Exclusive: Donna Karan & Kenneth Cole on Their Storied Careers and Shared Passion for Philanthropy

These are two legends on the loose. Playful yet intense, Kenneth Cole and Donna Karan revel in the moment. He holds her ponytail aloft while she kicks her feet in the air, showing off the new made-in-Haiti sandals they teamed up to produce. The camera flashes and the selfies begin. These aren’t typical power poses — but after decades in the spotlight, the two legendary American fashion pillars know how to work it.

The longtime friends — whose chemistry was palpable — came together for a shoot at Karan’s New York Urban Zen store, where shoppers are transported from a little corner of the West  Village to Bali, South Africa and Haiti. Handcrafted furniture, jewelry, ceramics and clothing made by artisans from around the world create an unexpected and alluring retail experience.

After an hour on set, Cole and Karan get serious when they discuss their deep commitment to improving the lives of people in Haiti, a country that is still reeling from a devastating earthquake in 2010.

Since then, both fashion veterans have been rallying on the ground and behind the scenes to fund new construction projects, job creation and vocational education.

“Kenneth and Donna both worked with President Clinton and the Clinton Foundation in Haiti very early on to help support the recovery efforts. Their commitment has made a significant impact on the lives of hundreds of Haitians, and nearly a decade later, they’re still [dedicated] to the country’s recovery,” said Gregory Milne, chief impact and foreign policy officer of the Clinton Foundation.

Last month, Cole and Karan joined forces to launch another powerful initiative — this time together. Through Urban Zen and Kenneth Cole’s Gentle Souls label, the duo debuted a footwear collection featuring 10 Haitian-inspired looks made by locals.

“We wish you were here,” Karan yelled into Cole’s iPhone, during FN’s interview. They are FaceTiming with partner Pascale Théard, the Haitian artisan whose workshop helped develop the line. Théard is surrounded by her production team, who are waving to Cole and Karan.

It’s this type of connection that inspires change, something these designers understand well. While many brands are now taking social stances in this politically charged environment, Cole and Karan were pioneers in building cause-based businesses in the 1980s and ’90s — rallying around issues such as AIDS that weren’t always warmly embraced.

“When you think of fashion and philanthropy, both Donna and Kenneth come to mind first,” said Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). “They understand how the power of creativity can impact social change.”

For decades, both power players have used their platforms to prompt action for a range of causes. Here, the two tell us why philanthropy has always been what matters most.

donna karan kenneth cole
Donna Karan and Kenneth Cole, featured on FN’s Aug. 12 cover.
CREDIT: Amanda Demme

When did you first meet?

Donna Karan: “Kenneth Cole is a soul. We met years ago.”

Kenneth Cole: “In this fashion maze, Donna and I have intersected often. I’ve always been a fan from afar.”

DK: “It was through the CFDA and [probably] with the Seventh on Sale benefit. This was the ’80s.”

KC: “For me, it was the ’90s.”

DK: “Are you trying to say …”

KC: “You’re older? Yes.”

DK: “It started in the ’80s.”

KC: “Fine. Late ’80s. We were in different worlds though. I was mostly accessories; Donna was mostly clothing.”

DK: “I had accessories, too. I mean, come on! DKNY. We did sneakers!”

KC: “Well [accessories] is all I did. And I then branched out. But Donna and I have known each other for decades. She is a fellow designer, fellow CFDA member and a fellow philanthropist.”

DK: “And Kenneth is not only a designer, he gives back. He uses his creativity to inspire change and that is what I am all about. Kenneth and I share that.”

How did Haiti eventually bring  you together?

DK: “When the earthquake happened in 2010, it was a call to action. A handful of us went down there and we stayed. We were always talking about Haiti. We were involved with the same hospital. Kenneth was there more from a philanthropic, care-giving and understanding of the issues [point of view]. I was there more from an artisanal point of view, where I saw the potential in the artisans there. That’s where our paths crossed.”

KC: “This is a country with virtually no resources. But they have this extraordinary energy and spirit — and creativity, which Donna actually discovered before I did. When you bring resources, you create something that’s bigger than it is in the ordinary course. They were enduring, persevering. They’ve withstood more hardships probably than anyone I know and continue to do so. They find their peace in their art.”

Is it hard to ignite progress there when there are often setbacks in terms of civil unrest and political instability?

DK: “When the disaster hit, I said it’s one thing to give money, but we need to give them something that could help them. We sent tents to create a home for them at first. But I had a vision, and we needed to create community. It wasn’t easy. The courage, strength and capacity of the Haitian people are limitless. The artisan culture in Haiti is no exception to that. They possess a level of talent that is raw and genuine and leads to beautifully crafted items. It has been so great to work with them and teach them new ways of working with materials that they have in Haiti — but also to show them how to work with new materials that we have been able to import for them. One of our hopes and intentions of doing this is to empower them with the tools necessary to build a healthier and stronger community.”

KC: “I tried to help create jobs, teach them, train them and find a way to make shoes. Marry resources to needs, and you create something with substance. We tried to make shoes out of recycled tires. It’s hard. It’s hard to make them commercial. The goal was to make a truly sustainable relationship with Haiti where ultimately you can raise money and serve the needs of Haitians. It hasn’t all worked out the way we hoped, but it has been gratifying.”

