Women of Influence
Karen Walker glides into her headquarters like a gazelle, long lithe legs encased in gorgeous velvet blue Isabel Marant knee high boots beneath black woollen tights. Wearing a navy, almost black, cashmere polo neck and blue skirt, the Peter Jackson of the fashion industry beams a white smile that lights up her face, and her eyes dazzle like inky, blue gems.
The Karen Walker empire is a two storey nondescript building a stone's throw from Ponsonby Road, a modern space with ply walls, where press and sales representatives are shown samples of the designer's many collections.
Walker's partner, Mikhail Gherman, the brand's creative director, is reading a newspaper which is laid over glass cabinets holding Karen Walker jewellery - gems glow under the glass, diamonds dazzle, and gold necklaces, cuffs, her famous runway necklace, and rings are displayed beneath.
Leather bags from her collaboration with Benah are displayed, while behind a sliding door hang racks of new collections for her next ranges, shown at New York Fashion Week recently, along with Top Shop sample garments.
Starting out aged 22 with a couple of shirts she designed, Walker has been in the game for more than two decades now, and her contribution was recently recognised when she was made a Companion of the Order of Merit in the New Years honours.
Intensely private, I had heard that she was difficult to interview, frosty even, and doesn't give interviews freely. For a start, she's flat out busy, on a plane every 10 days, such a frequent flier that she has gold or platinum status with the airlines she flies with. Not long after we meet, she's off to Seoul to meet some of the 200 stores, "doors" as she calls them, that stock her collections.
With Gherman, the couple are possibly the New Zealand fashion industry's most powerful couple. They live 10 minutes away from their head office with their six-year-old daughter. Each morning, when she's in the country, Walker drops her daughter to school. Of course, her daughter has an impressive wardrobe for a child but she also styles herself.
"As long as she goes off warm, that's all you worry about," smiles Walker.
Sitting at a ply table in the front part of the room, light streaming in through large windows overlooking their street, Walker sips tea she pours from a white, porcelain pot. Each year, the duo have a project on the go, and this year, it's the opening of Top Shop, on Queen Street, a collaboration with Barkers menswear, which is keeping them busy.
Walker has a Top Shop store within a store in shops in Wellington, Britomart, Auckland, and The Department Store, in Takapuna.
Under the deal, she has formed a company with Barkers, and rich-lister Philip Carter, which will run the store and others to come.
She won't promise an opening date, but Gherman mentions November.
Sited in an old bank building, the old bank vaults in the basement will be used as a store room, while Top Shop will float over two floors above it. There are plans for a VIP shopping area.
"We're working through the stages of what we will stock," she says.
Under the plans, other centres will also have a Top Shop.
"It would be good if Wellington was next. It's just finding the right space, though, as we need at least 800 square metres," she says, pulling a gold hairclip out of her hair, which is spiky on top, and cut tight on one side, showing impressively angular cheekbones.
She bought the clip in New York during a trip there. For a designer with a coveted jewellery collection, she doesn't wear much herself today, just a pair of $179 daisy studs and a simple gold wedding band.
Is Top Shop her year's big project, then? "There is another one that will reveal itself later," she says, "and that's exciting, too."
Talking slowly, carefully, but so much that I'm on to my second notepad, Walker talks about her passion for creating new ideas and new experiences. Top Shop is decided by the London head office, right down to the stock and the fit-out. The Queen Street store, spreading over more than 1000 metres, could be in London, Los Angeles, or New York.
The thing that makes it different from other chain stores, she says, is that Top Shop is the only high street brand to have catwalk shows, and it collaborates with celebrities like Kate Moss, so that lifts the game for everyone.
The stock and designs are impressive, she says, such as Ham's tweed suits with beautiful suiting which men can snap up for just $350.
"Top Shop's making is amazing and it's also presented so well."
She also reflects that in the time that she has been a fashion designer, she has noticed the new trend for people to shop "high and low".
"It's not about being head to toe in a brand any more. The other day I was wearing Acne jeans, gorgeous Top Shop boots, and woolly socks, a Dries van Noten sweater and a vintage bag. Fashion is so fluid these days.
"It's the accessibility of these brands now. The big shift I've noticed in fashion in the last decade, in the magazines, and so on, is that it's so much about the blending of tiers and being given permission to mix."
While online shopping has made some retailers scream with pain, Walker is a fan. She buys clothes online, and internet shopping has helped spread the Karen Walker brand here and around the globe. In New Zealand, she has noticed a spike in sales at about 8pm each night, in what she calls the "second glass of chardonnay hour".
"Online has changed when and how people shop. As designers, it means that we are competing against every single brand in the world, which 20 years ago wasn't the case. I'm competing against Prada," she says.
There's a delight in online shopping, boxes arriving on the doorstep, and she shops that way, too. Pulling up her boots, she tells me that her husband bought them online, through Net-a-Porter. They were in bed one night on their laptops. Walker wanted to go to sleep but he found the last pair, in her size, and wham, they bought them.
Overseas, her brand is most visible through her sunglasses and eyewear.
Fetching NZ$329 upwards, they're a celebrity favourite. On her website, Scarlett Johanssen, Heidi Klum, Olivia Wilde, and others, are featured wearing her Number One and Blue Moon frames, among others. She's collaborated with the United Nations' International Trade Centre's Ethical Fashion Initiative to produce pouches made by Kenyan artists for the glasses and some star in her eye-catching advertising campaign.
"Our eyewear has a large celebrity following. Every week we're sent some email about someone wearing it. Our eyewear is also available in the key markets of New York, Los Angeles and London," she says.
Her eyewear designs are also most likely to be ripped off by manufacturers in China, and each year, the company devotes considerable time and resources to raiding factories to stop the counterfeit operation. "We invest a lot of money into arranging, and destroying and trying to stop it. It is unstoppable, but we are prepared to spend money fighting it," she says.
One of the pluses of Karen Walker, she says, is that anyone can afford a piece. In her stores, prices start at $10, up to the top price for a diamond ring at $50,000. Releasing six to 10 new pieces of costume jewellery each month, she says: "No matter the price or your budget, you can love (something from our collection) and enjoy it. You can have a luxury boutique experience even if you're only buying a keyring for $10."
It's important to Walker that her fashion store doesn't boast racks jammed with clothes - she personally hates that - and that the collections are ever-changing, with new drops regularly hitting shops. "Gone are the days of a collection going in in February and not changing until August. Those days are gone. Retail has to be a 360 degree experience."
To relax from her hectic schedule - more collaborations are in the pipeline - Walker practises yoga, which she has been doing for 15 years and loves.
She also likes to cook. "I like to send everyone away, turn the music on, and cook. I love the break from chatter," she says, taking another sip of tea.
- The Dominion Post
Do you think there should be more paid parental leave time?Related story: Call to means test paid parental leave