New Zealand Designer Karen Walker Reflects On Her Three Decades in Fashion

LONDON AND AUCKLAND VIA EMAIL—In the fashion world 30 years is a lifetime. Just ask New Zealand designer Karen Walker who not only made her New York Fashion Week runway debut of her collection in 1998 but also debuted her designs at Barneys New York that same year. “The major shifts I see in the industry are that [fashion] is a whole lot faster,” she told’s Ginanne Brownell Mitic in an interview via email. “Trends get picked up, blown up and spat out in weeks rather than seasons because of the speed with which ideas spread now.’

Over these last three decades fashionistas like Madonna, Rhianna, Alexa Chung and Kate Winslet have been spotted in her designs—everything from clothing to eyewear, jewelry and handbags—with Ms. Walker creating a clever and eye-catching mix of street fashion with a luxury look. Her designs are in over 1020 stores (including Harvey Nichols in London and various Barneys stores across the United States) in over 40 countries and she also has a few stand-alone boutiques back in New Zealand and one in Tokyo as well. In 2011 she began a partnership with U.S. retail chain Anthropologie and over the past four years she has consistently been ranked in the Business of Fashion as one of the 500 powerhouses in the fashion industry.

Earlier this year Ms. Walker, who is married with a preteen daughter, took part in the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at London’s Buckingham Palace, introducing designs from the Cook Islands. It was, she stated after the event, one of the highlights of her career. She discussed her three decades in the industry and shared about what continues to inspire and motivate her. EXCERPTS:

BROWNELL MITIC–How would you say the fashion industry has changed since you first started out over 30 years ago? I am thinking in terms of things like how fashion has gone online, in terms of being a woman in the fashion industry, etc.

It’s homogenized – there aren’t really any local trends anymore; fashion is borderless and truly global. The kingmakers have changed – once it was entirely the design houses, the fashion media and the buyers who had all the power. Now it’s the consumers, the celebrities and the influencers who hold much of the power. [And] amateurs have as much chance as anyone to make it – no matter what part of the business you’re in anyone can break through.

You have often been dubbed “New Zealand’s most famous designer”–do you find this accolade annoying in terms of does it matter where you are from?

I’m not annoyed by it; it’s natural. I choose to live in New Zealand and my brand has traveled a long way, so of course that description’s going to pop up from time to time.

Tell me a bit about the Buckingham Palace meeting a few weeks ago where you met Kate Middleton during an exhibition for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange.

It was a unique project for us that allowed us to create a one-off, not-for-sale, red-carpet gown in partnership with Cook Islands artisans. It was a really satisfying and exciting project and it was so much fun to have it climax with a wonderful reception at Buckingham Palace. Her Royal Highness [Kate Middleton] was charming and completely engaged and interested in the entire Fashion Exchange and Tukua [the lead artisan] and I really enjoyed telling her about the dress we created together. The best thing of all about the project though was that I got to work with a craft, Cook Islands tivaivai [a form of artistic quilting] that I’ve always been fascinated by and experience a working process that’s just as much about the time spent together, making, as it is about the finished product.

In the past you have cited Ally Sheedy from “Breakfast Club” and Diane Keaton from “Annie Hall” as inspirational muses. Is that still the case?

We’ve always been fascinated and inspired by outsiders and these two characters are just two of those. Generally, I’m inspired by strong, interesting people but yes, they are usually outsiders. Other characters who [have] directly inspired our work include eccentric, aristocratic English gardeners of the 1970s, Lee Miller, Lorca, suffragists and suffragettes, Berenice Abbott and many more.

How would you say your designs have changed over time and developed?

The very first garment I made to sell was a man-style shirt made in the most classically feminine of Liberty print florals. Looking back at it now I see our handwriting was set at this point. The combining of opposites was there from day one and that continues to be the underlying handwriting of everything we do. The highlight of my career is, on a near daily basis, creating work that lights me up and that I’m proud of. What would I change? There are a million things I’d change if I had the chance but that’s not how life works so I don’t think about that.

How hard is it to be working mom, especially with all the travel that you do?

I’m not the only working mother; it’s not a unique experience to me and I’m lucky that I have a great husband and a fantastic nanny. I’m in the privileged position of being able to structure my working day and life in a way that works for me and my family – much of the time anyway. Yes, there’s a lot of travel but I keep my trips short. There might be one every two or three weeks but they’re seldom for more than a week and FaceTime [is] actually a pretty good way to parent some days.

Is she interested in fashion?

I don’t think so, she’s more into words than clothes. I’ll encourage her to go into any career that she feels she has a calling to.

Any advice that you were given over the years that has stuck with you that you contemplate from time to time? 

The two pieces of advice I go back to again and again are: “You’ll never be ready so you might as well just get on with it” and “Only work with people who get it.”

What is your favorite thing to design?

I’m slightly obsessed with getting lapels on jackets right and also the depth and generosity of pockets – doesn’t fit my iPhone? Rework it. Plus, I really love working on prints and colour.

And tell me about the process of designing.

I just try to be open all the time – observing and absorbing. Good ideas can come from anywhere. I’m definitely not one of those designers who builds a mood board around the markets of Marrakesh. I do find travel inspirational but mostly because it creates a certain amount of negative and unfamiliar space around me – lots of blank time with no meetings. Just space to think is good. Also, exercise is really good for ideas.

Whose work do you admire at the moment? Any designers that you feel have had a lot of influence on you over the years and why? 

Fashion-wise I’ve always loved Miuccia Prada and Dries Van Noten – I love their approach to design: utility + glamour.

Photos 1) Karen Walker headshot (Karen Walker); 2) Ms. Walker with Takua (Commonwealth Fashion Exchange); 3) A/W Karen Walker collection (Karen Walker) 


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