Karen Walker

On the eve of a new collection, the indie lass invites us into her studio. By Gabriel Bell
karenwalker_portraitinstoryListen to what they've been saying about Karen Walker. Admirers don't call the New Zealand designer "fabulous." They don't use terms like "cutting edge," "radical," or "sexy" either. Indeed, when Bryant Park's favorite indie lass from Down Under comes up, those who know her florid, smart, confidently feminine work simply widen their eyes. "Karen Walker," they say. "I love her."
For nine years, during which she has presented in Australia, London, and New York, Walker has been inspiring such deeply personal reactions. Free of pretension and stocked with grace, history, and humor, Walker's collections don't seem to draw from any single aesthetic or even forward a consistent personality. Indeed, Walker tends to hide her role as creator behind character-focused themes and narratives. And yet, her spirit is there in all that she does—warm, modern, and fully realized. Even though Walker continues to grow artistically and commercially, there is something complete about her highly wearable tweed jackets, printed dresses, and colorful embellishments. Though each garment and each season surprises, one can't help but feel that these are clothes made for you from a friend you already know.
Recently, we chatted with Walker about how she cultivates her cult following, how she builds her collections, and how she relies on a multitude of viewpoints to create her uncommonly likable designs.
You're two seasons into presenting your clothes in the American market. Has your work changed since your arrival at Bryant Park?
I would say it's a little bit slicker, chicer, and a bit more classical. But it's not a shift in handwriting. I think it's more something that comes with experience and the maturing of the label.
The label is, what, a decade old?
We've shown eight seasons in London, so that's four years, and the year now showing in New York, and before that we were presenting collections, so I think it must be about nine years.
Karen Walker spring/summer 2007 collection
Nine years—and yet the brand seems so fresh.
Well, we've never rushed our growth. Slowly and with sincerity, season upon season, we've just kept up this conversation with the people who get it—the tribe.
The tribe?
When people say to me, 'What's your marketing strategy,' I just say, 'it's P.L.U.,' which stands for 'People Like Us.' I'm really only interested in talking to people like us. When somebody doesn't get it within the first three seconds, I just assume they don't need to get it and we move on.
So, it's sort of reverse branding?
I think that's what we've done differently. It's hard work, but it's also working with and for people you like, so it's not hard work. Now it means slow growth, but it also means that everybody on the team gets what we do and wants to be involved.
And you have this very nuclear team, right? I know your husband, Mikhail Gherman, designs some of those amazing prints for you.
More than that, Mikhail's role within the company is something of a Creative Directorship. He kind of has a vision of everything—the apparel, the design, the music in the shows, the advertising, the shoots. We also work together on sweating out the garments, sweating out, right down to what sort of fabrications we're using and whether a shirt should have four or five buttons. It's collaborative from start to finish.
You tend to focus on strong show themes, Land Girls for last spring/summer and super-heroines just this past winter. Which comes first, the look or the clothes?
When we're designing, we're thinking about how the whole silhouette, about what goes with what, and what the outfit is going to look like, and we share that with Heather [stylist Heathermary Jackson]. But, of course, at a certain point you get down to the garment. Ultimately, when we get to New York, we put the clothes on three or four racks—tops, bottoms, coats—with no outfits put together. Then Heather comes in and starts from a clean slate. I want her to find a totally fresh look. Only at the point when she's got her outfits together do I make adjustments.
Karen Walker fall/winter 2007 collection
Can you take us through the process?
Actually, we just had our first meeting for the new season this last Saturday—a phone conference about the September show and what we're feeling, what's the general mood, and what do we want to be doing. From there, we'll have phone conferences every week or two, email drawings, photos, and inspiration back and forth for about the next few months. Ultimately, we'll meet in New York in September and she'll style the show.
And have you found your next character?
We're working with a few things, but any ideas would still be gratefully accepted!
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On the eve of a new collection, the indie lass invites us into her studio.

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