Here comes Karen

She’s a rebel, who married at 21, an icon of youthful clothing, who’s about to turn 50. Sarah Catherall meets the enigmatic driven and always interesting Karen Walker.

The setting for the interview with Karen Walker is dramatic and also a kind of anomaly. New Zealand’s most successful global fashion designer – know for her edgy, unconventional clothing and accessories – sits in front of two racks of bridal wear: long, which beaded dresses dangling new short, lacy, cropped ones; black satin dresses perfectly stiff on hangers near floating silk suits. A collection of engagement and wedding ring glisten on the nearby table, beside her glass of tea.

It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon in a showroom above her Ponsonby store. Walker stretches her long, lithe body back into her chair. Named in the prestigious Business of Fashion’s 500 list every year since 2013, the lead character in her own blockbuster fashion story wears all black – new season garments she’s “test driving” before they hit the racks next week: a black silk tuxedo jacket, a black scarf, black silk pants.

Over the next one and a half hours the 49-year-old opens up about being a businesswoman, mother, wife, and Gen X woman born in the last gasp of the 1960s. Walker is three months away from a significant birthday.

Why – 28 years since she married Mikhail Gherman, the brand’s creative director – has Walker launched her first line of bridalwear? Why is she branching into something so seemingly traditional when her brand has always stood for quirkiness and individuality? “Excellent questions,” she nods.

“How you go into your wedding day can be very traditional, but we wanted to see what our version of it was going to be. Having been in an incredible marriage for 28 years, hopefully long to come, I can vouch for the fact that when it works, it really works. I’m a big fan of marriage and commitment in general and standing by those commitments and those promises. I think of marriage as a coming together to create something bigger.”

Weddings may be traditional, but Walker says her designs reflect her own take on the celebration. The only diamond solitaire sits on a faceted Karen Walker arrow band. One of her mannequins wears a veil, but there’s nothing too formal or fussy hanging on the racks.

“We didn’t want them to be unreal, unwearable, meringues. So many times, bridalwear feels so out of sunc with the rest of what you are wearing.

“[Bridalwear] often feels like race wear. Who dresses like that? I wanted them to be things that women feel real, where they feel like themselves. Ideally, it’s things you do wear again, whether it’s black tie, or cocktail. They’re special pieces but they’re not sort of overly precious. They’re real. That was really important… They’re reachable.”

What doesn’t she like in bridalwear? Walker frowns. “I just don’t like anything where the bride looks trapped, you know what I mean? Where she looks too scared to move. Sure, by special, be centre of attention on the day, but don’t feel trapped inside.”

When Waler married Gherman aged just 21 in a small wedding in her parents’ garden, she avoided looking trapped or out of character by designing and making her two wedding outfits: a short ivory, double-breasted suit jacket and short shirt; later, she changed into a short dress with “gutsy lace”, and a scalloped neck. “My grandmother was overhead saying. “That’s not a dress, that’s a singlet,” she laughs.

Gherman has proposed daily for months until she accepted. “We had only been together for two weeks when he first asked me. I was only 18. It was bonkers.”

“Then I eventually said, ‘Whatever, OK, fine!'” She throw-s her head back and laughs.

They turned Gherman’s two diamonds into Walker’s ring, which is now locked away in a safe. Today, Walker wears a simple gold band on her finger.

The couple have run the brand together since day one. I’ve known of couples who’ve broken up under that kind of work/life pressure. How do they make it work? “I often get asked: how do you stop it coming into your home life? When you’ve got your own business, you don’t, because it’s not 9-5… We’ve found that outside of reasonable hours, just ask permission if you want to talk about work. If the other person says, ‘My brand is fried, I can’t, but how about we get up half and hour early?” Then we respect that.

“Equally, in the office environment, don’t waste the other’s time just because we are husband and wife. Very seldom let home stuff into work time, because that’s my work time.”

And that kind of discipline isn’t limited to the marriage. Walker will only talk to her brother in the UK from home on a Sunday morning. “I do try to keep them as separate as possible. But there is, of course, that blurring.”

How about when she doesn’t like one of Gherman’s creative ideas? How do you deal with that when it’s your husband? It happens “everyday”, she smiles.

“That’s part of the job. Whether he’s my husband or not. When you’re in quite a high-velocity business and one where ideas are needed all the time, his job is throwing ideas out there. He doesn’t like it when I disagree with his ideas. We had one the other day where we had to design something, and it was like a little graphic thing. He came up with some idea and I didn’t like it. He pushed back and there was a bit of a raised voice for a couple of minutes. Then he sat down with his iPad and he came up with something that was brilliant.”

“Having been in an incredible marriage for 278 years, hopefully long to come, I can vouch for the fact that when it works, it really works.

Their daughter, Valentina, is 11 and in Year 7. She has no interest in fashion. “Which is quire nice,” smiles Walker. “She’s very smart, so she could do anything she wants. She seems to be drawn to communicating big thinking and big ideas. She’s very good at writing, and art.”

Just before Christmas, Walker will turn 50. She says she doesn’t know how she might celebrate. “Fifty is just anther birthday.

