48. Karen Walker
In early 2014, New Zealand-based designer Karen Walker became the second Australasian designer to partner with the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative after sass & bide. Thousands of eyewear pouches were created with Kenyan artisans to house Karen Walker Eyewear in the global retail market. Grant Fell asks Karen about her partnership with the ITC EFI; what it means to her, how it works and where is it going. He also talks with Karen Walker accessories designer Jade Leigh Kelly who travelled to Kenya during production of the pouches to shoot the highly ‘Visible’ campaign with Derek Henderson and the artisans at Waithaka. Photos: Derek Henderson and ITC EFI
Grant Fell: Karen, when did you first learn of the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative? Karen Walker: We’ve been following the EFI and its work since it launched in 2009 and in 2012 we worked with them to create a bag that was sold throughout Myer stores in Australia. We were thrilled with how the bag looked and so following on from that, in mid 2013, when Simone Cipriani and I were both speaking at the Bespoke conference at the Sydney Opera House we discussed the idea of working with his team in this bigger way. What was it about the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative and their work that appealed to you? We always look for how we can challenge the way things are done, from the product design to the way a product is produced and marketed. This project has given us an opportunity to create a new kind of product (our wearable pouches that come with every pair of new season eyewear) that was not possible with our traditional channels. The EFI understand the luxury market and they understand that designers and customers are looking for unique points of difference all the time. It also allowed us to collaborate from the point of product design right through to partnering with the community on the images. This allowed us to create visibility for the community and the EFI. The most important thing though is the fact that the project’s allowed us and our customers to make a difference. Additionally, because the EFI is part of the UN, we had absolute trust that there would be honesty and transparency throughout the project and it’s been thrilling to see the reports around the impact that this project has had on the community. The idea of giving people a way out of poverty through fair pay and dignified work is what initially drew us to the idea and why we’re going to continue to work with the EFI from now on. Before partnering with them did you research them, their model and how you would fit in – a little due-diligence as it were? Yes, we did a lot of research about them and asked a lot of questions. We had a long-standing relationship with one of the people on the EFI team so had a lot of trust in them because of that and also, of course, the fact that Myer were working with them and had done all their due-diligence also gave us a great deal of confidence. Plus, the fact that they’re under the umbrella of the UN gave us great confidence. When did you first meet or communicate with Simone Cipriani? I first met Simone when we were both on the bill at the Bespoke Conference in Sydney in mid 2013. I was immediately spellbound. He’s an incredible man and a wonderful communicator. Tell us about the initial stages of the Karen Walker Eyewear Visible project, how did you get it under way in a design and creative sense? The eyewear design process began before the campaign but we worked on the pouches with the EFI. Simplicity was very important, keeping in mind a short turnaround time and what skills and materials were most available within the community we were working with. In addition, we released more complex and detailed pouches that were also created by the EFI’s artisans, featuring beading and tasseling by the Maasai artisans, that people may purchase in addition to the simple one included with
Winnie Wangari, production supervisor at Ethical Fashion Africa shot for Karen Walker Eyewear campaign by Derek Henderson
every pair bought. As a designer partner to the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative how does the business side of it work? How do you provide work for the artisans? The EFI connects designers with some of the world’s most marginalised artisans. In everything it does, the Ethical Fashion Initiative develops local creativity, fosters predominantly female employment and empowerment, promotes gender equality to reduce extreme poverty and increases the export capacities of the regions in which it operates. The Karen Walker partnership with the EFI has had a real and measurable impact on community groups of artisans in Kenya. For example, the Impact Assessment report from the United Nations’ International Trade Centre revealed that to date, the work created for Karen Walker has allowed 153 previously unskilled people to gain skills. To complete the orders, the