I am standing on the pay line at the Donna Karan sample sale, and I am holding not one but two 1920s coats. One is black velvet, with a collar made from some noxious white fur that is shedding all over me; the other is richly embroidered but miserably faded. I know I should dump these rags on the floor and run, but the black beauty is a mere $50, the embroidered number a ridiculous $25, and sample-sale madness, like all shopping madness, has gotten hold of me and I am helpless to resist.
The paradox I am facing—why buy more stuff when I’m trying desperately to get rid of all the dust collectors I already have? What is the point of all this getting and spending and laying waste our bank accounts?—is, I suspect, the very conundrum that led to this sale in the first place.
Karan and her team were legendary for sweeping through vintage-clothing stores and antique shows all over the globe and gathering fistfuls of goods for “inspiration.” But a funny thing happened on the way to the flea market: At the pinnacle of her retail success, with her name slapped on everything from unguents to underpants, bodysuits to brassieres, Donna became fascinated with issues far deeper than a plunging neckline. Which is why all this stuff is priced to go for the benefit of Karan’s latest enthusiasm, something she calls the Urban Zen Foundation.
And plenty of stuff there is. The aroma of incense clings to what appear to be thousands of examples of the kind of souvenirs you buy when you’re traveling in Tangier or Bhutan—knotty baskets, wooden bowls, metal urns, and other unwieldy items you drag home and then never want to see again.
Which is not to say I don’t want to purchase them here and now, especially at these prices. (There’s nothing worse than dragging yourself to a so-called sample sale only to find the merch is still hundreds of dollars.) In addition to the third-world housewares, there are racks upon racks of DK apparel, an array so immense it’s like a history of the company in miniature—you can see the development of Karan’s design philosophy, from Victorian camisoles to slinky leotards to saris and kimonos.
Clutching my flapper coats—because even as I suspect that I will never wear either of them, I am terrified that if I put them down even for a second, someone else will snatch them up—and passing tables groaning with ostrich eggs, half-rotted fishing-tackle boxes, temple bells, etc., I seek out Kevin Salyer, who is the Urban Zen Foundation’s vice president for retail development.
So what’s this Urban Zen business about anyway, Kevin? “Urban Zen was started by Donna to begin raising awareness and to inspire change.” Huh? Awareness of what, exactly? I snap, my arms aching from carrying the coats. Salyer doesn’t miss a trick. “To preserve cultures, empower children, and to develop wellness programs,” he says evenly.
Well, all noble goals, to be sure (though I must admit that when I hear words like “empower,” “children,” and “wellness” in the same sentence, I kinda gag just a teensy). But more to the subject at hand: Doesn’t it hurt to divest yourself of things you’ve collected for years? “It’s always difficult to part with things that have meaning—and it’s not like Donna’s going to stop shopping,” Salyer reassures me. “It’s very—I don’t want to say ‘cathartic’—it’s letting go, like when you spring-clean. Donna wanted to have an opportunity to share and give other people a chance to enjoy things she finds interesting and beautiful. There’s quite a scope of products here, and everyone likes a bargain. It’s kind of like keeping the cycle of the economy going. She’s long been a very generous giver—giving her time, her energy, and her money to help fund cancer research for years.”
I suddenly feel like such a jerk—what’s my problem with preserving cultures and furthering wellness anyway? Salyer reminds me that Karan started Super Saturday in the Hamptons, a famous charity sale at which fashionistas pay serious admission money to knock one another down in search of designer bargains. I actually went to this once (press comp, to my shame). Elle McPherson was there. I remember it as if it were yesterday: “Ellie, Ellie!” called a super-tanned guy in expensive loafers when she walked in ahead of invisible me. In a far corner of the vast lawn—the sale was at some Richie Rich’s spread in Water Mill—fully empowered children with painted faces were stuffing their cakeholes and going on rides. I didn’t buy anything.
Salyer interrupts my reverie. “You should go by the Urban Zen store—it’s right next-door,” he says. “It opened last May to fund the foundation. Donna’s a longtime retailer with a very clear point of view—her experience, her lifestyle. It’s really an extension of the rest of her life.”
So I stop by the store, which has a sign in its elegant, spare window that says: “Raise Awareness. Inspire Change.” It’s a gorgeous space, with rough-hewn tables and benches piled artfully with coffee-table books extolling various aspects of the glorious, mysterious East and merchandise that includes a pair of droopy wool jersey pants for $550 and a gift set of shower gels and other potions for $210 bearing the label Como Shambhala.
Are these items, lovely as they are, anywhere near what a real Zen master might require? I decide to contact a genuine practitioner for answers to this pressing question, and am thrilled when Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, the abbot of Dotoku-ji/Village Zendo, is nice enough to return my call.
“The guidelines are to wear things that are very simple—though it’s actually a little more complicated than that,” Enkyo Roshi explains. “It’s black for Japan, in Korea it’s simple gray, in Vietnam simple brown, here in America pretty much something very dark and muted—a shade that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to the body. In the temple, we wear cotton robes made of plain homespun that we make ourselves or have made. Priests wear traditional robes—it goes back to the Buddha. The idea is to wear something that doesn’t distract.”
What does she wear to go to the grocery store? Jeans and a tee? “I wear my black work jacket—I just wear black all the time,” she says. “People here think I’m a martial artist, but someone from the East, someone Japanese, would know I’m a priest by the simplicity of it and my shaved head.”
You mean to tell me that someone bald and wearing solid black at the supermarket isn’t slightly distracting? “You’re quite right,” Enkyo Roshi replies, with just the whisper of a chuckle. “I’m the only woman at the Zendo who does shave—it helps me connect with people in places like the airport or the subway. The shaved head is a choice for both men and women. It’s definitely not required—it certainly isn’t intrinsically holy. Lots of the other practitioners kind of have buzz cuts.”
Turns out that Donna, who has a full head of hair, has actually stopped by the Village Zendo a couple of times, and Enkyo Roshi has met her. “I think what she’s doing is quite marvelous; she’s such a trendsetter,” she says. “I’ve seen the garments—a few simple things. I think it’s wonderful to have someone paying attention to simplicity. I’ve talked to her a few times. I told her to follow her path.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 25, 2008