Karen Walker: Breaking the Mould, One Grey Hair at a Time

Photography Olivia Kirkpatrick

Hairdressers probably won’t like her for it, jokes Karen Walker, but she’s become an advocate for the colour grey.

Her hair grew out white/grey over the Level 4 lockdown, and when her hairdresser called to book an appointment after the lockdown, she had to decide ‘to colour or not to colour’. 

She chose the latter. 

“I really thought about ‘why’, ‘why do people colour their grey, and it didn’t sit well with my feminist ideals,” Walker explains. “Why do women especially feel the need to hide signs of time like that? There’s nothing wrong with having a youthful attitude or being youthful, but why try to hide the signs of the decades?”

For Walker, 51, who has coloured her hair for the past 10 years, there is no more hiding.

And she’s rocking it.

It turns out that her blue eyes are like a bit of white hair, and she’s had people throwing lots of compliments her way. “Though I don’t think anybody would dare tell me it’s not working,” she laughs.

Being a role model

She was recently honoured with her own one-of-a-kind Barbie doll sporting white/grey hair.

Every year, Barbie celebrates role models worldwide who are breaking boundaries, and Walker is the official 2021 Barbie NZ Role Model.

The idea is to show girls that they can be anything. 

As New Zealand’s most internationally renowned fashion designer, Walker is known for her innovation and business acumen and as the face of her brand. 

Of course, there is more to Walker than being a fashion arbiter, though she points out she is the brand too.

“There’s always an intertwining when it’s your own business. It’s never a take the game face off and leave it at the door situation,” says Walker.

That’s where the authenticity of the Karen Walker brand comes from, and one of the reasons why it has been around and thrived for 30 years “because it’s not something made up in a boardroom.”

“It’s me, and the Runaway Girl is me, so they’re never entirely separated,” Walker explains. “Everything that the brand stands for, I stand for. My personal life is never turned off in my work and vice versa though there are times when I’m at rest. But the attitude is always there. The approach to life, work, and creativity is there, whether I’m directing it into my business, family, or rest time.”

Personal practice

The dynamic public persona of Walker is something we are all familiar with, the private side not so much. 

“I’m the same as many people,” she quips. “I do a bit of yoga, cooking, take the dog for a walk in the park, read and spend lots of time just being still.”

That quiet time begins at 5.30am, an hour or two before the rest of the household rises. “That’s when I meditate or do a bit of yoga. This morning I meditated until 6am and then came downstairs, lit the fire, made tea and did some journaling before staring at the flames for a good 10 minutes,” she says.

She took up the practice of Iyengar yoga 25 years ago and in a perfect week she’ll practice every day.

It’s the only yoga she likes to do and she still has the same teacher.

“I remember her asking ‘why do you want to do yoga?’ And I said, ‘well, I’m heading towards my 30s and when I come out the other side I don’t want to have saggy arms’. She laughed at me and then after six months I was like, ‘oh, I get why you laughed at me because that’s not what it’s about. That’s a by-product, it’s actually about your mind’.”

What she loves about Iyengar yoga is that it is quite slow with lots of long holds and props. “It’s very thoughtful, and I think quite smart – everything has a connection, meaning and reason,” she says.

Twenty-five years on Walker doesn’t have saggy arms but now she does it for mental calmness as well as wellbeing physically. 

“I’ve noticed for whatever reason, that if I don’t do it for days my chest feels like somebody is holding it shut, so I get glimpses every now and then of why
I do it. It’s being able to breathe, and stop thinking.”

Wellbeing for Walker now means “peace – mental, physical – and not having things to be afraid of or not being afraid. My sense of wellness is feeling still, centred and calm. In this business and in being in business for yourself, no matter what field you’re in, so much of it can easily tip into turmoil and tight deadlines,” says Walker.

“I don’t like that stuff. I like to push myself, my team and my business, and our work forward and set challenges and strive to always do better but still with calmness at the centre of it.”

Saying no

Her advice on managing workload is to manage timelines, expectations and the pressures that you allow to have put on yourself, or take on, or expect of yourself and your team. 

“And, you just say ‘no’. It’s not a crime. Every time you say ‘yes’ to something you’re saying ‘no’ to something else and vice versa. If it doesn’t work for you, then just say ‘no’,” she says. “A lot about saying ‘yes’ is programming. The pressures we put on ourselves, they’re all made up.”

“Yes, you have to have food on the table and a roof over your head, so that brings a certain amount of pressure and there are things outside of your control obviously, but there’s also a lot of pressure that we allow ourselves to put on ourselves. So you’ve got to ask, is it worth it or not?”

Leading from the front

As a business owner and team leader, Walker believes having a clear vision and purpose is key – so everyone knows why they’re doing it.