artisans involved took part in various trainings on business practices, customer relationships and quality control. These trainings yield a wider impact in terms of building entrepreneurial spirit and an increase in confidence, pride and satisfaction levels within the community. The work for Karen Walker has allowed the income for most workers to increase by over 40%. The income earned was also used to support education and contributed towards sustaining decent living environments and access to health services. Despite 3.6% inflation, 38% of the population surveyed indicated they were able to save. 62% of the artisans involved advised that the income from the work created for Karen Walker provided a means to address pressing household needs such as education, housing, health and nutrition. How different was this relationship from your existing supplier relationships? It’s not very different really. We still start with finding out what skills and materials the supplier is best able to provide and then we design with that in mind. Designs are created in our design room and CADs (Computer Aided Designs) emailed. Samples are created and photos emailed then product couriered to us, comments made, counter-samples seen and signed off. The same process we work to with all our suppliers, but just working with different skills, materials and out of a different place. Do you know how many artisans in total were working on your project? 170. You chose to build a campaign around this project, sending Karen Walker’s Jade Leigh Kelly and photographer Derek Henderson to Kenya to shoot your product on the people of the region. The campaign was highly ‘visible’ for both Karen Walker and the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, did that process bring you closer to the project overall? We wanted to expand on the project by presenting not only the pouches created for us, but also something more intimate - a glimpse into the world that the work is coming from. The people we photographed included machinists, cutters, tailors, beaders, production managers and metal workers as well as members of the Maasai group who create the more elaborate beading work. None of them are professional models. Karen Walker Eyewear has always had an optimistic outlook and has always been about standing out from the crowd. This campaign captures both this innate optimism and love of maximum-impact in the images themselves and also the way in which they direct our attention to this part of the world and the work being done there. In short, the images
“The work for Karen Walker has allowed the income for most workers to increase by over 40%. The income earned was also used to support education and contributed towards sustaining decent living environments and access to health services”
help to bring visibility to this place, these people and the work of the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Explain how the pouches created by the artisans, the work as such, was applied to the Karen Walker brand. Where did they go? The simple, screen-printed pouches come with every pair of Karen Walker Eyewear from the Summer 2014 season and, in addition, more elaborate and embellished versions were available to buy separately. Have you had feedback from customers about the pouches? The feedback has been overwhelming. People have appreciated what the project’s all about and love the product. They also really love the images. I know you have a few other projects on the boil with the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, can you tell us about them yet? We’re continuing to work with them on other products but working with the same team and the same skills and materials – new designs though. We’re expecting to get the next story into market mid 2015 followed by another story late 2015. In a few words, describe your relationship to date with Simone, Chloé and the ITC EFI. We have a rule that we only work with people we’d want to have dinner with and I’ve had many dinners with this team – Tokyo, New York, Sydney, and more. They’re wonderful people whom I respect and appreciate having in my life.
Grant Fell: When did you first learn of the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative? Jade Leigh Kelly: Prior to working with the EFI, I had been a fan of the work they were doing with other designers over the past five years. Had you been to Africa before flying in to oversee the campaign shoot with Derek? No. I hadn’t been to Africa before but it had always been on the list of places I’d love to go. As a child I was fascinated with Africa, its animals and landscape so this trip was truly a dream come true. Tell us about the first day, did you land in Nairobi and then drive to Waithaka? We landed in Nairobi late afternoon to what felt like a makeshift airport due to the recent fire they’d had. As we left the airport building we walked into the hot dusty haze where our lovely driver Cyrus greeted us with a big smile.
