On a Sunday morning in autumn, inside a large gloomy shed in Grey Lynn, a team of 15 people is involved in the serious business of a photo shoot involving what most of us call sunglasses. In the fashion business they are called eyewear and they are next seasons, so you have to imagine a bright summers day, when you would love to pick up a pair of the glasses laid out like shiny lollies: apple greens, cartoon blues and canary yellows.
The models - tall, thin, strange - come and go. They stand in front of a coloured screen and laugh on cue; have glycerine tears painted on. There is a standard uniform for a fashion industry shoot on a Sunday: skinny, skinny jeans, sneakers.
Karen Walker is not wearing the uniform. She is wearing a navy blouse with polka dots, a grey cardy, a vintage Hermes scarf, a little silvery puff-ball mini skirt, high ankle boots, black tights, hair in a pony tail, legs that go up forever.
She says: "I asked Mikhail if I was over-dressed for a Sunday. He said it was my duty to be over-dressed."
A 15-year-old model is in the room; fresh-faced, beautiful, thin as rice paper. It is Walker you want to look at. She doesn't like to be called beautiful, not because it embarrasses her but because she finds it banal. "I don't really value that kind of stuff anyway. I work in the world of the aesthetic but I'm more interested in the creative behind beauty than the notion of beauty."
Call it presence, then. She is beautiful, but in a rather stern way. She has a serious face. She is a serious person. She knows what she wants.
She can be blunt. And cautious. We had a long phone conversation about doing the story before having a coffee to discuss doing the story. She didn't want a) a story about her glamorous life, or b) a tall-poppy-bashing story, or c) a puff piece. She wanted a story about the work.
Her Glamorous Life. The week before the photo shoot the 37-year-old was in Taiwan for the opening of her first flagship store outside New Zealand. The day after she will be in Christchurch for a meet-and-greet at Ballantynes store with buyers and fans. She works seven days a week, but it's not really work.
She whips out her white, Apple notebook at the cafe to look at her diary. She has hair and makeup done for the photos for this story. She likes cheese on toast and chai latte, yoga and mah jong. She is very interested in bio-fuels. She uses, and spells out in full, "anticipated" in a text message.
After thinking about it for a while, she let me go to see her and her husband Mikhail Gherman, the dog Turkey, a chow chow, and the two cats, Chicken and Dodo, at home. They should not be allowed to name children. They live in a nice and warm and friendly art-deco house on a hill in Swanson, West Auckland, surrounded by bush.
Sometimes she hears a cow moo and thinks it's her BlackBerry. They have an infinity pool, set in a clearing. They have some good art and a great painting of the dog done by the young son of a friend. They could do with a new tea towel. They bought their leather couches with big rolled arms and buttons from Smith & Caughey. They are the only people I have met who have bought furniture at Smith & Caughey. They seemed a bit surprised, too, says Gherman.
We had tea ("sorry, we've only got hippy tea") and carrot cakes from Rocket Kitchen. They'd been in the garden dead-heading the hydrangeas and she was wearing a singlet top, old pants and no makeup. She was not over-dressed for a Sunday. They seem a nice couple to have tea with on a Sunday afternoon. They are having a baby in December.
Walker sent me an email about the baby, before she'd told family and friends, because I'd asked if they were going to have children. (She is not the only blunt one.) She said then "one day". She asked me to keep it quiet until she'd told people, but "I thought it was appropriate now to give a full answer to your question".
She says, "we're not doing an announcement or anything". She said this in her deadpan way, waited a beat, then said somebody she'd told had asked whether they could tell other people. "I said, 'well, Id rather you keep it to yourself because I've promised [fashion website] Runway Reporter the exclusive.' They thought I was serious for a minute."
God only knows what they'll call it. She says, "you should hear some of the names Mikhail's coming up with". And what will it wear? "Mikhail reckons its going to be dressed entirely from K-Mart. It'll be somewhere between K-Mart and Nature Baby; organic, unbleached cotton and non-toxic paint rattles."
And she'll feed it ... "mung beans and carrot juice". She has what you would call a dry sense of humour.
