FLASHBACK: In this September 24, 1996 file photo, US first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, second from left, designer Ralph Lauren, left, Katharine Graham, second right, chairman of the board, The Washington Post Company, and Princess Diana during a breakfast at the White House in recognition of the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research. —Photos: AP

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Wearing their hearts on their sleeves

lNEW YORK

Fashion designers sometimes get to wear their hearts on their sleeves, making their personal connection to charitable causes part of their public lives.

Sometimes the choices of charities seem obvious, such as the recent effort by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue magazine to raise $1.7 million in relief aid for those affected by Superstorm Sandy, which happened in their backyard. Others are driven by more intimate reasons.

Designers explain what drew them to their causes:

—Donna Karan and Urban Zen Foundation

Karan's husband, Stephan, died in 2001 of lung cancer. It's also when her Urban Zen Foundation was born.

Stephan had asked her to "take care of the nurses," she recalls. "I knew what he meant."

While there's often a lot of deserved focus on the sick person, the caregivers need support, too, she explains.

Urban Zen supports a program of integrative health therapy. "It's a combination of acupuncture, aromatherapy, yoga, reiki and massage. This unique and compassionate programme is now in dozens of hospitals and care facilities across the nation. It focuses on the 'caring', which enhances the curing for the patient. And it also takes care of their families, the doctors, and yes, the nurses."

—Michael Kors and God's Love We Deliver

Kors's commitment to God's Love We Deliver, an organisation that delivers more than one million meals per year to house-bound people suffering from illness, isn't a here-today, gone-tomorrow trend. He has been involved for two decades, and this year he was honored with its lifetime achievement award. At the group's annual gala, Kors announced he was donating an additional $5 million.

It's a cause rooted in his own backyard, Kors says. And he finds the dedication he sees at the organisation—including working straight through Superstorm Sandy—inspiring.

"I am continually dismayed by the scope and magnitude of the global hunger crisis, but it is not an issue just facing third-world countries," he says. "We see it right here in this country and in New York City on a daily basis."

—Tory Burch and the Tory Burch Foundation

Do what you know: It's what Burch does. The foundation that bears her name targets women who are starting and growing businesses.

"I started the Foundation based on my experience as an entrepreneur and a working mother —I wanted to support other women entrepreneurs and help them achieve their aspirations," Burch says. "They are an investment in our collective futures. Strong women build strong communities, and women reinvest in their families and local economies."

Participants can receive micro loans, mentorship and business-education opportunities, she explains.

The Foundation was part of her blueprint since launching her label in 2004. Philanthropy, she says, is part of her identity. "There is no greater reward than giving back. It's part of my personal history; it's something I teach my children, and it is woven into the DNA of our company."

—Ralph Lauren and the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention

Lauren became involved in breast-cancer awareness charities through his friend Nina Hyde, the Washington Post fashion editor who was diagnosed with the disease and died in 1990.

A commitment to the breast cancer cause runs deep through the fashion and beauty industry —it's largely where all that pink comes from—but Lauren takes it further. He helped establish a center for breast cancer research at Georgetown University Medical Center, and he encouraged the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Fashion Targets Breast Cancer campaign.

The focus on breast cancer eventually morphed into all cancers, especially in underserved communities. The Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation spearheads the Pink Pony Fund and the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention, a partnership with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

"Seared in my childhood memory," he has said, "is one particular moment when my mother had a health scare and panicked about where she could turn for help."

—Georgina Chapman of Marchesa and the Rose Home

When Chapman married film producer Harvey Weinstein, they didn't want wedding gifts—they wanted to start their union by building something meaningful, says Chapman. They collected donations for the Rose Home, a residence for about 50 girls in New Delhi that their trust created from scratch.

Chapman says her British family has longtime ties to India and she particularly wanted to help girls and give them a sense of belonging, self-worth and family. "Most of the girls are permanent residents," she says. "We get legal guardianship of them. Most of the girls are found in the train stations or walking around the streets."

She adds, "We thought of doing a school, but I thought what they really needed was a home and some semblance of normality. They go to school, but it's a regular school nearby. I get all their marks sent to me, and they get really good grades."

—Tommy Hilfiger and Millennium Promise

Hilfiger says that giving back had to be a part of his growth plan, personally and professionally. He grew up in a small upstate New York town and thought about the big time. "I always wanted to be successful enough to give back to causes that are near and dear to my heart," he says.

Hilfiger and his wife Dee, each with a child affected by autism, joined the Autism Speaks board earlier this year. And the Tommy Hilfiger Corporate Foundation gave a five-year commitment to Millennium Promise, a non-profit that aims to eliminate extreme poverty, hunger and preventable disease through partnerships with groups such as UNICEF and the World Agroforestry Centre.

All it took to convince him was one conversation with Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a co-founder of the organisation, Hilfiger says.

"We can end extreme poverty in our lifetime. We can pass on our skills, dedicate our resources, and share our ambitions with communities across the globe. What we get back is immeasurable."

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