The drive from the airport to the hotel took over an hour; there were so many cars and lots of roadwork going on so we were idle in traffic for a lot of the time. It was probably one of the most interesting traffic jams I have been stuck in. People were walking through the cars and up to windows trying to sell all kinds of things, from nuts and leather bags to necklaces and towels. We did well to resist but then we came across one young boy who had the most adorable face and was very persistent with his plea for us to buy from him. Our driver Cyrus advised us not to buy anything as it encourages parents to send their children out to work rather than school, but rightly or wrongly we crumbled. We bought a bag of nuts. Was Chloe or someone from the ITC EFI there or perhaps someone from the Hub there to help with things like translation? Most of the people we were working with spoke some level of English so we didn’t really need much translating. It was only when we went to visit the Maasai beaders at their manyatta (settlement) that we needed some assistance talking with Kappoka and Rason who are the elders in our campaign. The kids were more that happy to help, they were fascinated with talking to us. Chloé from the EFI and Cyrus our driver was with us the entire trip so we always had assistance with translation. What did you eat? The food was great and all very familiar, lots of fresh fruit and veges. Describe your first meeting with the artisans? I first met the artisans working on our product during our tour of the EFI artisan Hub. Arriving at the hub, there was a lot to take in, people out and about working on different things and lots of art and murals on the sides of the buildings. Jeremy and Lisa from the EFI, who we had been working closely with on the Karen Walker pouches, greeted us at the doors of the hub and showed us around the workshops. Derek and I were welcomed by song; all the workers stood and sang a welcome. It was amazing! We weren’t expecting it and it felt like a joyful celebration that we were there. They did the same when we left, with a song thanking us for providing them with work. There was a real sense of pride and gratitude about the work that they do. I enjoyed getting to know some of the artisans more closely. Winnie, a supervisor of embroiderers at the hub (and also one of the stars of our eyewear campaign) has worked with the EFI since 2009 and has been able to send her brother to school and improve living conditions for her family. The other women also expressed how working with the EFI has helped them gain more confidence and new skills. Did you spend time with them while they were actually making the pouches, did you check their production set-up? Yes, I got to see how all the work comes together and meet many of the artisans working on our order. I was impressed with the set-up - they had different areas for various parts of the production, from machine sewing, hand painting, screen-printing to pressing and packing. It was
“Derek and I were welcomed by song; all the workers stood and sang a welcome. It was amazing! We weren’t expecting it and it felt like a joyful celebration that we were there”
such a pleasure to meet and talk to the artisans working on our pouches. They take such care and pride in their craft. Not all aspects of sampling and production are done at the EFI Hub. The EFI do a great job of taking work to the community. For example, the beading on our more intricate pouches were done by the Maasai beaders at their manyatta before the goods head back to the hub for finishing. Did they like having their photos taken in the KWE sunnies? I loved how keen the artisans were to be included in our campaign. They were some of the best talent we’ve worked with. Some were shyer than others but they were amazing and had a great time being photographed by Derek. I think this really shows through in our campaign images. I heard your truck got stuck in the mud, can you tell us about that? Oh the van! It certainly did bring unexpected twists and turns to the adventure. We actually broke down twice. The first time was when we were driving to one of the metal workshops where a group of artisans were being trained. The workshop was on a farm so we had to drive through fields but it had been pouring with rain the last few days so the land had turned to sludge. Our driver was a pro, I couldn’t believe we got as far as we did in our rickety old van in such messy and bumpy conditions, but, alas, our luck ran out and we began to slip and slide until we got stuck in the mud. Luckily all these men just appeared from what felt like nowhere, some young, some old and some barefoot. They began to push, rock and shake the van until we became unstuck! After the rescue, our heroes asked what we were doing and were then keen to try on the sunglasses so we took a few snaps. It actually turned out to be one of my highlights of the trip, they were really funny and loved playing up for the camera. The second time we broke down was in Nairobi National Park when we were trying to find our way out as it was getting near to closing time. We had to cross a part of the road that had pretty much turned into a river due to the rains, we got through it and then the van conked out! There was no one around and it was starting to get dark. The last living thing we saw was a massive buffalo, which was just around the corner, I found the whole situation hilarious, I just couldn’t believe what was happening. We had no option but to get out of the van and push in the pouring rain. Cyrus and Derek were trying to start the van up whilst pushing from the front and Chloe and I were at the back giving it all we had between fits of laughter. It wasn’t until we’d picked up some pace and were running with the van that it actually started. We did a big cheer and a merry dance, got in and got out!! What is your lasting memory of the trip, what was special about it? I found the trip very emotional and inspiring. I left with such a massive sense of pride that we were a part of this amazing organisation that’s making such an improvement to the lives of so many.
for the Karen Walker Eyewear campaign by Derek Henderson
Opposite: Every eyewear pouch was screen-printed by hand. Here, drying printed canvas at Ethical Fashion Africa at the Godown Arts Centre, Nairobi. Above: Karen Walker’s Jade Leigh Kelly getting some help from the locals
Screen printed Karen Walker rabbit logos drying in Nairobi
Screen printing is a labour-intensive activity, entirely manual, which provides much needed work to the artisan communities involved in the project.
Top: Michael Ochola Owino working the screen-printing set-up at Waithaka. Above: Elisabeth Awuor Otambo drying the fabric that will become Karen Walker Eyewear pouches
Watch the film: Karen Walker Visible Eyewear campaign