And listening.

“As a default alpha-type it has taken me a long time to learn to do – to speak, but speak last. To ask, but don’t tell. That’s something I’ve been focusing on in the last few years and really enjoying,” she says.

On a good day Walker can flex into any leadership style the situation requires though she’s the first to admit it’s still a work in progress.

“We all have our natural tendencies and mine is ‘let’s just do it. Come on. It’s not done already?’ It’s about reading the situation and leading in the style that’s appropriate for that. I’m not there yet but I’m trying. I always try to be as open as possible to where each individual naturally flourishes and allow them to do that. If you can have somebody in a role that they are naturally good at, then everyone’s happy, including me.”

Her style of leadership is a testament to the long-term staff members at Karen Walker – a number have been with the business for more than 20 years.

Lucky in love

There’s also longevity in her personal relationships.

In April, Walker and her husband Mikhail Gherman, who also works in the business, celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. 

The couple took the day off work and visited the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, pottered along High Street including Unity Books, lunched at The Northern Club where they toasted their anniversary with Champagne, had a massage, took the dog for a walk, and then when daughter Valentina, 13, got home from school they had a family dinner at Ponsonby Road Bistro.

Walker was 17 and Gherman 22 when they met in a nightclub.

Since then they’ve been a dream team.

Walker doesn’t think there is a particular secret.

“A bunch of it is just luck, right? You can’t control who you love and don’t love. We’ve been lucky that we haven’t fallen out of love,” she says. “We do all the things that of course you do in a marriage. You listen, you’re honest and patient and you celebrate the good bits. We both love the same things. His strengths are my weaknesses and vice versa, which is just dumb luck.”

At home the cooking is shared between Walker, Gherman and Valentina. Walker and Valentina are both vegetarian. Walker stopped eating red meat 37 years ago, and white meat 30 years ago for moral reasons.

Valentina chose to become vegetarian three years ago with no lobbying from Mum.

Walker likes the idea of being vegan but in reality she just likes mozzarella cheese too much!

The family are huge fans of chef Yotam Ottolenghi, whose dishes will be on the table once or twice a week even though the recipes usually include three ingredients you’ve never heard of. One of Walker’s favourite recipes from his book Simple is a whole roast cauliflower slow cooked with lots of oil, butter and salt served with tahini sauce. As Walker, says, “it’s not the easiest cookbook to work with, but it pays you back”.

Valentina, whose namesake is the first and youngest woman to have flown in space on the Vostok 6 in 1963, cooks once a week.

The family dog Laika, an Australian Labradoodle is named after the first dog in space.

Any leftovers are off the menu for Laika who follows a canine diet.

Cooking is one of the things Walker does for fun and gets joy from. Particularly when it comes to tackling a complex recipe with a pile of ingredients that bit by bit are turned into a cracker meal. 

“I love the problem solving,” explains Walker. “Turning chaos into order is intrinsic in my nature. It’s another reason why Mikhail and I are a good match because it’s his nature to turn order into chaos. His nickname is Mik-chaos.” 

Walker sees chaos and immediately creates order around it and it’s something she enjoys which is also why she loves to play chess, Scrabble, mahjong and do jigsaw puzzles. She always has a cryptic crossword on her desk – The Herald cryptic crossword is her preference. 

Other things she loves doing for fun include reading a good book, going to the cinema or vegging in front of Netflix. She has a penchant for black comedy and recently binge-watched Fargo. “Anything that is really good storytelling, whether it’s on a screen or in a book.”

Sustainable style

Walker is very aware that the most sustainable wardrobe is one that you already have.

Those are her words, and she knows that for somebody to come to Karen Walker and buy something new, it comes at a cost. 

“I want the cost of that to be lowest it can and the impact of it to be the greatest it can be. Every product that we design and make we hold up to the light and ask, ‘what is the cost of it, to us all? And what is the benefit that it brings, and should it even exist?’ If it doesn’t add up, then we don’t do it.”

The Karen Walker brand has always been about quality and over the past two years the company has utilised more sustainable alternatives (fabrics, fibres and trims) in its designs where possible.

Forty-nine per cent of Karen Walker collections for 2021 are made from 100 per cent GOTS-certified organic cotton, and a further 12 per cent utilises organic cotton with a small amount of linen or elastane. All of Karen Walker denim styles since 2020 have been made in collaboration with certified B Corp Outland Denim using organic cotton.

Karen Walker’s current Roses collection is a shirt and dress capsule collection made from rose bush fibre extracted from the natural waste of pruned rose bushes in Italy, blended with organic cotton – and even smells like roses for the first 10 washes.

And Walker is currently trying to “puzzle out hemp”.

