Fashion is about change and reinvention. Everything else – including people – Karen Walker likes to keep for years.
It’s 6.05am in Ponsonby, and Karen Walker is up and out of bed. New Zealand’s biggest fashion designer is early to bed, early to rise, with a regular weekday countdown to 7.30am when daughter Valentina needs to be out the door to catch the school bus.
“There’s always some last minute thing that makes the morning chaotic. And for some reason,” she jokes dryly, “it takes a 10-year-old an hour and a half to get ready.”
It might be difficult to picture the 48-year-old dealing with domestic chaos, but this is the private side of Karen, behind the oversized glasses: the self-assured businesswoman, mother and wife at home.
Her morning ideally goes a little something like this: usually the first one downstairs before her daughter and husband Mikhail Gherman, she’ll brew a pot of her favourite Storm and India Vintage Earl Grey tea.
Breakfast is porridge, thin Vogel’s with peanut butter, or a smoothie. Valentina makes her own breakfast, and she’s encouraged to make her school lunch too.
“On a good day I’ll be sitting at the kitchen bench, having a cup of tea, listening to National Radio, catching up on what’s going on in the world, doing a few emails and keeping an eye on her,” says Karen. “That’s what we aim for.”
Right now, she is sitting in her open-plan kitchen-living area sipping tea, wearing Karen Walker jeans and a grey sweater with sneakers from sustainable brand Veja.
Dog Laika sits at her feet chewing on her toys; the labradoodle joined the family last year, named after the first dog in space (daughter Valentina is named after the first woman).
The family moved into the two-level Ponsonby villa almost 10 years ago, a five-minute walk to the Karen Walker head office. She describes home as “a place of stillness”, with beautiful art, books and a brilliant inner-city garden and pool.
“There are objects in this house that I’ve owned for more than 20 years, and I hope to have for another 20 years. When I buy something for the house, it stays,” says Karen.
“I guess home is an antidote to the ever-changing nature of my work. Although everything we create, I want people to hold onto and have for years, if not decades, the reality is that fashion is about change and reinvention.”
Karen Walker’s business story has been told many times before: the shirt she made with $100 for a friend; the runway shows at London and New York Fashion Weeks; the celebrity fans including Meghan Markle, Rihanna, Yoko Ono, Lorde and Adele; the multi-million-dollar global success of her eyewear line launched in 2005.
The sunglasses, the clothes, the fragrance, the homeware, the paints and the jewellery.
Now, there are several Kiwi fashion success stories – Allbirds, Maggie Marilyn, Lonely lingerie – but Karen built her super brand before Instagram helped smash the traditional barriers of location and trade.
In the past, some designer peers sneered at her press savvy and self-promotion – a hilariously quaint attitude given the world we live in today.
This year, the brand turned 30, and continues to grow. In August, Karen collaborated on a collection with US clothing store Madewell, and there’s another exciting global collaboration coming in November.
But the goal is no longer for the company to be bigger – with success, Karen’s ambitions have changed, and with that has come a contentment she says she may not have had in earlier years. She seems less intense these days, and admits, “I feel a freedom that I’ve never really felt before”.
“There are a lot of things that I was ambitious for. A lot of things that my ambition was driving me towards, that I’ve achieved. Now, I can relax in some areas and focus on others, and hold it a bit more lightly than perhaps I once did.
“The pressure that comes with being ambitious, it’s still there,” she says.
“But it’s not about bigger and bigger, more and more. It’s about the quality of the work in every step: Is the strategy good? Is the idea good? Is that the right rivet to put on those jeans or is that image on Instagram good enough? That is the challenge I face every day. And that’s where my ambition is focused.
“I don’t have anything to prove; with that brings a lightness. I know my voice, and I know what I like and don’t like, and what I stand for.”
At Coronet Peak with daughter Valentina.
She is a bit of a perfectionist. The books displayed in her lounge all have white and blue spines (the rest are in her study; “I don’t only buy books with white spines!” she jokes), and Valentina will tease her neatness by placing the couch cushions side up with zips showing. But as in business, when Karen Walker does something, she does it properly.
A recent undertaking – that’s become an effective stress reliever – was learning to play the piano. For Christmas in 2016 they bought Valentina a touch-sensitive keyboard, but “I got into it way more than she did”.
Over the holidays, she had her phone’s virtual assistant Siri teach her the basics; later asking friend and neighbour Dominic Blaazer – a musician who’s played with The Chills, Don McGlashan, SJD and The Clean – to be her piano teacher.
“I do it as a reset, and it’s meditative for me. If I get an inkling of having made a nice sound from it, which occasionally happens, then that’s beautiful
She tries to play regularly, 10 to 15 minutes each day when nobody’s home. “Often it’s when Valentina’s gone to the bus stop and Mikhail’s taken the dog for a walk – I can unload the laundry, or have 15 minutes with Bach.”
That’s one aspect of Karen’s approach to having balance in her busy life; the things that help her continue to operate at the level she has for so long.
She does three weekly yoga classes with home practice on the other days, and aims to have an hour on the tennis court with her coach each week. Both are great for her mind, body and stress control.
At home, she unwinds by reading, or cooking a nice meal. She loves Doctor Who, and is eagerly awaiting the new series and first female Doctor.
She plays mahjong once a month with a group of friends, and Words with Friends with her global circle.
