How Karen Walker built an em­pire

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Karen Walker started her fash­ion brand 30 years ago with just $100. She was 18 and mak­ing a shirt for a friend, who was in a band, to wear on stage when the task un­ex­pect­edly turned into a com­mer­cial op­er­a­tion.

“It was a re­ally clas­sic slightly 70s-style shirt, pointy col­lar. He wore it and other peo­ple saw it, liked it and asked me to make them shirts — it grew from there,” an as­sertive Walker, now aged 49, says.

“I didn’t start on day one with a vi­sion of what it would look like in 30 years. It started more as a re­ac­tion, which is how a lot of brands start.”

When she was work­ing to­wards her fash­ion de­gree, Walker says there were no brands or re­tail­ers she wanted to work for, or who sold clothes she wanted to wear, so she de­cided to do it her­self.

These days, with years of busi­ness un­der her belt and prod­uct ranges now in­clud­ing jew­ellery, sun­glasses, home­ware, bags, and fra­grance, Walker is now fo­cused on col­lab­o­ra­tions with other bou­tique or high­end brands.

Her name­sake fash­ion brand has al­ready been in­volved in part­ner­ships with Dis­ney, Adi­das, and New Zealand’s own Blunt Um­brel­las, to name a few.

So far she hasn’t had to ap­proach any to col­lab. They’ve all come to her.

Dis­ney, ar­guably one of the big­gest brands in the world, is the most re­cent to part­ner with Karen Walker, in con­junc­tion with the iconic mouse’s 90th birth­day.

Work on the col­lab be­gan in Oc­to­ber 2017. She al­ready has the next five lined up — some of which will branch into new re­tail cat­e­gories.

Karen Walker has five bricks and mor­tar stores in New Zealand — four in Auckland, one in Wellington, one in Tokyo, and is stocked in two depart­ment stores. It also has more than 1000 stockists through­out the world. That’s enough stores, Walker says.

The brand is so widely known, reach­ing mar­kets across all sides of the world, that it is easy to mis­take its pop­u­lar­ity with size. It seems big­ger than it is.

Walker is quick to point out that Karen Walker is still bou­tique.

Asked about what her plans are for ex­pan­sion, she says there are none.

“I don’t want 10 more stores. I’m happy with what I’ve got and I just want to make them bet­ter,” says Walker. “I don’t think we’ve ever been in ex­pan­sion mode.

“My mo­ti­va­tion is mak­ing great prod­ucts, giv­ing great ex­pe­ri­ences and telling fan­tas­tic sto­ries. I don’t have some­one telling me we need 10 per cent ebitda this year, and I’m per­fectly happy with the money I’m mak­ing.

“Ob­vi­ously it has to be prof­itable, and it al­ways is, but that’s not what gets me up in the morn­ing.”

In 1999, af­ter 10 years of mak­ing cloth­ing, the brand grew into other ar­eas. It be­gan re­leas­ing jew­ellery 17 years ago, eye­wear is in its 13th year.

While Walker won’t say which cat­e­gory brings in the most money, the brand’s top five mar­kets are the United States, United King­dom, Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

Walker was 23 when she opened the first re­tail store in Auckland’s New­mar­ket — the brand’s flag­ship.

“I had a lit­tle range I was sell­ing to other stores and then I saw that they were de­vel­op­ing an old hos­pi­tal laun­dry in New­mar­ket. I thought it would be a great spot for a shop,” she says.

“There was re­ally not much there at all but I re­ally liked the bones of the build­ing. I liked the lo­ca­tion and thought we had a point of view and that we al­ready had an au­di­ence, so we scrapped to­gether $10,000 for the fitout and did it our­selves.”

Twenty five years later, the store is still there al­beit big­ger now fol­low­ing its amal­ga­ma­tion into the shop space next door.

“What ex­cites me is great de­sign no mat­ter what area it’s in . . . it doesn’t mat­ter if it’s a dress or a piece of jew­ellery, eye­wear or an um­brella [that it cre­ates].

“As a de­signer we work in the world of fash­ion and fash­ion can ap­ply to any­thing.”

Walker tends to work two years in ad­vance on jew­ellery and fra­grance. She is cur­rently de­sign­ing clothes which will go into stores in Jan­uary 2020.