“I’ve never had that with birthdays. I’m always just focused on wat I’m working on. I’m not having an existential crisis. Being 50 is the same as it ever was, and the same as it is for any age: being somewhere between feeling trapped and feeling liberated, sometimes both extremes on the same day.”

Publicity photos typically show Karen Walker in a steely pose, which she has mastered. In person her face is striking, but it lights up when she smiles. Miranda Waple, who produces Karen Walker perfume, describes her as “warm and kind”.

Has the designer changed her style as she has god older? “I’m doing what a lot of people do, which is playing with the same uniform. I’ve had the same haircut for the past four years.

“I quite like that idea of just having a look. You see that a lot in our work too.”

Her wardrobe, for decades, has contained a pair of darkened 501s, white Stan Smiths, grey cashmere, striped blue-and-white T-shirts. “You play around the edges, a but of fairy dust here and there, but I quite like having a style that’s intrinsic to your.”

If she had one piece of advice for her younger self it would be “don’t sweat the small stuff”. Yes she has relaxed as she has got older and that’s a gift that comes with “having some wings”. She got to that point in her business about a decade ago. “I’ve had multiple tipping points.”

Walker can afford to relax. Her eyewear alone was worth $35 million in annual sales in 2013 – the last public figure available. The brand and its collaborations are stocked in  stores in more than countries. Her garments are coveted by celebrities such as Adele, Celine Dion and Lady Gaga. Megan Markle wore her $975 trenchcoat when she stepped off the plane on the royal tour last year. Walker custom-made a denim suit for Michelle Obama to wear on her book tour.

“Seeing the duchess stepping off the plane in our trenchcoat – obviously that’s thrilling. But any day of the week I can see someone wearing our glasses on Ponsonby Rd, and they’re had to pay for that – in some ways it means more. It’s real people, with real pressures, and they’re not on a gifting list. They’re choosing mine. That’s real acknowledgement.”

The day we spoke, New Zealand Fashion Week was down the hill – Zambesi, Kate Sylvester, Hailwood, Kathryn Wilson, and Stolen Girlfriends’ Club a few of the brands flaunting their collections to customers, buyers, editors and influencers in the marquee at Aotea Centre. Walk has skipped the annual event for years. She also stopped attending New York Fashion Week three years ago.

“Technology shifted, the game shifted, and there are better ways for us to spend our energy and tell our story. In terms of images of clothes on people, I don’t need to worry about those people in my front row, because I’ve got 220,000 people in my front row on Instagram.”

What has been the key to the brand’s longevity? “Not going broke,” she laughs. “We’re staying interesting and relevant. The quality of work is key because people don’t like buying rubbish.”

Walker’s brand is youthful in attitude. She keeps up with ideas by “using the imagination. That’s the easy bit.”

Her senior team are mainly in the early 30s. “But I don’t thing that’s what drives a youthful brand. It’s really about having interesting idea and having something to say. The perspective we bring to fashion is the same today as it was when we first started: only do it if you’ve got something to sat, don’t chase it, and be yourself.”

Based on online sales, most Karen Walker buyers are aged 25 to 44. About 82 per cent have done their research online before they buy anything. “I think what we are doing is storytelling. We make some garments but we’re essentially telling stories.”

And despite the brand’s youthful image, Walker is quick to point to her heritage that pre-dates the birth of some of her customers.

“What we’re got is a 30-year-old archive. We’ve got a very strong handwriting… That’s then the starting off point for anything we do. We can go into it with our style, Then it becomes effortless.”

Waple, CEO of the beauty brand Six Senses, has been producing Walker’s perfumes for five years, which are blended by perfumiers in Grasse, France.

Describing Walker as a strong creative and business brain, Waple says: “Karen knows instinctively what will work, but always listens. She’s decisive, but is prepared to review a decision if it doesn’t sit right with me… There is never a direction taken that I don’t agree with. It works really well. Meeting are always stimulating.”

Away from work, Walker describes her personal life as “typical middle class”. She did a yoga class early that morning. She walkers her dog, Laika, enjoys a game of tennis or chess, and inking in the daily cryptic crossword. Tonight, she will make pea and mint soup.

A few years ago, she began learning the piano. Being with people all day, she loves nothing more than time on her own at the end of it. “A cup of tea and the cryptic crossword, a podcast and a dog walk…”

Walker shakes her head when asked about her 10-year-plan. “Things are moving so fast. I’m not that good. I don’t have that crystal ball.”

She is driven by current creative projects: an organic cotton project in India, along with possibly a knitting project which aims to empower the women involved. A collaboration with the SPCA, and one with Outland Denim in October. Her Atelier team have six customers coming in for fittings over the next few days. “The thing you get your head around at a certain point is that you’re allowed to do whatever the hell you want,” she reflects.

“We definitely go into each year having had a lot of conversations about what we want for ourselves and our business. It’s easy to carry on because of inertia or because you feel an obligation. We start each year having had two week, for a couple of hours every day, having had a conversation: what is it we want for ourselves, our marriage, our child, our mental wellbeing, our health? How does the business fit with that?”

Before giving me a hug and saying goodbye, Walker adds: “I guess … we’re not going to be sitting here in 30 years’ time. Or maybe we will be?”


Your Weekend
The Dominion Post
September 14, 2019