“I’m on that constantly, way too much; first thing in the morning. I’ve got multiple friends I play with in multiple time zones, so there’s always someone up.”
For Karen, time out and fun is “just really ordinary, simple stuff”.
The designer, pictured at New York Fashion Week in 2016, has been in business for 30 successful years.
Many parts of Karen’s life, of course, are far from ordinary. She runs a multi-million dollar global business, knows influential people, and has travelled the world. When we meet, she’s about to leave for two weeks working in New York, before heading to Canada for her brother-in-law’s wedding.
“That’s one of the great gifts my work has given me – I’ve been able to visit and work in the great cities in the world, frequently,” says Karen. “Then coming back to my hometown, which I love more than anything.”
In June, she travelled to London for a special reception at Buckingham Palace, where she met the Duchess of Cambridge (not yet a Karen Walker eyewear customer, but give it time).
Held in the State Apartment, the event unveiled looks made as part of the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange and was hosted by the Duchess and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. Fashion royalty Anna Wintour, as well as Princess Beatrice were also in attendance.
The project saw designers and artisans from 53 Commonwealth countries partner to create special garments, with Karen as New Zealand’s representative (Stella McCartney represented the UK).
She worked with a group of Cook Islands women, based in Auckland and headed up by 74-year-old Tukua Turia, to create a dress drawing on the traditional Polynesian art of tivaivai [quilting or patches].
Buckingham Palace was extraordinary, says Karen, with gracious hosting.
“You felt like you were being welcomed into a home – which of course, it is. There was a certain amount of formality, but it was actually quite relaxed and inviting. The Duchess was completely like that too. I didn’t have many expectations of what she’d be like, but she was completely charming, engaged and interested.”
But her favourite memory was travelling with Tukua, who hadn’t visited London before.
“The party was good, but the real joy of it was being with this woman, who I had only recently met, and seeing London through her fresh eyes.”
With husband and creative director Mikhail; at Buckingham Palace in June earlier this year.
Karen grew up in Remuera, with two loving parents and brother Nick, who now lives in Scotland. Today, she can see both parents in herself: an effervescent, loud, fun-loving father, “always the loudest voice at the table trying to entertain and keep the party going”, and her mother, who passed away in 2016, “an ice queen; cool, restrained, aloof, quiet”.
You could compare her parents’ successful partnership and unlikely pairing to Karen and Mikhail. He is famously gregarious, while she, in comparison, comes across as more considered and reserved.
Her softer side comes out when she talks about him; they’ve been married for almost 30 years, and he’s been the brand’s creative director since day one. She’s Karen Walker, but together, they’ve built Karen Walker™.
“There’s so much about it that’s good. First of all, you have someone there who really, really cares,” says Karen of working so closely with her husband. She values the fact that in business, any decision making or actions are driven primarily from feeling valued and loved.
“We both go into the world knowing that the number one thing that matters is that the other one is okay. You know that you have this person walking through life and business with you for whom you are the most important thing, and you’ll never be put second. That’s pretty powerful.”
Karen thinks it’s worked for so long because they know innately what’s going on inside the other’s head, and also, they’re both good at their jobs. Work talk is allowed at home and personal talk in the office, but each knows they can turn around and say, ‘I need to switch off now’.
“It’s been an astonishing privilege to work alongside someone who’s not only good at their job, but who also puts me above all else, and who really cares. That’s been a great voyage.
“That’s not to say there haven’t been times when we’ve fought,” she says, laughing. “Everyone who has worked for me will have a story about me calling him a bastard or some shouting!”
At Buckingham Palace in June earlier this year. Karen represented New Zealand as part of the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange and met Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
After 30 years, Karen admits there is a very blurred line between Karen Walker the brand and Karen Walker the person.
“There are pros and cons. One element that is a pro and a con is that you cannot hide from it. And I think that calls you to do a better job.
“I’m never going to stop being Karen Walker. That calls you to action with more intensity, and it definitely takes away a layer of self-protection.”
She knows that when she steps outside her front door, she has to have her game face on. She smiles as she recalls a story where the personal and professional perfectly collided.
“One time when Valentina was very young, about four – she knows better now – we’d been on Waiheke for four or five days, at the beach, no makeup, same outfit every day, bliss. We were on the ferry back, and I was sitting at the back of the boat looking at the sea. This girl behind me goes, ‘Oh I love your sunglasses, are they Karen Walker?’ I said yes they are, then Valentina pipes up and goes, ‘Guess what? Her name’s Karen Walker!’
“That’s the cost. But there are so many perks. It energises me when somebody comes up and says that they love something you’ve created! No one is going to feel sorry for me because I have to chat to someone when I’m out buying my asparagus.”
At home, just around the corner from where she buys her asparagus, Karen’s pouring another pot of tea and reflecting on personal success. She pauses before answering what that – separate from the brand – means for her today.
“Not being afraid. Having a career and personal life working in such a way that fear and anxiety aren’t there. When you can go to sleep at night not worrying about whatever it is that keeps people awake at night. That’s really what I strive for: being in a place where my work is bringing me joy.
“It’s when I can get into bed at night, play Words with Friends with my brother in Scotland for five minutes, read a great book, then turn the light out and I’m off to sleep. Having no fear or no anxiety; once you’ve got that, it’s happy days.”
Words: Zoe Walker Ahwa
Photos: Supplied, Getty Images
This article originally appeared in Next.