Hamish Fletcher

Hamish Fletcher is a business reporter for the NZ Herald

Karen Walker has designs on US

Fashion designer Karen Walker is excited about her break into the US clothing mass market. Photo / Greg Bowker
Fashion designer Karen Walker is excited about her break into the US clothing mass market. Photo / Greg Bowker

Twentieth-century Italian fashionista Elsa Schiaparelli famously said that when times are tough, "fashion is always outrageous".

But despite an undeniably difficult retail environment, there is something savvy, shrewd - and nothing outrageous - about Kiwi fashion darling Karen Walker's latest push into North America.

A partnership signed late last year with United States-based retail chain Anthropologie will put Walker's Hi There clothing range into up to 164 stores from next month.

Although Walker's garments have featured in the world's high-end boutiques and been worn by stars such as Madonna, Natalie Portman and Rihanna, the deal marks something of a change of step for one of New Zealand fashion's leading ladies.

"It's completely different to everything else we've been doing," Walker says.

"We've been in the luxury market for 14 years, but this reaches a wider audience ...

[it's] a totally different price point, a totally different product and it's really our first time in the States going en masse."

Landing in stores for the American summer, the deal has a retail value of around US$4 million ($5 million) a year, according to Walker.

The move mimics her trajectory across the Tasman, where in 2008 she teamed up with department chain Myer for her Hi There range after more than 10 years of selling in high-end Australian shops. It has since become one of Myer's most profitable pieces of business.

Walker says her Australian manufacturer will end up doing a "lot of the leg work" in the set-up with Anthropologie.

"It just fits in beautifully with our existing infrastructure. It goes straight through our manufacturer in Melbourne ... they kind of do all the hard work and we get to do the fun."

For Walker, the attraction of Hi There - a collection of "cute dresses, fun prints, and strong colours" - is a no-brainer.

"All retailers around the world want that sweet product that they know is going to work.

"There is no room for risk-taking right now, everybody's pulled back on that and I think that's one of the reasons why it does so well with Myer and why Anthropologie were attracted to it."

Walker says retailers are after products at different price points because customers do not shop "head-to-toe" in Chanel.

"They mix it up with a little bit of Topshop, a little bit of vintage and a little bit of designer."

Furthermore, offering a range of products at different prices is a way retail can weather tight times.

"For smart retailers, we make sure there is something there that the market is demanding ... you can come into a Karen Walker store and buy something for $15 or $15,000or anywhere in between and Ithink that's what makes exciting retail."

The Karen Walker brand extends into jewellery, eyewear, fragrances and, surprisingly, a range of house paints.

Diversifying the product line is a central part of Walker's business plan. She says offering "more than just a rack of clothes" gives customers a far richer shopping experience.

And the next Karen Walker product in the pipeline?

"The next is homeware, which is also a partnership with Myer. Their homeware division came to us and said, 'We've seen how well Hi There is doing ... we want that same look, feel, attention to print and colour and that fun happy product. We want it in beach towels and sheets and cups."'

- NZ Herald

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