Finding a good hemp fabric is not as easy as one might think but she is determined because hemp is less thirsty than linen and Karen Walker is working with their partners in India to develop a hemp fabric.

The company’s two ready-to-wear manufacturing partners in India are Fair Trade Certified facilities, which ensures fair working conditions and environmentally responsible production methods. In 2021, these partners are producing 60 per cent of Walker’s clothing collections.

“We get to make a real impact in that society by paying the premium that comes with working with Fair Trade,” says Walker.

In an industry built around ‘what’s new, what’s next’ this is important to Walker and Gherman.

Karen Walker showed at New York Fashion Week for 20 seasons until technology meant they didn’t have to do that anymore, but Walker clearly remembers a question a journalist asked her backstage after presenting a spring/summer collection. 

“The first question they asked was, so what are you thinking about for autumn/winter? I’m like, ‘this collection is two minutes old and you’re asking me what my thoughts are for the next one, which isn’t even going to be in store for a year.’ That’s broken,” she says.

Instead, Karen Walker is slowing the pace by not rushing things into market, as well as collaborating with some of New Zealand’s best artisans including Stansborough and Claybird.

During lockdown their well-timed collab with Classic New Zealand to produce 100 per cent New Zealand sheepskin and wool crochet slippers, hand crocheted in Hawke’s Bay, was a runaway success with the slippers selling out in 24 hours.

Reassessing the business

When the whole country was having an existential crisis, what’s-the-point moment, Walker took time to reflect on the business and its relevance in today’s world.

After the first week of putting out fires during Level 4 lockdown and dealing with people, spreadsheets and redoing budgets, she put aside an hour or two each day to journal and think about the wider picture.

“I asked myself ‘what is the purpose and what is my reason for being’, and at the end of it I came to exactly the same point that I had when I started the business at 18, which was I’m here to serve my community and put something into the community that would be missing otherwise,” she says.

And that’s still what gets her jumping out of bed each day.

Not because she might to get a dividend at the end of the year but because she loves seeing people in her stores enjoying themselves, the sun shining in and making everything look pretty, and someone walking down the street wearing Karen Walker but bringing their own thing to it.

She and Gherman count themselves fortunate to be 100 per cent owners of Karen Walker, which means no shareholders who can make a company overly focused on returns and growth.

That is not the driver, and while money is nice, Walker points out if you do everything right, that’s a by-product.

“For us it’s about making beautiful things and giving great experiences and serving my community and yes, we all get paid in the end.

The business is small enough that I can put my arms around it, but big enough that it can have some impact on this community and on the industry and allow its team a career path and self-expression and energy, all the things that people come to work for, including me.”

Advice to her younger self

Looking back, Walker’s advice to her younger self would be “just relax. It’s all going to be fine. Just hold it more lightly. Don’t be so grippy. Go with the flow of it more. Still have big dreams and big intentions and set yourself the big goals because that’s ultimately where you’re going to be fulfilled”.

And to anyone starting out in business, be very clear on your purpose. “Why should you even exist? What is it that you are bringing to your community that isn’t already being done…and have a good accountant.”

She remembers being very clear on her purpose all those years ago when starting Karen Walker.

She knew she wanted to be doing something that kept her excited, energised and fulfilled, and at the time the only thing that she really felt any sort of passion for was fashion and making things.

The fashion was accidental says Walker.

Her mother just happened to have a Bernina sewing machine and there was always a box of fabrics in the cupboard. If it had been a Super 8 camera or a potting wheel, that would’ve been it.

The fact that it was cloth was secondary.

“The driving force was that I wanted a career that would light me up and make me enthusiastic, and at the same time New Zealand was at the tail end of protectionism, which meant you couldn’t just buy anything that you wanted like you can these days.”

An example of this was when Gherman moved to New Zealand as a Soviet Union refugee in 1979.

On his first day at Penrose High he was approached by a fellow pupil who asked if he could buy his leather jacket.

Gherman didn’t speak a word of English but he understood and sold it. 

Today, as the couple helm one of the world’s most successful fashion brands, Walker’s hopes for their daughter are to be able to send her out into the world feeling confident, having resilience, knowing her worth and being able to cope with all the good and the bad bits.

“If she can step out into the world knowing how many gifts she’s got in terms of what she’s born with and her also being in this country and the family, and knowing that she’ll always be safe and secure but without being a trust fund kid… It’s a delicate balance. I think that true satisfaction in looking back at one’s life comes from knowing that you’ve done it, not from that it’s been handed to you on a silver platter. I hope that she’ll step into the world working hard for her own successes because I think that’s the only way you’re going to feel your satisfaction, but not to be paralysed with the pressure of that.”

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