Donna Karan
Donna Karan at her Urban Zen store, shot exclusively for FN.
CREDIT: Amanda Demme

What do you think needs to happen for real change to occur in Haiti?

KC: “Many of the problems are so deep-rooted that it will likely take the next generation of Haitians to make the necessary changes. But they also need resources, education and health care to do that, which is why it is so important to overhaul their education as well as their health-care systems. We are helping to bring them sustainable tools that can better their community and their lives, hopefully long term.”

DK: “People always ask me, ‘Why Haiti?’ I look at Haiti and I see a future model of a soulful economy. I see hope. For Haiti, yes, but also a world for artisans and a way of life that I am passionate about supporting.”

Let’s talk about your shoe collaboration. How did it come about?

DK: “I wear Kenneth Cole’s Gentle Souls shoes in droves. I would buy them for evening, daytime, silver, white, black. I’m the most comfortable in his shoes, and I love designing with Pascale, which I was doing separately. I wanted to make these shoes together [on the Gentle Souls] construction.”

KC: “Six months ago, we met up in Haiti to [design].”

DK: “[These shoes] are going to last a lifetime on my feet, I’ll tell you that.”

KC: “Not much in our industry lasts a long time.”

DK: “I’ll guarantee you this shoe will. The problem in the retail world is that shoes go on sale immediately. I don’t do that. I don’t go on sale. There’s longevity to it. That’s how I feel about shoes, clothing and handbags. How many people sell their Hermès handbag and say, ‘Oh that’s last season, I’m not wearing it.’ That’s why I have so much high respect for the Hermès people. It’s not about what’s new. This is forever.”

You both created cause-based  businesses early on. Why was that so important for you to do?

DK: “I was always philanthropically driven from the first minute I started Donna Karan. I never felt that it was about clothes.”

KC: “It was similar for me too. I felt that we could relate to the customer in a more meaningful way if we spoke to them about what was not just on their body but what was in their mind. If we could do that, our relationship would survive any one season.”

Did you ever feel pressure because your companies were namesake brands?

KC: “There was always a lot of pressure because it had my name. Everything I did was very personal. I’m not sure I’d still be in it today if it wasn’t. I found a way to marry my desires to involve myself in the community with my professional ambitions to build a fashion business.”

DK: “I came from the same place as Kenneth did. Dressing and addressing, and because my company grew so fast, so quickly, it needed help. We couldn’t do it by ourselves. It was enormous. I said, ‘This is the future.’ You can’t be stuck in fashion. I had this vision, called Urban Zen, where we find the calm in the chaos that we live in today.”

Both of you have also put major efforts into ad campaigns, emphasizing messages far beyond fashion.

DK: “I never even showed half of the fashion. I say, hemlines go up and down, but the soul of a person lasts forever. Basically I wanted to talk to the person. I was also more interested in my grandchild being in the campaign and having my dogs and my family. I guess because I was a guilty mother. It was a family affair.”

KC: “I did a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz in the ’80s with models and children. The campaign was about stigma, and the message was to speak about the fact that no one wanted to speak about AIDS. Christie Brinkley was in it pregnant. Then I joined the board of amfAR. I became chairman in 2004. AmfAR went on to have a role in major breakthroughs for AIDS.”

kenneth Cole
Kenneth Cole, shot exclusively for FN.
CREDIT: Amanda Demme

Have you faced any backlash for any of your causes that you’ve stood up for?

KC: “With AIDS, I thought we would, and I was prepared for it. But interestingly there wasn’t. I think we were preaching to the choir. Our audience was aligned and passionate but silent because people were afraid. It wasn’t OK socially to be gay then. Stigma was devastating in those days.”

What do you enjoy most about being in the fashion business?

DK: “I stripped away business years ago. To me, it’s not a business. It has nothing to do with business. I wish I didn’t have to be a ‘designer.’ I am a designer. It’s my soul. It’s not work. I get frustrated if something doesn’t fit properly; it’s my body, my soul, my spirit.”

KC: “Early on in my career, I thought my job was to create cool things that people would buy. I learned a little bit later on that they needed to come back and buy them again. It wasn’t just about selling shoes, it was about creating an experience. I consider myself amazingly privileged that I’ve been afforded the access and opportunity to work with people like Donna. I’ve met extraordinary people.”

Donna, you’ve said Urban Zen is a way of life for you. Was this always in your plan?

DK: “Always. I had a vision over 20 years ago; it came through me. This is a part of me, it’s the way I live, it’s who I am. My late husband, Stephan Weiss, is why Urban Zen started. He is my inspiration. He was an artist and a sculptor. In his art, he ‘connected the dots’ on a piece of paper. And that’s what Urban Zen is. It’s a place and a space where like-minded organizations can come together to connect the dots. I believe through creativity, collaboration, connection and community, you can create the change that is needed in the world. This is the heart of Urban Zen. This is my dream and my mission.”

Watch FN’s cover shoot video with Kenneth Cole below.

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