing like Barbra Streisand and dance like Martha Graham.”
Donna Karan

Hey guys, welcome back to ONKEN RADIO, the podcast where we explore the body, mind, and soul of the creative entrepreneur. It’s my goal to help you take your creativity, business, and life to the next level. I’m so glad you’re joining me on this journey!

What does it mean to be a purpose-driven artist? How can you blend your values and passions together into a career that leaves a mark on the world?

For us as creative entrepreneurs, those questions are always at the center of our hearts and minds. I know I want my work to reflect my creativity as well as the ideas I care about, so I’m always looking for ways to do that.

My guest today has spent her life building a career around a desire to create an impact in the lives touched by her work. Her name is Donna Karan, and she lives at the absolute top of the fashion world. Donna has been working in fashion design for decades, but it’s her passion for philanthropy that continues to drive her.

“I wanted to create a community of consciousness and change. And I had this vision of really dressing and addressing people [and] creating a community where people come together to create change in healthcare, education, and culture.”
Donna Karan

Donna believes in the power of her art to create opportunities for people to live better lives. She’s an incredible force for good in this world, and I’m excited to have her on the show. Let’s get started.

Who Is Donna Karan?

Donna Karan, “the Queen of Seventh Avenue,” is a global fashion icon. She’s the owner of the fashion companies Donna Karan and DKNY as well as Urban Zen — a lifestyle designed by Karan to offer an outlet for artisans and creators from around the world to sell their products and create social impact — but we’ll talk more about that later.

Donna claims that fashion and design were always in her blood — she was born on Seventh Avenue, after all — but her career began when she attended the Parsons School of Design in New York City. There, she began to hone her talent and skill for drawing and design, and that led her to a job working for Anne Klein.

Eventually, two significant events happened at the same time: Unfortunately, the great Anne Klein passed away on the same day Donna Karan had her first child, a daughter. But a large collection was due, and Donna rose to the occasion. She produced a beautiful collection of clothes, one thing led to the next, and eventually, she built her own fashion empire.

Donna has spent years designing beautiful clothes for modern women, but today her passion lies in social impact. She has contributed to numerous philanthropic organizations, and she’s passionate about providing not only money but opportunities for people to grow their own businesses.

Beyond being a fashion magnate and passionate philanthropist, Donna Karan is officially an accomplished author. Her book My Journey is a reflection on her life and a beautiful testament to a creative life. Trust me — you’re going to want to read it after this interview.

Donna Karan is such an inspiration to me. She knows what it takes to build a life around your art, and she knows how to synthesize artistry, business, philanthropy, and a holistic and aligned mindset into a beautiful, full life. In that way, she’s the ultimate Creative Alchemist. She shared a lot of wisdom with me today, and I know you’re going to learn a lot from this episode. So without further ado, let’s dive in.

Creating a Holistic Life by Finding Your Zen

As a creative entrepreneur, it’s essential that you’re tapping into your inner creativity every day. That means taking time for yourself to get into a good headspace for your creative work.

But there are a ton of ways to do that. I talked to Donna about some of the most important things she’s done to grow and build a holistic life that facilitates her creativity, and she described some really beautiful practices.

For example, she is passionate about yoga. Yoga can be a great way to get your body moving in a focused and intentional way. In fact, the movement in yoga has heavily influenced Donna’s designs of things like wrap skirts — clothes that flow just as the body does while practicing yoga.

What do you do to tap into your creativity? What practices do you engage in every day to align your body and mind so that you can create your best work? What practices could you integrate into your day?

I know for me personally, meditation is huge. I have a meditation coach, and she is teaching me how to use meditation as a tool to destress, elevate my consciousness, and really come to a place of alignment. And that is wonderful for my art and creativity because it allows me to operate from a place of excitement and joy rather than the pressure to hustle.

The bottom line is that you have to find a way to clear your head and create the space for your creativity to shine through — and you can do that, even in the midst of the busy life of an entrepreneur. I love the way Donna expresses this idea:

“Find the calm in the chaos. … Meditation for me … could be walking. It could be being still, breathing, being out in nature … just clearing your mind. It’s so hard to clear our minds, particularly in New York, you know, going, going, going, going. And I’m one of those people, you know, really heavy duty. So I have to find the zen.”
Donna Karan

How do you find the zen in your life? Is it through a morning routine, a ritual, or a physical activity like yoga? Whatever you do, make sure to practice it every day. Your creative career will benefit enormously.

“Dressing and Addressing”: Working at the Intersection of Fashion and Philanthropy

Donna Karan’s fashion work is outstanding. It’s no wonder she’s been honored with multiple awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And it’s also no wonder that her charity work is extensive — Donna has worked hard to raise money for AIDS, ovarian cancer, and other issues related to healthcare.

But the essential thing about Donna is that she doesn’t see those two efforts as entirely disconnected. She fundamentally believes in the power of “dressing and addressing” — meaning she likes to dress people in her carefully created clothes while addressing their needs as human beings. 

A lot of the inspiration for her philanthropy work stems from her personal experience. Sadly for Donna, her husband passed away from lung cancer. And at that point, Donna had already suffered the loss of many friends and family members to similar medical issues. That’s what spurred her on to create a business with an impact.