Most sales come from brick and mor­tar stores, Walker says, ad­ding that its online store was just as im­por­tant. “Online is ob­vi­ous ex­tremely good — it’s the one with no ceil­ing and where you can talk to any­body in the world.

“Those cus­tomers can also en­gage with any brand they like. Yes, you’ve got a big­ger au­di­ence but that au­di­ence can shop any­where they want,” says Walker.

“You have to re­ally do a dance and put your best foot for­ward in that area as well.”

So what does Karen Walker put her suc­cess down to? Hard work, a good team, talent, luck, cre­ativ­ity, open to pos­si­bil­i­ties.

“I couldn’t repli­cate it. Put me in a time ma­chine back 30 years, I couldn’t do it again and I don’t know how I did it,” Walker says, laugh­ing.

Most of her time is spent in the Auckland de­sign room and in meet­ings. Though she tries to be in the stores at least once a week for an hour or so.

“You learn more from be­ing in a store than you do read­ing a spread­sheet.”

Walker took 53 flights last year, and re­cently re­turned to New Zealand af­ter three months of con­tin­u­ous travel. She was in the States for her Madewell launch and meet­ings about the Dis­ney col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Late last year she was in China and she’s had var­i­ous com­mit­ments around re­gional New Zealand. Her last two trips of the year were to Aus­tralia.

Walker says a stand-out mo­ment in her ca­reer was when for­mer US First Lady Michelle Obama wore the brand’s dou­ble­denim suit. “That was a pinch-me mo­ment. “It was a Fri­day af­ter­noon, the shots came out on Getty at 2.30pm, she was wear­ing a denim jacket and denim pants dur­ing her book tour and at that point I said: ‘I have noth­ing more to give to­day, noth­ing’s go­ing to get bet­ter than that — I’m go­ing to go home, friends are com­ing round and we’re go­ing to drink cham­pagne’. “When Michelle Obama wears your prod­uct . . . my job is done for that day.” And so she went home to bask in that mo­ment. In ad­di­tion to Obama, the brand has also been worn — mul­ti­ple times — by the Duchess of Sus­sex, Meghan Markle. Dur­ing the Duke and Duchess’s royal en­gage­ment Down Un­der and in the Pa­cific in Oc­to­ber, Markle was spot­ted wear­ing Karen Walker prod­ucts on many oc­ca­sions. She wore sun­glasses from the brand, ear­rings, and a $975 trench coat, which sent sales of the items sky­rock­et­ing. Walker has been to Buck­ing­ham Palace and met the Queen, and the Duchess of Cam­bridge, Cather­ine Mid­dle­ton, but she is yet to see the mum-of-three, or Britain’s most well-known grand­mother, don her ap­parel.

“You can’t con­trol any­body wear­ing your out­fit . . . and when they do, like Michelle Obama, or LeBron James who wears our glasses, or J-Lo who fea­tured a pair of our glasses in her lat­est video, [it is pretty spe­cial].”

You’ll never see Karen Walker prod­ucts on sale — at least not in a dis­count bin out­side a store. That’s not the ex­pe­ri­ence, the brand is striv­ing for.

Walker says the brand is all about cre­at­ing mem­o­rable store ex­pe­ri­ences, dif­fer­ent from the rest.

“Peo­ple do their re­search be­fore they come into the store a lot of the time. Some­thing like 80 per cent of peo­ple have al­ready searched the prod­uct be­fore they come into the store so they’re not com­ing in to learn about the prod­ucts.

“Some­times they even know more about the prod­ucts than the peo­ple work­ing in the store — so when they come in it be­comes about the ex­pe­ri­ence of com­ing into con­tact with that prod­uct for the first time.”

Af­ter 30 years in busi­ness and 25 years in re­tail her learned rule of the in­dus­try — “Don’t get peo­ple ex­cited un­til they can come into the store.”

When Michelle Obama wears your prod­uct . . . my job is done for that day. That was a pinch me mo­ment.

Photo / Leon Men­zies

Karen Walker has built a global brand that is now favoured by some of the world’s most fa­mous peo­ple.

Photo / Getty Im­ages

Karen Walker says Michelle Obama (left) rock­ing her brand — Temp­ta­tion Blazer and Orig­i­nal Sin Flares — was a sur­real mo­ment.

Karen Walker and daugh­ter Valentina.


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