Karen Walker (left) and her husband Mikhail Gherman (right) circa late 1980s. Image supplied.
Designer and businesswoman Karen Walker doesn’t really need an introduction, her eponymous brand has been in business for 30 years this year and is a household name in New Zealand. It’s not just here that Karen has found success either, with her products currently stocked in 42 countries, 200 cities and over 1,000 shops including some of the world’s most prestigious stores. She has repeatedly featured on the Business of Fashion’s esteemed 500 list which ranks the people of influence that are shaping the global fashion industry.
Back here at home, Karen was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014 for services to fashion design, (after being made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004) and is known for her many charitable endeavours as well as her creativity and eye for design. Needless to say she is an exceptionally driven person and she and her husband Mikhail Gherman have balanced the creative and business responsibilities of the Karen Walker brand together since the beginning.
We caught up with Karen to find out more about running a global brand from NZ, the best piece of advice she’s received as a designer and how she balances her very busy life.
Congratulations on celebrating 30 years in business this year, how are you marking the milestone?
To be honest, it hadn’t actually occurred to me that it’s 30 years this year. I suppose it is. Won’t be marking the milestone in any way. Just getting on with the job!
Take us back to 1988, what was the original plan and vision for your brand?
It was just for fun back then, no plan or vision really, just wanting to make things for myself and my friends that we couldn’t get anywhere else, but, what was there was a handwriting and a mood and feel that’s still here today and is intrinsic to what we do – a love of throwing together opposites and a chic-meets-eccentric mood.
The late 1980s was a very different time, can you set the scene for us, what were you wearing/listening to/reading in 1988? Is there anything still in your wardrobe from then?
It was a different time, in every way and we’re so proud to have been part of this country’s journey from what is was then to what it is now. I don’t remember too much about what I was wearing etc. Sneakers were big then, as they are now. I remember a very strong Air Jordan moment and lots of streetwear. Not much has changed I guess. Listening to: there was lots of Beastie Boys and Run DMC I recall. I think I saw them both play sometime around then. And reading, well, The Face and i-D were the go to places for fashion news. Locally, I guess it was Planet then maybe.
Fast forward to 2018 and your products are stocked in 42 countries, 200 cities and over 1,000 stores, how do you keep a handle on such an extensive operation and what does it take to run a global business from New Zealand?
I work with many amazing people who drive the business with me and my role includes checking in with them constantly to make sure we’re clear on the vision and how to go about driving it forward.
How do you balance the creative and business demands of your role in your brand?
A lot of it’s simple diary management actually. Limiting the number of meetings and amount of time dedicated to running the business to 4 hours per day and keeping 2 hours per day aside for creative meetings.
Karen Walker in Paris for the first time in 1992. Image supplied.
Over your career you’ve amassed numerous awards and accolades but how do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
I define success in many ways. These include: seeing great work coming through our design room, hearing from people their stories around our brand and what we make and what this means to them, having a team around me who enjoy their careers and being part of the story, and, being content and at ease enough to go to sleep easily at night.
Conversely, how do you deal with failure and what have been some of the challenges of growing your brand?
Well, it’s not easy to build a brand or a successful business, especially over three decades. Not everyone succeeds in this way, and we’re very aware of this. Over 30 years we’ve faced thousands of challenges and continue to. When there are failures it’s best to embrace them, and learn from them.
The fashion business is based upon the premise of constant change and, whilst this is, in part, our reason for being, it’s also one of the major challenges. We have to be constantly living in the future and pre-empting and managing changes that are out of our control.
You’ve previously described your brand as niche and boutique even though it’s a global operation, how do you maintain that personal connection with your customers?
I visit stores that sell our things often and I love to meet and chat to customers and fans wherever and whenever I can.
Your first retail store opened in 1995 in Newmarket, what has been the most disruptive change in fashion retail for your brand since then and how have you evolved your business to manage it?
Well the digital revolution has, of course, disrupted every industry, not least the fashion industry. We’ve evolved with that revolution in two main ways: having a .com presence, naturally, and changing our mindset around physical retail so we think of it as a place our customers come to for memorable experiences, rather than just to buy clothes.
Technology continues to change at a rapid pace, how do you decide what technology to adapt into your business and how has your outlook on it evolved in relation to fashion?
Yes, technology does change on a continuous basis and we aim to be up-to-date, open-minded and very nimble. If you’re static in the face of technology you’ve no future.
Karen Walker in the campaign for her Transformers eyewear collection in February 2017. Images supplied.
Among the many changes in fashion has been the changing role of fashion weeks, how have you changed your approach to runway shows as a brand and where do you see the future of fashion weeks?
Fashion weeks still have a future but probably more so as social events than revelations on a season’s new looks and trends. Our approach to fashion weeks has changed. Technology has allowed us to move away from the fashion show model first set in place over 70 years ago and reveal our work in a totally different way. You can now have millions of people in your front row. You don’t need to worry about the seating plan if you don’t want to.
There has been an increasing awareness from consumers and the industry about the issues around creating fashion ethically and sustainably which you address in a detailed page on your website in relation to your brand. What factors do you take into account when you personally shop from other brands?
I still get very excited by fashion but I am a very mindful consumer at the same time. The most important things I consider are how well designed and made an item is. Will I want this in a year or two or three or ten? Will it still be in usable condition? I’m not interested in things that will be undesirable or unwearable in no time.
How would you describe your personal style and how does it influence your designs and collaborations?
Chic-meets-eccentric. It goes through everything I do, professionally and personally.
Out of the many collaborations you’ve done as a brand, which ones stick in your mind as favourites and why?
We’ve loved all our colabs, and many of our collaborative partners we’ve worked with several times; The Caker, An Organised Life and Blunt for instance. I never do a collab unless I’m 100% in love with the brand and the idea so I can’t pick one stand out but certainly working with brands like Uniqlo, Sephora and three big ones to be revealed in the next couple of months have been thrilling experiences, as have working with less well known brands like Hedleys Books or Storm & India.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received that you keep referring back to as a designer?
Only work with people who get it.
Karen Walker, 2018. Image supplied.
There are many facets to being a good designer but the strength of your ideas and how you deliver them shapes a brand. What factors play into your decisions to turn your ideas into reality?
You just feel it if it’s good and we’re never afraid to push back if it’s not good. In short, we have to love it.
Speaking of ideas, your husband Mikhail Gherman is also your business partner and creative director, how does your professional relationship work and how do you separate your personal life together?
We both know our roles very clearly and if we stick within those and listen to one another all is happy and peaceful! Separating personal life? Well, that’s a trickier one as anyone running their own business will tell you. It doesn’t stop at 5.00pm. However, we’re respectful of one-another if one of us does or doesn’t want to bring work into the house.
Also on the topic of family, what items from the last 30 years are you saving for your daughter Valentina?
I archive very little actually. I’m too much of a minimalist for that.
Looking to the future, how far ahead do you plan and what makes you excited about the future?
For ready-to-wear we start working on a range about 12 months before it goes into store. For eyewear, it’s about 24 months. For jewellery, it can take up to 18 months. Fragrance easily takes 18 to 24 months from first thoughts to in-store date. What makes me excited about the future, is coming up with good ideas and seeing them come to reality.