Recession ‘edits’ out the non-performers: Karen Walker

22:38, Oct 12 2009

Karen Walker admits we’re in a recession. But given sales across all areas of the fashion designer’s business were up 35 percent last year, she uses another, more Darwinian term to describe the current economic climate: “It’s also an edit,” she says.

Yes, people are spending and shopping less. But they're also choosing carefully where they shop, and are continuing to spend on "brands that deliver the most exciting product and the most exciting experience", according to Walker.

"Recessions edit out the stuff that's not up to scratch and sometimes strengthen the brands that are delivering something good."

As one of a number of creative megabrands and talents collaborating on a grand retail venture opening in Auckland's Takapuna mid-October, Walker will no doubt be hoping her 'survival of the fittest' theory further bears out, and that there will be even greater strength in numbers.

Walker describes The Department Store as "a modern take on the traditional department store experience. Instead of breadmakers and knickers we're going to offer three floors of modern luxury".

George Courts it ain't. Walker reels off a list of international temples of retail cool in a similar vein - Colette in Paris, Dover St Market in London, 10 Corso Como in Milan, Seoul and Tokyo. They're the kinds
of places that not only look like art galleries but where you'll probably pick up some art, along with hip furniture, homewares, and beauty products to go with your edgy designer duds.

The Department Store is housed in the old Takapuna Post Office on Northcroft Street, a building now jointly owned by developer Dave Donaldson, of Maidstone Properties, and son.

Donaldson says he was approached by North Shore City Council strategic planner for Takapuna Catherine Edmeades at the beginning of the year about promoting the building as part of a fashion centre for Takapuna.

The primary retail catchment for Takapuna spans from Devonport in the south to Mairangi Bay in the north, says Edmeades, but the council's research shows Takapuna is only capturing about 6 percent of the spend in that catchment.

Edmeades hopes The Department Store will help boost those numbers and attract other fashion businesses into the area.

"They're a really, really wealthy population," she says. "All the consultation that we've been doing has indicated there are a whole lot of people there that are absolutely willing to spend their money in Takapuna if there was something there to spend their money on."

Donaldson talked to his long-term tenant Karen Walker about the idea (the designer's Ponsonby HQ is based in one of his buildings). Walker, along with her husband and business partner Mikhail Gherman, ran with it.

"We started thinking about what it would take to create a little neighbourhood of interesting stores sitting parallel to Takapuna," says Walker.

"Mikhail and I put together a list of people we thought would sit well next to us in creating this mini-neighbourhood and we ran it by the two at the top of the list: Stephen and Lucy Marr, and Dan Gosling from Black Box boutique. They got it straight away," she explains.

"Once the three of us were on board, we thought, why not take it to the next level by making it seamless."
Walker says The Department Store will operate similarly to many other department stores, with a number of brands running their own operations under one roof "but coming together to present a single idea above that".

The ground floor will house the Karen Walker label and selected brands from Black Box, and will feature a 'pop up' retail space, in which offerings will constantly change. Art gallerist Michael Lett and furniture designer Simon James will also have a presence in the store, which has interiors courtesy of stylist-slash-interior designer Katie Lockhart.

The Marrs are "heavily invested in the project", says Lucy Marr, with their business taking up 60 percent of the store's total space. They'll have a beauty products bar on the ground floor, a luxury beauty salon occupying the first floor, and Auckland's third Stephen Marr hair salon on the second. The language Marr uses emphasises the gallery association, describing some of the store spaces as "highly curated".

"For us it is great to collaborate with creative individuals," says Marr, a long-time Walker collaborator, "but this is hugely enhanced when you both share a passion for having those creative concepts translate from a business point of view - we both really enjoy the challenge of the creative front and the business back-end."

And, like Walker, Marr says out of economic crisis comes opportunity for some.

"We have always been a firm believer in always doing the opposite to the convention, and the recession has been an opportunity to focus on innovation and fresh ideas."