Fashion Designer Donna Karan Reacts to DAP Health Honor Ahead of The Chase

The iconic fashion designer’s career achievements are legendary, but her humanitarianism is why she’s receiving DAP Health’s 2023 Equity Award.

Daniel Vaillancourt Fashion & Style, Social Scene

Designer Donna Karan is the latest recipient DAP Health's Equity Award. 

You could say Donna Karan was born into fashion: Her mother was a model, and her father was a tailor. The eminent designer and philanthropist has earned numerous awards throughout her almost 60-year career, focusing on menswear, womenswear, and fragrances for everyday living.

Hired as an assistant by Anne Klein after graduating from college, Karan was ultimately named chief designer of the fashion house at age 25 following Klein’s passing in 1974. Karan went on to launch her eponymous couture empire in 1984 and started the more affordable casual brand DKNY in 1989 — praised for famously introducing the bodysuit to women’s fashion. 

In 2007, following the 2001 death of her husband, Stephan Weiss, who had battled cancer, Karan created Urban Zen, a luxury lifestyle/apparel brand and charitable foundation. In 2015, she left DKNY to be fully devoted to the company’s mission of empowering children and preserving cultures around the world.

Now, Karan is being honored March 25 by DAP Health at its annual fundraising event, The Chase, also known as the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards. As its name suggests, the gala, created by the late interior designer Steve Chase, recognizes notable individuals who work toward the betterment of humanity and healthcare. We sat down with Karan to talk about her humanitarianism and how she stays humble despite her high-profile career.

How familiar are you with Palm Springs?

I’m familiar with the area. I visit We Care Spa [in Desert Hot Springs] a couple of times a year. We also photographed the Urban Zen collection in the desert last year, and I’ve never seen such gorgeous photos. 

What was your immediate reaction when you were informed DAP Health wanted to honor you with its 2023 Equity Award — and what does receiving this tribute mean to you?

It is such an honor to be recognized with this award. Healthcare has always been an important focus — whether it was finding a cure for the AIDS crisis, cancer, or caring for those in the middle of a natural disaster. This award isn’t just for me, but for everyone I’ve been blessed to work with.

How do you define health equity?

Equality in healthcare for all. 

What do you think are the most pressing issues surrounding healthcare today?

I often ask, where is the care in healthcare? We need more caring [providers], especially [for] the aging population. We also need to be caring for the nurses and doctors. My husband had lung cancer, and he said I had to take care of the nurses, [so] I founded the Urban Zen Foundation. The Urban Zen Integrated Therapist Program was born with the help and support of Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee. And now, we’ve trained people all over the country, including in Los Angeles at UCLA Hospital and the Motion Picture Television Fund. 

What are your thoughts on women’s health and its specific needs?

Women’s health issues need more attention because women face different challenges than men do. That’s seen from how seriously we are taken when we say we’re sick to the quality of care we receive. I can’t stress enough how important it is to eliminate race and ethnic disparities in health outcomes.

What’s your philosophy of philanthropy generally, and how did you incorporate that into the creation of your Urban Zen Foundation?

My husband, before he passed, used to say “Donna, whatever you do, take care of the nurses.” And that has been a part of my mission ever since. As well as putting the care back into healthcare. We treat the illness, not the patient, and this is why I founded the Urban Zen Foundation.

What are some of the most prominent areas of healthcare to which you’ve devoted your philanthropic efforts?

The Urban Zen Foundation has three initiatives: the preservation of culture (past); bringing mind, body, and spirit to healthcare (present); and education (future).

As you know, DAP Health began in 1984 as the Desert AIDS Project. How have HIV and AIDS touched your life personally?

When the AIDS epidemic hit, no one used to talk about it. And it had affected me so personally, as a lot of designers and creative people I was close to were getting it and dying. The story of Elizabeth Glaser had also touched me. At the time, I went to Anna [Wintour] and the CFDA and said, “We have to do something!” And with that, created Seventh on Sale, where all the designers came together and did a sale that benefited the NYC AIDS Fund.

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Where I can help, I do. Everyone knows someone who has or will have cancer or some sickness. I’ve lost so many friends on this journey. Whether it’s AIDS, cancer, natural disasters, or anyone that needs support, I am drawn to helping and finding a solution.

READ NEXT: The nonprofits benefiting from Fashion Week El Paseo 2023.