“Everybody in business has sleepless nights and tearful nights and moments of complete despair and bafflement, and that never stops.” ~ Karen Walker, Designer.
In this episode of My Heels Are Killing Me Karen Walker talks about being part of a machine that has no off-switch.
Kiwi designer Karen Walker has created a global brand and you’ll find her label stocked as far afield as Croatia, Brazil and Japan where the brand has just launched its sixth standalone store at Ginza Six retail complex in the heart of Tokyo’s Ginza District — an area known as a luxury shopping destination where cutting edge innovation meets Japanese tradition.
The new store caters to a strong Tokyo fan base offering ready-to-wear, eyewear, jewellery, handbag collections and special collaborations. While it adds to the Karen Walker empire, it’s a big deal and a smart business move — the shopping complex is set to greet 20 million visitors annually.
But it’s no mean feat for a designer who had no grand plan when the label began almost thirty years ago.
“When I came into this business I was very much the outsider, and in many ways I still am. Choosing to work in Grey Lynn in Auckland and having a go at selling around the world...I mean that’s kind of nutty!"
"Being based in NZ [means] that we’re on the outside, but I’ve never been one to go with the flow,” says Walker from the boardroom of her Auckland headquarters.
This Kiwi designer has come a long way since she first sat down at her grandmother’s sewing machine making circle skirts for her Barbie doll at the age of five. She admits to being a rebel, but thinking outside of the box has helped to drive the brand in new directions.
Walker has a knack of getting involved in unexpected creative collaborations that strike a chord with the label’s audience - an example is a recent project with Auckland’s Jordan Rondell aka The Caker with a limited edition Mother’s Day cookie dough mix. Who knew that baking would ever meet fashion?
For Walker business is all about these kinds of collaborations which enable her to reinvigorate the brand and keep the flow of ideas moving.
“You’re constantly having to think about how you thrive or create the kind of work that you want to create, or stay in business,” she says.
Not letting the brand fall into the category of ‘that was my mum’s favourite brand’ is integral to both staying alive in the industry, but also generating more business and growing. It’s a tricky space to navigate, according to Walker.
“There’s that awkward space in the middle where you’re not the brand new thing that speaks to ‘this generation', and you’re not Burberry, or that kind of established brand. So you have to look at how you stay relevant — what have you got to say that’s different, and why should you even exist?”
Last year the brand made the decision to step aside from the international runway after showing at New York Fashion Week for 20 seasons, believing there are other ways to get the brand in front of customers.
“This business is all about turning up to the industry and to your customer. When we started showing up at Fashion Week eleven years ago, that was the only way to show up. But twenty seasons later there are many ways to turn up,” says Walker.
Listen to the latest episode of My Heels Are Killing Me where Karen talks to Sonia Sly about early fashion memories, motherhood, why being niche is the new mass and being part of a machine that has no off switch.