They say behind every great man is an great woman, but that calculus can also work in reverse. For Donna Karan, the iconic New York designer famous for outfitting working women in effortless, flowing jersey fabrics for over three decades, the man behind the woman was the love of her life, the artist (and her late husband) Stephan Weiss. Weiss was a brilliant sculptor, creating sensual architectural forms in bronze, lucite, and wood—and yet he never showed his work in his lifetime. Weiss, who passed away in 2001 after a battle with lung cancer, made the decision to throw his energy behind Karan’s fashion career instead of pursuing his own stardom as an artist.
“He told me, Donna, one of us out there is enough,” Karan told me, as she took me on a whirlwind tour through Weiss’ artwork. “He said that he couldn’t deal with both the art and the fashion worlds—he told me that we would focus on Donna Karan, and that’s what we did. I owe my entire career to that man.”
Karan spoke to me about Weiss at the Urban Zen Foundation, a storefront, studio and holistic therapy center in the West Village that serves as the headquarters for her philanthropic efforts. The space lives up to its name—from the moment Karan stepped into the retail space for our interview, with its warm global decor and ever-present scent of burning incense, she softened and spoke slowly, as if meditating in motion. “This space makes me the happiest of all places in New York,” she said. “If I could move here, I would. I would just live inside this room. And a lot of this room is Stephan.”
Weiss asked Karan, in his last days, to “take care of the nurses” that had attended to him, and she decided that she would expand his wish into a program to promote and train healers of all kinds. In Weiss’ honor, the Urban Zen Foundation was born: Karan converted his old art studio space into a full-service holistic healing center, a place to focused on integrative medicine, “combining western science with nutrition, yoga and eastern healing practice.” Since its beginnings, the Urban Zen center has expanded to include a training program for integrative therapists, wellness education programs for children and a global artisan initiative helping to bring the creative work of third-world communities to the fashion world of New York.
In October, the Foundation became an exhibition space as well, when Karan launched Connecting the Dots, the first retrospective of Weiss’ work. His massive studio, which took up two stories of industrial space on Greenwich Street, now holds all of his sketches, sculptures, paintings, and even his beloved Ducati motorcycle for the public to see. “After 11 years, I thought it was finally time to do something for Stephan, as he has done so much for me,” she said.
DuJour: Where does the name for the exhibition, Connecting the Dots, come from?
Donna Karan: It comes from Stephan’s process. The way he made his sculptures was that he would put a bunch of dots on a page, and then connect them organically, and forms would take shape. From those rough sketches, he saw the shapes for his work. I love his work. I love its curves. It is so sensual, so natural. It inspired my clothing a great deal. I see Stephan in a lot of my designs. And of course, in my perfume bottles. He designed all of those.
DJ: Why did you think now was the right time to put together a retrospective?
DK: Stephan was always content to be in the background, but I wanted to do something, after 11 years, to put his work forward. He never showed it, or sold it. Hopefully through this we can find a gallery, and bring more attention to his work. People never knew how talented my husband was! There is a giant bronze apple in Hudson River Park—a lot of people know and love that sculpture, but they don’t know that my husband made it. Same with his big shoe in the Wynn Las Vegas. I thought it was finally time that he got some credit. I have wanted to do this for so long.
DJ: And the Urban Zen Foundation, that was inspired by him?
DK: Yes. He got so much out of yoga and breath work and that kind of healing at the end, and I wanted to create a space where we could promote those therapies. And a lot of the designs I sell here, those are also inspired by him. I make a lot of things out of tobacco leaves—and you know, Stephan died of lung cancer. I wanted to take something that brought attention to smoking and turn it into something beautiful. I also really feel his spirit in my work with Haiti.
DJ: Yes, I was admiring the Haitian necklaces.
DK: I do a lot of work with Haiti—I go three or four times a year. My dream for Haiti is that it could be like Bali. Stephan and I went to Bali all the time, and it was a truly special place for us. We loved that it was a place that was so spiritual, and so creative and so truly itself. It is one of the only places on earth where the tourism is based on the artisans’ authenticity. I think that Haiti could have that kind of pull to it. So I work with artisans there, jewelers and sculptors, and we create these beautiful designs that I sell here at Urban Zen. I’m also selling Hearts for Haiti at DKNY and Donna Karan, which are these beautiful river stone hearts from a village in Haiti, and all proceeds go to support artisans there.
DJ: What do you hope people will get out of coming to Connecting the Dots?
DK: I want them to get a sense of how much soul Stephan put into all his work. You can just see it in every piece. One of my favorites is a red lucite abstract sculpture, and it looks like part of the body to me. And I made art for the body. His work is in my work, and I want people to see how connected we were, as well. My husband always thought outside the box, and he had such a clear vision of what he wanted to do with his art. He supported me, and now I have the chance to do this for him. He was such an incredible man.
Connecting the Dots will be at the Urban Zen Foundation through Feb. 15, 2013.