The KW Effect
One of the world’s most celebrated designers, Kiwi couture queen and fashion force of nature Karen Walker has gone from sewing dresses for her Barbie doll to becoming a regular on the BoF 500’s list of the world’s most influential designers, a celebrity fashion go-to, and creator of the world’s most coveted sunglasses. Cityscape caught up with New Zealand’s coolest fashion export in Ballantynes’ Contemporary Lounge to get the lowdown on her start in the industry, inspirations, design philosophy, and global success.
You left fashion school starting out with $100, that’s a gutsy leap – what was the driving force behind this and your attraction with fashion?
I had fallen in love with fashion when I was 6 and my grandma taught me to make a circular skirt for my Barbie doll, which was awesome. I can still picture it, it was actually really good, it was a full length skirt, sort of gossamer with organza in soft mints and pistachio floral and she had this chunky leather belt that held it up. It was actually pretty good – I’d wear it now – and the signature was there back then. When I had to start thinking about a life career I wanted it to be something that I loved, would enjoy every day and could dedicate my life to, and fashion was the only thing that ticked those boxes. The very first item I made was a shirt for a friend who was in a band and wanted a shirt to wear on stage, so I thought let’s make a man-style shirt but in a liberty print floral and have that juxtaposition going on, which again is the handwriting of the brand on day one. I made that for him for a hundred bucks and other people saw it and wanted it, and it sort of grew from there. The motivation has always been because I like generating ideas – it could have easily not been fashion. I didn’t really get into it to make clothes, I got into it because I like making ideas and seeing them come to reality. It’s just that fabric was the tool that was available to me growing up, but we very quickly moved beyond ready-to-wear and into other areas.
Did you ever think you’d end up where you are now – the head of a global fashion empire based out of New Zealand?
No, but you know that human nature is to move the finish line, right? So when I first started it was just for giggles really, and it was just fun and then at a certain point it becomes something bigger and other possibilities come along, ideas happen and it’s just grown quite organically, and continues to do so. There’s not really been a big plan, it’s just been about creating cool ideas and doing things that are interesting to me.
How does living in New Zealand influence/inspire your work?
I think it backs up my natural pragmatism, everything has to be really functional. I think the New Zealand nature and approach to design is very much about function as well as form and that’s something I always look for in design – the practicality and the functionality, as well as the originality and the purity of thought are all very important. I think that coming from a country that is quite pragmatic in nature really informs that.
Who has been the biggest inspiration for your personal style? Probably my husband, who’s also our creative director, Mikhail. I was 17 when I met him and so it was a very formative time. He’s four years older than me and he kind of had a whole aesthetic behind him already that he would introduce me to, and that set the landscape for, and fed into, my natural taste, but introduced new elements to it.
How important is it for you to be able to wear your brand?
I kind of wear-test everything. The brand is, has always been, and continues to be, an expression of my own taste and aesthetic, so naturally I want to wear it. Nothing goes out unless it’s something that I want to wear. Nothing goes out where it’s like ‘well I wouldn’t wear it, but …’ So everything we produce is something that I would want in my closet.
Why do you think the world is going crazy for your Disco Circus glasses?
It’s like, what are the secret spices? You never really know. This is the thing with design, it’s just kind of putting out a point of view and people might like it and people might not, but you can’t research it – there’s no certainty at all. You’re just putting forward your best guess of what you’re digging at that time and sending it out into the world and what will be, will be. Sometimes things are OK, sometimes they are amazing and then sometimes they are a phenomenon, which is what Disco Circus has become. It’s just the right shape, the right colour, the right weight, the right reaction; something different to what else is going on and it doesn’t hurt when Rihanna, [Lady] Gaga and Lorde all wear them in the same week. It’s just one of those magic ones, where everything came together in the right way at the right time.
Tell us about your model selection criteria.
We just look for people who are interesting. I’ve never cast models on looks, it’s always been on personality, what they say and how they express themselves, what their view is and how their energy is. I’ve always found that generic model look very boring and I’ve always cast more on ideas, a point of view and an energy. Even when we’re working with model-models – young women who are tall and skinny, the generic model look – I very seldom look at their books when they come in for casting; I just want to see what they’re wearing when they come in and what their attitude is, how engaged they are and can they look you in the eye and have a bit of a conversation and laugh about something? That’s what I look for. There always has to be something interesting going on. Our current campaign is all on our staff in our showroom, logistics staff and production staff. We wanted to photograph it on our team – the collection’s called Mutiny and it’s about this mutinous idea of the crew taking over. The previous eyewear campaign was all shot on me with the different wigs, it was sort of a Cindy Sherman-esque idea, then we worked with Ari Seth Cohen – a photographer who’s done two campaigns, one on eyewear and one on jewellery with our old ladies – we’ve worked with a toothless rescue dog, we’ve shot eyewear campaigns on mops and brooms – anything but a model some seasons!
What’s the inspiration behind your new Resort collection due out this month?