“When the AIDS epidemic broke out, I [asked], ‘How do we really communicate about AIDS?’ … That’s when ‘dressing and addressing’ became very important to me. So I got all the designers together, and we started 7th on Sale, and we sold our clothes, and we made like $4 million in three days for AIDS.”
Donna Karan

What experiences in your past drive you? What core values do you have that you want to reflect in your work? And how can you use your creativity and business to make a difference in the world?

As a creative entrepreneur, you certainly have a passion. But wherever your creative heart lies, there is always a way you can leverage your talents to make the world a better place. Ask yourself how you can impact the world for good, and watch your business take on new life and meaning as a result.

Urban Zen: Preserving Culture Through Art

Perhaps the largest outpouring of this philosophy today comes in the form of Donna Karan’s newest endeavor: Urban Zen. Donna believes strongly in the importance of preserving world cultures. For example, all of her furniture is made in Bali because she sincerely treasures the beautiful work of artisans there. Today, Donna does a lot of work in Bali as well as in Colombia, Guatemala, South Africa, and Haiti. She truly appreciates the work of artists from these places, so she does her best to support them.

But she doesn’t only support them financially. She actively worked to help these artists build businesses and achieve financial success for themselves through their art.

“I don’t believe in giving money. I’d rather give people a fishing rod and [teach them] to earn their own money.”
Donna Karan

Donna truly wants to help people grow their businesses and financial freedom. She has partnered with her alma mater, the Parsons School of Design, to open schools in places like Haiti to train people to be working creative entrepreneurs. She helps these people create beautiful clothes and jewelry, which she sells on Urban Zen’s website.

Do you see how Donna has created a niche at the intersection of her passions? She loves art and design, so she works to fuel those things in other people. She also values different cultures, so she promotes the preservation of those cultures and the art they produce. And finally, she believes in working to make an impact on the world and help other people achieve better healthcare, education, and financial opportunities. Urban Zen exists at the intersection of those three things.

I admire the way Donna embodies Creative Alchemy in that way. She combines her passion, her talent, and her business savvy to put just a little bit more magic into the world. I think that’s pretty inspiring — don’t you?

Be a Creative Alchemist with Donna Karan

Donna Karan is a genius-level artist, cultural icon, genuinely good person, and strong inspiration for me. Her creativity is astounding, but even more incredible is her heart for service. She generously gives of her time, talent, and money, and I want to acknowledge her for all of the goodness she puts out into the world.

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.

With that being said, I define Creative Alchemy as using the process of creativity to create a lens of which to perform alchemy. These principles not only apply to artists and creatives in their own creative processes, but to anyone who wants to create an extraordinary life in color for themselves. I’ve found that 80% of creating is alchemizing the thoughts, emotions, and other inner blocks that keep you from putting the pen to the paper. Navigating to the act of creation takes alchemic processes. Donna Karen is one of these Creative Alchemists.

At the end of our conversation, Donna shared with me a personal truth. For her, the key to living inspiration is “to be able to act upon what you’re inspired by.” That’s how she started Urban Zen. That’s how she believes creative lives should be lived, and I’m inclined to agree with her.

So, I want to return to the questions I posed at the very beginning: what does it mean to be a purpose-driven artist? And what purpose drives you? How can you alchemize your creativity, business, and influence to make a positive impact on the world?

If this episode inspired you, I definitely want to hear about that. Please share this episode on Instagram and tag me, @nickonken. And if you love this podcast and want to support me, please leave a good review on Apple Podcasts. Every review helps.

If you want to connect more with Donna, definitely follow her Instagram, @donnakaranthewoman. And don’t forget to check out her book, My Journey, or her foundation, Urban Zen. Donna is putting a lot of greatness into the world, and I know you don’t want to miss any of it.

Thanks for joining me today, guys. I hope this episode inspired you as much as it did me. Now go live your creative lives — and remember to create even the smallest moments.

Talk to you later —

Nick Onken

“I feel that young people today need to see the world and give of themselves.”
Donna Karan

Some things we learn in this podcast:

  • How she got into fashion [4:10]
  • Where she got the inspiration for her first collection [6:55]
  • How she has dealt with loss in her life [7:35]
  • Her involvement in activism and health [8:40]
  • What holistic practices she has [12:55]
  • How meditation and self care has helped her in her business [16:05]
  • Her involvement in conscious consumerism [16:55]
  • What she values about education [19:25]
  • How to get people involved in finding solutions [23:45]
  • The challenge of walking away from DKNY [24:15]
  • How technology is changing the fashion world [25:10]
  • Why it’s important to act upon what you’re inspired by [29:25]

Links mentioned:

Connect with Donna Instagram | Twitter | Website

A FREE email series to create a personal visual brand authentic to who you are.

  • Accelerate your personal brand growth through the Identity Alchemy Method
  • Discover the authentic stories you want to share with your audience
  • Build your personal brand vision and crystallize it with a photoshoot
  • Learn how to ideate and create storytelling visual assets to enhance and up-level your personal brand
  • .. PLUS! You’ll get access my brand building book recs and favorite resources

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.