Amidst a Changing Tide, Donna Karan Settles in Sag Harbor

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Gabby Karan de Felice, Gally Mayer and Donna Karan at an ARF volunteer appreciation party at Urban Zen x Tutto il Giorno earlier this summer. Lori Hawkins photos

On any given day, Donna Karan takes a trip around the world — draped in fabrics from Italy and surrounded by furniture from Bali, Thailand and South Africa.

Chandeliers hang from the ceilings and glass French doors never seem to close, as the warm aromas of homemade pastas and rich sauces dance through the air.

For a moment, the space could feel like the fashion designer’s East Hampton living room, overlooking Gardiner’s Bay — but as customers come and go, the mirage fades.

Instead, this is the newest post for Ms. Karan’s lifestyle brand, Urban Zen, which shares a location with the Italian restaurant Tutto il Giorno — owned and operated by her daughter, Gabby Karan de Felice — on Main Street in Sag Harbor.

“Every store is completely unique. Right now, this is the first time we’ve put Urban Zen and Tutto in one store,” Ms. Karan said. “It’s about family, and it really is Italian and Urban Zen. So it’s a world travel kind of experience.”

Her attention darted to a woman nearby. “That’s a good picture. Very good,” she said to a woman snapping a photo. “Are you from out here? You’re from where?”

“Italy. Milano,” the customer responded.

“Oh, I can’t believe it! This is the restaurant Tutto il Giorno. The chef is from Naples,” Ms. Karan said. “He’s fantastic. Have you eaten here yet?”

“It’s our first time,” she said.

“It’s your first time? Well, welcome! I go to Italy all the time, but this is all from Bali, this is from Haiti,” Ms. Karan said. “All the clothes are made in Italy, don’t worry.”

Inside Urban Zen x tutto il giorno on Main Street in Sag Harbor.

The customer laughed as she continued to shop the curated collection, which has drawn a customer base from the East End, New York and abroad since its opening in its newest location on Memorial Day — adding to the pulse of an ever-evolving Main Street, according to Lisa Field, president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store.

“Obviously, Sag Harbor is seeing some big changes; it’s been going on for a couple years now,” she said. “It is definitely a different crowd over the past couple of years. It seems to keep evolving and changing, but if you really go back over Sag Harbor’s history, it feels like the village that has constantly been going through changes. If you go back to the early ’80s, there was a nightclub down on Long Wharf that now is Bay Street Theater.

“All these changes, I think people are quick to judge and say, ‘It’s bad, it’s good.’ It’s just what it is,” she continued. “And I think as business owners, we have to adapt to the changes and keep going, and find your niche and figure out how to continue to run your business, and to survive with all the changes. But there’s definitely the changing demographic. I don’t think anybody would question that.”

Ms. Karan de Felice said she has witnessed the change firsthand, having spent her childhood summers on the East End — where she has continued to live and work to this day.

“For me, Sag Harbor has been our favorite place,” she said. “We grew up here. My mother and I have houses 15 minutes away, side by side, on Gardiner’s Bay. I grew up as a child in this community. I think that it’s kept its authenticity, which I love. I feel like other areas have changed, but contrary from what you hear, Sag Harbor is still a whaling village. It still has such amazing roots of what the community is about: Bay Street Theater, the movie theater that is now going to be the performing arts center, the marina where we keep our boat, all the small restaurants we’ve been going to for years.

“All our favorite places are in Sag,” she continued. “I think that is kept authentic. What I find is there are just more people that have come. It’s just become more crowded.”

The bar area at Urban Zen x tutto il giorno.

This past summer, an unprecedented number of day-trippers visited the Sag Harbor Variety Store, said Ms. Field, who has noticed an influx of second homeowners with the departure of village fixtures — both families and businesses alike, she said.

“There were a lot more vacant storefronts in the spring than I think we’ve ever seen before,” she said. “But I think most of them have businesses in, and are trying to fill the niche. Everybody says, ‘Oh, it would be great if everything stayed the same,’ and ‘I don’t ever want for this to change, or that to change,’ but that’s just not reality.”

That said, if Urban Zen x Tutto il Giorno “do what they do well, that will be to the betterment to all the businesses and the community at large,” Ms. Field noted. Formerly located on Bay Street for nearly eight years, the store’s transition to Main Street took just 45 days, while the restaurant still maintains a second East End location in Southampton.

“It’s been crazy, but great to do with the family,” Ms. Karan said. “What’s it like working with Gabby? You mean, my boss? You know what, as daughters tend to get older, they think, ‘Oh, Mommy.’ She actually thinks she’s my mother. I think the mother-daughter thing is just switched. I used to be a mother, now I’m her daughter.”

Donna Karan says “if you can’t sleep in them and go out in them, then I don’t want to know from them” about her latest fashion trends. 

With a more serious tone, she added, “You know, she worries about me. It’s beautiful. She does it with love and care. My grandchildren, it’s like the old grandma kind of thing. But I’m really a child at heart. They say, ‘Grandma, you’ve gotta rest,’ but I never rest.”

In 2015, Ms. Karan stepped down from her eponymous fashion company — which included Donna Karan International and DKNY — effectively transitioning from high fashion to her lifestyle brand, Urban Zen, which ascribes to the same philosophies she has held all along.

“I say, ‘If you can’t sleep in them and go out in them, then I don’t want to know from them,’” she said of her aesthetic. “I don’t think I’ve ever changed as a designer. It’s season-less, it’s timeless, it’s day to night. It starts with my bodysuit that I do my Pilates and yoga in, and then I throw on a big poplin shirt and a scarf, and a great suede jacket. It’s all the things that people really know. As clothes have gotten more casual, it’s not about high fashion, but it is certainly not non-fashion.”

Her ideologies have translated into her lifestyle brand, which allows her more creative control as she sets her sights on a charity-driven future.

“The reason Urban Zen started was my husband died of lung cancer and all my friends had died, and my boss died of cancer, and my objective was, ‘Where was the care in health care?’” Ms. Karan said. “It’s this whole idea of dressing and addressing — not only what you wear as your clothes and fashion, but how you feel on the inside is as important as the outside.”

On the cusp of her 70th birthday, Ms. Karan said the three pillars of Urban Zen’s philanthropy — culture preservation, health care and education initiatives as past, present and future, respectively — resonate with her now more than ever.

And paired with the restaurant, they are stronger now, too, she said.

“We’re going to think about continuing this line of work. We’re gonna do it hopefully in New York City,” Ms. Karan said. “There’s something about having the whole idea of the family. I once did something like this when I opened up DKNY originally in London. I felt that it’s not only dressing people, but it’s feeding people, caring for people in every respect.”

She paused. “My dream for Urban Zen is much, much larger than this.”

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