As Karen Walker celebrates 20 international solo shows, the designer looks back at her most memorable moments on the catwalks of London and New York.
She has long been considered the internationalist of New Zealand fashion, and this week Karen Walker celebrates a milestone in the brand's international career: her 20th overseas solo show, showcasing a collection in New York called Sea Monsters. Before Monday's show - a "Victorian, mod, science fiction narrative" that featured ocean-inspired and paisley prints, luxe metallic accents, ruffle and metal chain details and another fantastic footwear collaboration with Beau Coops - Walker described it as "Captain Nemo meets Brian Jones".
For Walker, the only New Zealand-based designer to consistently show beyond Australasia, the decision to present her collections overseas 20 seasons - or 10 years - ago was a simple one: the New Zealand market is very small, and to grow outside it a brand traditionally needs to be on the ground (although the internet is slowly changing this for younger, less-established designers). "We've always felt that if a brand is serious about being international that it has to show on the major international circuit; that is, New York, Paris, Milan and London," explains Walker. "If you want to be noticed internationally you have to put yourself in front of that audience, and those most critical of eyes, whether they be buyers or press, in a way that matters."
As well as New York, Walker has shown in London for 20 seasons and been selling outside of New Zealand for 15 years; with key markets outside of Australasia in Japan and the United States. Furthering that US growth, Walker recently marked another major milestone in her brand's international growth; signing a partnership with mass market chain Anthropologie that will see her lower-priced Hi There line sold through their US stores.
There had been earlier shows abroad, prior to the last 20 presentations - the first, an invitation from the NZ Wool Board to show at Hong Kong Fashion Week in 1998 which led to the brand being picked up by US department store Barneys; in Sydney from 1998-2000, and as part of the famous London group show in February 1999 that gave rise to the "New Zealand Four" and was said to put New Zealand fashion on the international map. But it "didn't really break much new ground" for the Karen Walker brand, which already had representation in the US, was already selling into Barneys and a number of other international boutiques, says Walker. For her, the past 10 years of the 20 international solo shows in the major fashion week circuit cities of London and New York, are the "ones that really matter".
"From a career point of view ... I strongly recall a very well respected British fashion writer saying to me after the second NZ Four show [in September 1999], 'Your career will never benefit from a group show'," she explains.
And so, in 2002, she held her first solo show in London with a collection called Runaway. Walker has fond memories of that first show, held in London in a emptied out b-store (a much-loved store turned brand).
"The sound system and lighting was beyond lo-fi, the audience was twice what we anticipated and ended up spilling out down the pavement which the models used as an extended catwalk lit by passing taxis. It was lo-tech and energetic and fantastic. It had a real buzz and resulted in a lot of attention and sales into great stores. Still one of my favourites," she reminisces. "The backstage area was in the cellar and the girls had to scramble up and down steep, narrow stairs for every look. We worked with Christian Louboutin on the shoes that season, so they were all about 15cm high. I'm amazed no one broke a leg."
These early London shows produced some iconic Karen Walker images - rock star daughters Ruby Stewart and Theodora Richards walking in shows in 2005, model Lily Cole in a polka dot prom dress from Karen in TV Land, also shown in 2005, the entire Liberal and Miserable collection shown in 2004 - with inspirations ranging from Vincent Ward's film Vigil to a twisted Amelia Earhart. Walker spent eight seasons in London, before making the decision to move to New York, where there were many more American and Japanese buyers and press; two markets she was keen to develop.
"London is a great environment for new ideas and new brands and, as such, it's a very good place to start a fashion career, but it does have its limitations in terms of growing past that initial stage. After eight seasons showing there we felt it was time to move on to the more grown-up, business-focused and slick New York schedule."
The brand made its NYC début in 2006 with the land-girl inspired collection called Victory Garden, which got a "killer review" from the industry's toughest, most respected critic, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times, and featured on the homepage of the popular and influential website style.com.
"That was a pretty nice thing to wake up to the day after the show," says Walker. She appreciates the city's slick production and businesslike approach: "It's so together. Nothing's left to chance, the business and the production is 100 per cent nailed and I like that. The only surprises should be on the runway. Everything else should be totally in control and handled. It's somewhere where people are in the business of fashion ... not just in fashion."
It's an attitude that many younger labels are embracing, hoping to expand their focus beyond New Zealand to the world. Walker's advice for younger designers hoping to grow internationally by showing abroad is that it's not just about the show - it's about the audience. "It's about presenting the line and a show isn't always the most appropriate way to do it," she says. "The most important thing is to get the audience. We were selling into Europe and the States for at least five years before we first showed in London in 2002. It's good to have a familiarity and an audience first."
As for her own lesson after 20 seasons? "Good things happen when you take yourself out of your safety zone."
* Join Karen Walker at the Viva Live seminar at the NZ Fashion Festival on Wed 29 Feb.