Mother-daughter duo brings food, fashion, and philanthropy to Sag Harbor

Donna & Gabby, Community First

The Urban Zen fall line. Independent/Courtesy Urban Zen

“It’s not about dressing people, it’s addressing them in mind, body, and spirit,” said fashion mogul Donna Karan during a visit to her Urban Zen storefront on Greenwich Street in the West Village. She shows me around as we walk and talk through the space.

Ten years ago, Donna began the lifestyle brand Urban Zen, which was first located on Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Her daughter, Gabby Karan de Felice also opened the restaurant Tutto Il Giorno ten years ago, next door. Both venues have since changed locations, and earlier this year the mother-daughter team collaborated to bring a new concept, Urban Zen x Tutto Il Giorno, to Sag Harbor. The joint effort incorporates Donna’s garb and Gabby’s fine Italian cuisine under one roof. Now it’s on the heels of its first successful summer season.

“One of the things about us is that we live in the moment, and I think it happened really quickly,” said Donna about the venue opening.

“It’s amazing. It was our dream,” said Gabby. To be “under one roof was organic,” she continued. “It’s easy to open our doors to the Sag Harbor community,” she said, noting that Sag Harbor is where it all began.

“The thing about Sag that I love the most is it feels like I’m away from it all,” said Donna. Not only do they work closely together, both Gabby and Donna have homes next to each other in East Hampton.

In the West Village, Donna walks me through the space. “I think when you walk in here you don’t feel like you’re in a typical New York store; you have things from all over the world. This was my husband’s studio where he did all his artwork,” she said. The space was once the studio of her late husband Stephan Weiss, an accomplished painter and sculptor. His sculpture The Apple in Millennium Garden overlooks the Hudson River. The annual Stephan Weiss Apple Awards were created in his honor, and celebrate luminaries and change makers in healthcare, education, and preservation of culture. These are the three priorities of the Urban Zen Foundation.

Donna went on to express her love of Africa, describing prayer beads from Ethiopia, pieces from Haiti, and furniture from Bali. Most of the goods in the store keep with the earthy tones that Urban Zen is known for. The clothing, with exquisite draping, is meant to not only go from day to evening, but from season to season. Summer outfits can be layered during the winter months. “I like to accent the positive and delete the negative,” she said about the collection.

For her it’s about the sensuality. “Touch it, feel it, there’s a whole story behind it and that’s the beauty of what Urban Zen is all about,” she explained.

Retail & Dining

She brings me to her studio adjacent to the storefront. “This is where everything really happens,” she described. I then follow her upstairs to an urban oasis in the center of New York City, a beautiful loft with a serene rooftop garden. The layout is harmoniously similar to the indoor-outdoor space in Sag Harbor.

“This is sort of my Hamptons in the city,” she said, noting that Urban Zen offers a calm in the chaos of the city.

With the retail industry making headlines about storefronts not being able to compete with online retailers, there’s no doubt that experiential retail has become a trend. We see it with the impossible-to-get-reservations at Tiffany’s Blue Box Cafe or dining at Restoration Hardware. And the same goes for a table at Tutto Il Giorno during the summer. Gabby proclaimed that the store did better and had more traffic during restaurant hours because people were more relaxed — perhaps more inclined to shop after a nice glass of Italian wine (or two).

The shop is a “true mix of retail and restaurant,” said Gabby.

“It’s not only clothes, it’s about living,” said Donna. “When I did DKNY originally — my first store in London — the first thing I said was ‘I want a food bar as soon as you walk in,’” she recalled. “I see this growing into many different dimensions. I think this is just the beginning.” Donna Karan, in many instances, has been ahead of the curve when it comes to the fashion industry.

The restaurant has been a Hamptons staple since it opened. The eatery offers fresh, light Mediterranean fare. Gabby, along with her husband Gianpaolo and close friends and partners Gally and David Mayer, opened Tutto il Giorno. They were aiming for “a restaurant experience that captured [Gianpaolo’s] Naples upbringing with lazy days of boating to Ischia and Capri,” said Gabby.

“My mother-in-law could take four ingredients and make four different [dishes],” she said, noting that the truly authentic Italian cuisine from Naples includes simple and well-done ingredients.

The Urban Zen Integrated Therapist Program. Independent/Courtesy Urban Zen

Community First

Gabby stated that the Southampton location is packed even on a Monday night and that having doors always open “is the secret to having a successful business year-round on the East End.” She explained that the people who work for her often become family within the restaurant and that many return year after year for the busier months.

“We live out here,” she said. “Our heart is in it.”

But the Tutto/Urban Zen collaboration is about much more than just dining and shopping. It’s about embracing the East End community, and beyond. I first met Gabby and Donna during a cocktail party for The Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, celebrating its volunteers. Donna spoke fondly of ARF. “My last two dogs came from there,” she said.

Last week the venue hosted an art auction to benefit Planned Parenthood, attracting artists like Eric Fishl, Steve Miller, and April Gornik (see photos on our Indy Snaps pages). The venue will also be the site of a Hamptons International Film Festival’s cocktail party, which Gabby noted, “we’re super excited about.”

Urban Zen works with Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor to provide therapists at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital as part of the Urban Zen Integrated Therapist Program. The goal is to treat the patient and not just the disease. “They’re right in the community servicing the people,” said Donna. Therapists are trained in Reiki, in-bed yoga, aromatherapy, nutrition, and positive care for patients.

And who could forget Super Saturday? An event co-hosted by Donna and Kelly Ripa each year in Water Mill that raised millions for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. The event was, as Donna stated, “quite extraordinary.” It was an event started by Donna and Liz Tilberis, the late editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, in 1998, and was first held in Tilberis’s back yard.

Since then, the event has grown to feature over 150 vendors (who all donate products), and was shopped by 2000 guests each year. The event has been named the “Rolls-Royce of garage sales.” Donna noted the importance of the event to her, “Both Liz and my husband had cancer at the same time.”

This year, the event was held in New York City instead of Water Mill. “I don’t think people want to live without Super Saturday, so hopefully we’ll be able to do it again next year. We’re looking forward to it,” she said.

Back in New York City, the Apple Awards will be held on October 24. This year’s awards will honor Iman, Jimmy Nelson, and Joel Towers.

“It’s based on my husband and my promise to him that I would take care of the nurses,” said Donna about the awards, which benefit the Urban Zen Foundation. “I call it past, present, future. Past is the preservation of culture where the wisdom lies, the present is heath care, and the future is education.” This year, she will also travel to Colombia, Guatemala, and Brazil with the foundation.

Gabby noted that her mother has always been in tune with the idea that what consumers buy should go toward something that makes a difference. She “continues to walk that walk,” said Gabby.

“We’re really creating a community of people who want to make change in the world,” said Donna. “It’s never about me, it’s about the we.”

jessica@indyeastend.com