How Karen Walker built an empire
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.
Karen Walker has built a global brand that is now favoured by some of the world’s most famous people.
Karen Walker says Michelle Obama (left) rocking her brand — Temptation Blazer and Original Sin Flares — was a surreal moment.
Karen Walker and daughter Valentina.