I always like the idea of mashing together extremes and that very first shirt I was telling you about, it’s the man’s shirt done in a very feminine liberty floral, that idea of throwing together extremes has always been in our work. I always think of it like: electricity is created by the negative and positive. I think you get the exciting stuff when you throw together the opposites. So for the latest Resort campaign we wanted a sort of Baroque kind of feel, like thrills and spills and strong colours. I love a bit of Baroque, that intensity and extreme femininity, but we threw that against a hip-hop kind of vibe. There was lots of street wear elements so it was like frills and spills forever, but then lots of parka nylons, bucket hats, shelltoes and tracksuit pants and throwing together those two very different looks, so it’s sort of like a Marie Antoinette vs 80s hip-hop kind of vibe going on, which sounds completely bonkers, but really, really, really works.
You’re juggling motherhood and a seriously coveted brand – how do you keep it all together?
I have an amazing team, I say “No” to lots of things and I only take on what I think I can manage and do well, I think that’s really important. I’m not one of those people who takes on every single project that comes along. I like to have enough down time that I can keep my tennis serve in good shape and my brain supple through yoga, meditation and tennis. I just took up piano last year and I’ve found that’s really good. It really grounds you, it’s extraordinary, you’re really in that moment. It’s so calming. Bach’s my favourite – he’s kind of my go-to guy. My piano teacher tells me he never set a tempo in his compositions, so even if you’re playing it really slow it still sounds good.
How do you ensure your brand stays relevant?
You can’t ensure that. We just do what we do and hope for the best. It’s got to be new enough so there’s a reason to buy it and it’s exciting and fresh, but it’s also got to be true to your signature and your handwriting and have a reference point. I think a brand is successful when you can cover the name and still know who it is. That’s one of the tests of whether a brand is really good or not, or the brand is good and the design is good so that it’s completely recognisable even when it’s new, and that’s what we aspire to.
Tell us about your arrow motif.
That’s a different graphic interpretation of our Runaway Girl – our creative director designed her 16 years ago [she turns 16 in October]. She was drawn as a symbol of the brand and its intrepid nature, sense of adventure, energy, optimism and desire to move forward. I always say she’s the hardest working person in the company, that Runaway Girl. She’s such an icon, she’s the one that when I’m travelling I’ll see on people. The arrow is just a different graphic interpretation of that – it’s the same intent, the same story but just drawn in a different way. And it fits perfectly on the temple of a pair of eyewear.
What has been the most surreal moment in your career to date?
They’ve been so many surreal moments, it’s kind of a surreal business. A few years ago in New York I was walking down the street and ran into a friend of mine and she said “It’s funny I should run into you because the strangest thing just happened”. She said “I was just at Dean & Deluca getting my morning coffee and the guy behind the counter asked me where I was from,” and she said “New Zealand” and he just randomly goes “Oh my God, you’re Karen Walker,” and she goes “Well no, I’m not, but she’s a friend of mine”. It’s just this completely ridiculous thing that he would say to some New Zealand woman, who happened to know me and then run into me.
What’s the one piece in your wardrobe you could never throw out?
There’s not just one; I’ve got quite a small wardrobe at home, but I’ve got a warehouse at work – luckily – which I was rummaging through the other day to find snowboarding gear (which was in the shed at home the whole time!), and you go through a rack of clothes you haven’t seen in a long time and it’s like there’s so many good pieces. But my daughter always teases me, she’ll come into my wardrobe and go “Why have you got so much grey cashmere?” Because it’s like a stack and I’m like “Because, why wouldn’t you?”
You must amass a huge amount of frequent flier miles; where are you planning to use them next?
We are going to Disneyland next week, we being me, my daughter and my husband. I’ve been using Disneyland as a behavioural control with my daughter for many years and last year she goes “Are you ever actually going to take me to Disneyland, or is that something you just say?” It was something I just said, and it had worked quite well for the last four years, and now we’re going.
What’s your favourite guilty pleasure?
I don’t have guilty pleasure; I feel guiltless!
Best way to spend ‘me time’?
Tennis, piano, yoga, cooking and tidying. I love putting on a podcast when everyone is out and doing some tidying.
What TV show are you totally addicted to/binging on?
I’m not on anything at the moment, I’m between shows. It’s such a commitment. The last one I watched that I really loved was, apart from House of Cards, obviously, The Young Pope with Jude Law – I did that in like two days, it was amazing. So that was like my last successful bingewatch.
If you could give the world one style/fashion tip, what would it be?
I’m a big fan of a uniform, find a uniform and just do it really well. And that sounds strange coming from a fashion designer when fashion, at its heart, is about built-in obsolescence, but I prefer fashion to just be about beautifully crafted things, with slight changes and updates each season for sure, but I don’t really like a disposability around fashion, it should really be about beautiful objects.
I can’t leave the house without …
It goes without saying, right? Nine times out often I don’t leave the house without my sunglasses, but the thing I really can’t leave the house without is my phone. Sad, but true.