She has dog hairs on her tights. I don't think shell mind this being pointed out. That's enough about her glamorous life.
The Work, then. Why are the models crying? Because Gherman went to a funeral some time ago and observed "really cool people in their Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses with tears falling down". This image sat inside his brain for some time and emerged to be re-created in an autumn day inside a shed. "But that would be a bit morbid for a fashion shoot." So it's tears of joy. Also, it's a bit "goofball." A bit Jeff Koons.
Mikhail, 43, is the other half of Karen Walker Ltd, and Karen Walker's other half. There is no better half. They are 50/50 partners all the way: in business, life, marriage, creative zing. She says he's a genius. She knew this from the moment they met, 20 years ago, when she was 17 and he was 21. "There's an electricity in his mind." He is a creative genius. She's not. "I'm intellectually a genius."
On the door to the design room at Karen Walker Ltd in Ponsonby is a sign: Visitors Please Knock.
There are collages on the wall, of which we are asked not to take pictures. There are jockeys and cut out bits of Degas and Gauguin prints. I'm inside this room with Gherman while Walker has her makeup done. He says, "this is the beginning of the next collection, which will be presented in September and delivered in February. I'd feel uncomfortable if I talked about the specifics of what's on the board, but the basic concept is that we throw up what fascinated us visually at the time. One is the strange kind of colour-blocking that jockeys have. Can you see that? Some of their outfits are almost kind of feminine. They've got little bows!"
It's impossible to tell where an idea came from, or who had it first. It makes no sense to anyone but them, and it might end up being a dress or a coat, or nothing. Where do ideas come from? I ask Walker. "I wish I knew. The idea tree! You know, I wouldn't have a clue but you just know when ones happened."
The design room is like being on the inside of their collective, creative minds. It is busy and a bit mad in here. Things collide.
Gherman is sensitive, obsessive. He has "a delicate, artistic temperament", says Walker. He says he is "sporadic and disorganised with my ideas and sometimes, you know, I think recognising good ideas is as hard as coming up with them. So when you've got two people working, I may say something, but I might not take it seriously, but she might go click! What she is actually able to do is process it into something that actually becomes something. I have a very low attention span and if I didn't have somebody who goes click, stay with this, let's explore this ..."
They argue "like cats and dogs" every single day, according to him. She says, "I don't think it's quite every day". They don't argue about putting out the rubbish or who left that sock on the floor. "No, because both of those things, it's always Mikhail, so it's no argument. It is always his sock." He says she locks him out of the workroom, frequently. She says, "I don't remember locking him out, but there have been plenty of times when I've wanted to. Really, he doesn't even have keys. He'd lose them."
At the sunglass shoot Walker asks if they could get some shots of the model laughing. He gives her a look.
Walker: "I'm not trying to art direct."
Gherman: Karen, let Derek [Henderson, the photographer] do it.
He's not good under pressure, she says. Hes good at creating pressure. He is banned from going near the collection in the last days before New York Fashion Week.
She says she's surplus to requirements today when Gherman is art directing, which is what he does, as creative director, four days a week for the ad agency Publicis Mojo, and three days a week for Karen Walker.
This does not stop her poking her nose in. She asks about changing the coloured backdrop. He sighs and says, "blue and green should never be seen. Didn't they teach you that at designer school?"
He says he's just her puppet, ignores her, and gets on with the job. She makes languid conversation about silly names for lipgloss with the models mothers. She takes Turkey for a walk in the park next door.
What a funny dog. She always wanted one because she liked the way they look: like a golden bear with a ruff. She didn't know until she got Turkey that chows are not like other dogs. "She won't bite you, but she won't lick you either, she says." In fact, Turkey shows no interest in anyone, or anything, except Walker and Gherman, in an aloof way. Sometimes Walker takes the dog to the beach and watches the other dogs chase sticks and wishes she had a dog like that. But not for long, and not really. It is tempting to think her dog is just like her.
Her life, or one version of it, is written in press releases. Karen Walker Expands Into Asia With Flagship Retail. A name, Kimberly Stewart, say, or Claudia Schiffer have been spotted wearing Karen Walker. For some reason - she is in the fashion business - this is regarded by some as relentless self-promotion. She says, "I really don't look around me very much".
