by stephanie murg | March 21, 2013 | Style & Beauty
Donna Karan strides through the cozy Urban Zen store on Greenwich Street, pausing to point out bags and chandeliers crafted by Haitian artisans amidst the deliberately seasonless apparel, and into the cavernous former art studio of her late husband, Stephan Weiss. “He would begin by placing random dots on a page,” says Karan, standing before a wall of his works on paper. “Then, guided by energy, he would connect them and ultimately transform them into a painting or sculpture.”
It was Weiss, after dying of lung cancer in 2001, who inspired Karan to connect the dots for herself. “I realized in healthcare that nobody was caring for the patient,” she says. “Everyone was caring for the disease.” She brought together her yoga-honed understanding of the body with her fashion design talent and passion for philanthropy to create the Urban Zen Foundation, which addresses well-being, empowering children, and preserving cultures. “My dream for Urban Zen was to create a space and a place for like-minded people to come together and create change,” explains Karan.
Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Karan helped residents rebuild their livelihoods. Items made by artisans in the seaside community of Jacmel are for sale in her three Urban Zen stores. “Haiti embraced all three of our objectives: healthcare, education, and culture,” says Karan. “People say to me, ‘Donna, you can’t do all three; you have to do one.’ And it drives me crazy because it’s just a matter of connecting the dots.” 819 Madison Ave., 212-861-1001. Urban Zen, 705 Greenwich St., 212-206-3999.
Elie Tahari credits New York’s Garment Center with making him the designer—and the man—he is today. “I grew up in the Garment Center,” says Tahari, who arrived from Israel in 1971 at the age of 19. “I didn’t know the difference between synthetic and cashmere. Through the Garment Center I learned everything—about life, values, people. I learned about the world.” Today, he counts the nonprofit trade association Save the Garment Center among the causes closest to his heart.
“Save the Garment Center has given us a united voice, and that voice has power,” says Tahari. “That voice has influence over things like zoning. It’s helping to bring back vendors and bring more designers into this area.”
That includes the contestants on season two of Project Runway All Stars. “They came to our office, and we got to show the world what the Garment Center looks like,” he says of the episode for which he served as guest judge. Proceeds from sales of the winning design, a dress now available in Elie Tahari stores and online, go to Save the Garment Center.
Before coming to New York. Tahari spent his early life in an Israeli orphanage. It’s an aspect of his background that he remains connected to through Worldwide Orphans Foundation, which seeks to transform the lives of orphaned children around the world. “What I’ve learned from my own work with charities, and from meeting a lot of people who are doing good things in the world, is the futility of living for the self alone,” he says. “Sooner or later, you realize that real fulfillment comes only from helping others. All of the rest is just temporary.” 417 W. Broadway, 212-334-4441.
Diane von Furstenberg
“Philanthropy is a little bit like landscaping,” says Diane von Furstenberg, a serene presence in her bustling Meatpacking District offices. “At first, when you get your garden, you’re intimidated: Can I cut or move a tree? And gradually, you become more comfortable.”
Her leafy analogy also winks at a certain cause she championed in her own backyard. “When I moved to the neighborhood 13 years ago, I met Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who had this crazy dream of saving the High Line and turning it into a park,” she explains, breezily listing her growing series of contributions, financial and otherwise. “And before you know it, you’ve been important and instrumental.”
Von Furstenberg’s commitment to giving back is apparent at first click: Philanthropy has a prominent place on the DVF website, which now sells everything from wrap dresses and handbags to home goods. Among her top priorities is Vital Voices, an organization that empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the world. “When I meet these women, I’m so humbled,” she says. “Not only have they overcome extraordinary challenges, but they have then helped others, and they have become leaders.”
With Tina Brown, von Furstenberg cofounded the annual Women in the World Summit, which features the presentation of the DVF Awards. “We celebrate women, give them exposure, money,” she notes, pointing to past honorees such as Hillary Clinton and Colombian politician and activist Ingrid Betancourt. “My goal in life and the goal of my brand, really, is to celebrate freedom, to empower women, and to sell confidence,” she says. “That’s what we do.” 874 Washington St., 646-486-4800; 135 Wooster St., 212-542-5754.
Several years ago, Rachel Roy decided to redesign her birthday: out with the cake and gifts, in with the... water. Charity: Water, that is, the nonprofit that brings clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. “For the past few years I have been giving up my birthday and raising money to bring clean drinking water to communities in Africa,” says Roy, who turned 39 in January. “I love that you can check in on the wells that you helped make possible and you know exactly how many people you’ve impacted with your support.”
