Karan: Fashion’s “Mother Teresa?”

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March/April 2012; Source: Departures

Mother Teresa is an inspirational image for designer Donna Karan, and now Departures, the high-end travel, fashion, and culture magazine, asks this headline question, “Is Donna Karan the Mother Teresa of Fashion?”

“Having conquered the fashion industry, the trailblazing designer finds a new mission: saving the world,” writes Departures. The article on Karan tells us, “She’s a pioneer in pairing philanthropy with retail, changing how the fashion industry does business. Now the iconic designer has set her humanitarian sighs on earthquake-ravaged Haiti.” 

It’s hard to figure out how to react to this article. Some might be put off by the behind-the-scenes photos of Karan’s ad campaign shoot in the Haitian town of Jacmel last November. Haiti is trying to build an industry in manufacturing clothing, so the notion of hosting Karan might be seen as a big achievement by the government. Although the staff in the photos fussing over the model doesn’t seem to be particularly Haitian, one has to suspect that Karan hired plenty of Haitians during the ad campaign photo shoot and generated economic activity benefitting residents of Jacmel. The opening photo for the article shows Karan’s team with Olivier Martelly, the son of the president of Haiti, suggesting that the government was well aware and appreciative of Karan’s presence. Nonetheless, Departures acknowledges that “her Haiti mission stirred unwelcome controversy…(w)hen the images, featuring Brazilian model Adriana Lima and a smattering of Haitians” were criticized as having “imperialist undertones.” In a magazine extolling ostentatious wealth and featuring plenty of fashion-emaciated models (Lima doesn’t appear to be one of the waif-like people recruited by the other designers in the magazine issue), a Donna Karan ad campaign set in Haiti feels odd.

On the other hand, the article details Karan’s commitment to Haiti, the “Hope, Help, and Rebuild Haiti” relief effort she created with Mary J. Blige, and her “mission to develop, create and market the work of Haitian artists to the world” (through selling handmade objects from Haitian artisans at her three Urban Zen boutiques and at ABC Carpet & Home stores). For the spring/summer 2012 collection campaign, she recruited “fashion photographer and fellow humanitarian Russell James, whose decade-long Nomad Two Worlds movement works to preserve cultures around the world.” The magazine quotes former president Bill Clinton lauding Karan: “It’s not unusual to find Donna sitting on the ground in Haiti with artisans. She keeps pushing everyone else to join her crusade.”

The article ends with a statement of Karan’s philanthropic philosophy: “(T)he rule of life is that you only get help when you give it. The more you give, the more you get. It really is that simple.”

Take a look at Departures and tell us how you react to the Karan spring/summer collection campaign shot in Haiti. To do so, note that, for some reason, this particular Departures article wasn’t available on the publication’s website, so we found it on Donna Karan’s Facebook page (you have to click on the image of each page to read the article).—Rick Cohen