This is not quite the same thing as being unaware of what people might think. There are small, sly, teasing references to it. That "I'm intellectually a genius" is one.
The "I asked Mikhail if I was over-dressed" is another. She knows he is regarded as the Svengali-like figure in her life. Which, if you happened to be a successful fashion designer with a good business brain and an international reputation, could be ever so slightly offensive. He does cull her wardrobe. He has to, he says, because she won't.
She puts her head around the door of the room Gherman and I are in to have her makeup and hair approved before she has her photo taken. "Hello Karen. It's nice. Beautiful. Look at those eyes! That's what Richard said to you, didn't he?" Richard is Richard Branson, who Gherman has never met. He is a dreadful name-dropper which sometimes causes his wife to look at him in a pained way which he notices not at all. So, Richard? "I've never met him but what's he doing commenting on your eyes? He's a dirty old dog."
To shut him up, Walker says: "Are you happy with that?"
He is: "Nice." He's not really signing off his wife's face; he's signing off the image that is going to appear with this story: the business brand.
She's the bright, good girl from Remuera who went to Epsom Girls and married the Jewish boy who went to a school for gifted, artistic kids in Odessa, in the Ukraine. "He drew a horse well", says Walker. He was pretty much her first boyfriend.
A journalist told me when she interviewed Walker and Gherman together (and everyone said you don't get one without the other), Walker sat impassively for the entire time and Gherman talked. This was interpreted as Gherman being controlling and Walker being, well, snooty, like her dog.
In fact, what she has learned to do is to just wait for him to stop talking - it has been known to happen once in the history of time - so that she might get a word in. If he were here now, she says, he'd be doing all the talking. "He'd be interrupting and shouting over the top of me. My response after years is to sit back and let him get it out of his system and then finish my sentence."
He is oddly relaxing company because he just talks, non-stop, in a stream of consciousness, about anything from the "death of irony" to how you need bad weather to be creative, to well, who knows? He is effusive, expansive. I can have, he says - while Walker is not in the room - anything I like from the storeroom, 50 per cent off.
She sends handwritten thank you notes to journalists. Gherman does the trouble shooting, in a smoothing way, when things are not quite appreciated.
Walker does not do the chit-chat that fills in the silences. She is studied and direct, to the point that she can, in print, come across as rude. In conversation, too. We were both at the lunch where dirty-dog Branson commented, apparently, on her eyes. So he can't have been offended by her saying "I don't eat anything with eyes" when he offered her a prawn. "Why was that rude?" She could have said, "no, thank you". "Did I not say, 'no thank you' first?" Not that I heard. "I don't think it's rude. It's just factual. He didn't seem offended. He didn't run out in tears."
No. What happened next was he turned up on Walker's travel website, Runawaynow.com - a "collage" of things and places she and her friends like - writing a piece on Noosa. She asked his PA if Branson would write something and he did. "There's never any harm in asking, is there?"
In Japan, Karen Walker the brand is kawaii. This means cute, sweet, kooky. In New Zealand, Walker, the person, but also the brand, is often described in terms like the wilful outsider.
"Well, it sounds terribly considered doesn't it? And therefore not very genuine." She says things like this. About the girls in her 6th-form year who all, except her, went on to the 7th form, then to do a BA, "which I always thought showed a weakness of spirit".
About how she "planned to do some gardening that week" instead of doing NZ Fashion Week in 2001.
On why she doesn't have a business card: "I dunno, I guess I think business cards are for real estate agents.
"I don't think I'm often rude but I don't like beating around the bush. I just like getting on with it and that can sometimes be blunt and I don't think blunt's a bad thing. I don't like florally business. I don't like the dance. I just don't really have the time for it."
Walker grew up in middle-class Auckland, in a happy, loving family. Her older brother Nick, a psychiatrist in Scotland, says they were "raised to make decisions, be responsible, live our lives".
Karen Walker never rebelled, not in the traditional sense. "I never took the car and totalled it or had a bad boyfriend or took drugs or had to be brought home by the police." Nick Walker says they were both "pretty much born grown up".