She also deploys her design skills to create accessories that raise funds for disaster relief and organizations such as OrphanAid Africa (OA), the catalyst for a colorful clutch and Roy’s “life-changing” trip to Ghana. “I brought my daughter, Ava, to really experience how these children are living and how OA is helping to keep families together,” she says of the visit, which led her to sponsor students she met there. “Helping to ensure education is always a goal, and every holiday season my team donates and wraps books to send as Christmas gifts.”
In addition to the opportunity that working with nonprofits— closer to home, her focus is New Yorkers for Children—gives her to educate her own daughters on the value of giving, Roy credits it with teaching her patience. “There is so much work to be done, and long-term commitment to a cause is key,” she explains. “In some cases, we have mountains to move, and it’s going to take time to get the job done.” Macy’s, 151 W. 34th St., 212-695-4400.
Last summer, a Soho resident named Natalie, well into her 90s who has difficulty leaving her apartment, received her dinner from a distinctively ebullient deliveryman: Michael Kors. “When we got there, her face just lit up,” says the designer, who visited Natalie as a volunteer for God’s Love We Deliver, which provides meals to New Yorkers (as well as residents of Newark and Hudson County, New Jersey) who are too sick to shop or cook for themselves. “It was incredibly moving.”
Kors has donated money, time, and whatever publicity he could to the cause for more than 20 years. After his company’s triumphant IPO, he says he was ready to “take [his] commitment to another level” with a $5 million donation that God’s Love We Deliver is using to double the size of its Manhattan headquarters and expand its programs and outreach.
Now he is going global by teaming up with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which provides food assistance to millions of people in 75 countries. As part of the four-year partnership, Kors will design two unisex watches to benefit the organization, part of the United Nations. “I’ve been lucky enough to travel throughout the world,” he says. “Through those [trips] I’ve also become aware of the huge and difficult issue of world hunger. WFP is on the front lines of that fight.”
Asked what he’s learned from his charitable endeavors, Kors points to lessons of gratitude and humility along with a reliable recipe for making a difference: “It’s what every Jewish grandmother has always known—a warm meal and a kind face are a magical combination.” 610 Fifth Ave., 212-582-2444; 133 Fifth Ave., 212-228-2043; 384 Bleecker St., 212-242- 0700; 667 Madison Ave., 212-980-1550; 101 Prince St., 212-965-0401; 790 Madison Ave., 212-452-4685.
As a native New Yorker, Zac Posen, 32, always moves quickly and decisively. Case in point: he went from studying fashion design—at Parsons The New School for Design and later Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London—to filling Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week’s largest venue in less than five years. “I’m nonstop and busy, but giving charity the proper personal attention is hugely important,” he says. “Being creative and being successful, you have a duty to try to help and better the world. And it all starts young.”
From the time he transformed his parents’ living room into a design studio-cum-company headquarters in 2001, Posen has focused his philanthropic attention on arts and education organizations, including TeachersCount and the Metropolitan Opera; another passion is New Yorkers for Children. “They are involved with incredible programs and are changing the lives of New York foster children,” he says, recalling his experience at the charity’s annual Wrap to Rap event, where teens in foster care join guests to wrap 1,000 gifts for younger children. “It’s an opportunity for creative interaction and communication, and it becomes a personal advice moment.”
Posen is also mindful that he has more than money and time to give. “We build with materials and fabrics, the raw material that somebody can create with and learn from,” he explains. Through donorschoose.org, he also donates money to local classrooms to be used on art supplies. “Great inventions and great commerce come from great creativity, so it has to be nurtured—at every socioeconomic level,” Posen says. “It’s vital to the future of our country.” Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave., 212-753-4000.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only,” said Coco Chanel. “Fashion is in the sky, in the street. Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” For these six masters of runway and retail—Zac Posen, Donna Karan, Elie Tahari, Diane von Furstenberg, Rachel Roy, and Michael Kors—fashion also exists in the way that they give. Their commitments to a range of causes, from efforts to preserve New York City landmarks and provide for the city’s foster children to projects in Africa that address the global plight of hunger, are deeply personal. In addition to cash contributions, they’re also pioneering fresh, creative approaches to raise awareness and much-needed funds. “Philanthropy and commerce are a powerful combination,” says Karan. “It’s addressing and dressing at the same time.”
photography by david needleman
Grooming by Benjamin Thigpen for Recipe for Men (tahari)