She doesn't know where the idea of being a fashion designer came from. Out of the ether. Like her. Where did she come from? She seems - it's that directness - to be from some place other than New Zealand, or at least from some place other than safe, dull Remuera.
"It is quite possible this is an inherited trait", says Nick Walker. The siblings didn't know their paternal grandparents but their influence is there if you know where to look: "in Karen's directness, her energy, her incisiveness. I have Swedish friends ... who have that blunt, in-your-face approach coupled with analytical brilliance. Perhaps its merely chance, but our grandmother was Swedish."
On the maternal side was Grandma, "the cool in a crisis, no nonsense (never any nonsense) foundation of the family and Id be surprised if there was ever a time she didn't get her own way. But Karen's greatest influence, despite their tendency to disagree noisily about her evolving life choices, was Dad [who died four years ago.] Like her, he started his own [travel] business with nothing more than total clarity of vision, fierce determination, and the ability to persuade bank managers to share a little capital."
He admires, envies even, his sister's "constant drive, energy, innovation, confidence and attention to detail. That double orientation of being totally grounded and yet seeing things from every unusual angle."
And, as all sisters do, she can drive him a little crazy. "Demanding her own level of attention to detail from everybody else and being unwilling, or unable, to compromise on it, can irritate intensely. The trick with Karen is to figure out what she wants, what she expects. And deliver."
A story about a young Karen Walker: the time she ate pepper from the shaker in the middle of a large, crowded restaurant. "That night, everyone learned Karen Walker was in the room. I wonder how many remember the evening now, and if any realise it was Karen Walker testing out her public relations?"
Well, what are her public relations like? You get the sense she is not loved in the industry, although nobody will risk going on the record to say as much. Its a small industry.
It may be partly that bluntness. Blunt is asking someone why there is an underlying sense that she is not liked. "Really? I don't know what I'm meant to say. The people I hang out with must like me or they wouldn't hang out with me."
The question didn't upset her. She just got the last word. Who could I talk to about her? She sent a list of 51 names, with potted bios amounting to almost 3000 words. Many are people she works with in some capacity, but almost all of them are described as also being close friends.
Still, within the industry there is a sense that she doesn't play nicely with others. There is a niggle. She is good at self-promotion, agrees Liz Findlay of Zambesi and, "you know, your heart has to be in it and it's the sort of thing I think we New Zealanders are not very receptive to. She's doing her own kind of thing, in her own kind of way and why shouldn't she?"
Trelise Cooper says she doesn't have a niggle with Karen Walker. "She has really carved out an international place for herself and I think she's incredibly successful and she does a fantastic job for her very well defined target market."
A conversation with another prominent fashion designer:
Do you know her very well?
You dont like her, obviously?
"I'd prefer not to comment. I can't imagine why you'd want me to comment on her."
I'm just trying to get some sense of where she fits, in terms of the brand, for one thing.
"Probably the person to ask would be Karen, because shes the best person at her own promotion."
What the hell is that?
Murray Bevan started out at 15 running errands ("We need someone like Scooter from Fraggle Rock, said Gherman"), and became Walker's PA (everything from getting her coffee: decaff skim cappuccino with no chocolate on top). He now runs Showroom 22. Karen Walker is now his client. He sends out those press releases.
He says a lot of people have a perception that "she's a stern, driven, very ambitious business woman who will stop at nothing. But the great thing about Karen is that if you roll with the punches and you do the work and contribute the right ideas, there is nothing more rewarding and exhilarating than working with those two on a project.
He knows about the niggle. It comes, he thinks, "from the fact that she is more of an internationalist kind of focused person. And that sometimes entails really simple decisions. For example, someone'll be putting on a show at Hopetoun Alpha and they'll go, 'it's going to be a really cool show. We've got Zambesi, Nom*D, Helen Cherry, Trelise Cooper, Yvonne Bennetti blah blah blah. Do you want to be in?' And she'll go, 'actually, no. I'll pass."'
And people think she's snooty? "Exactly. And if you wanted to look at it in the big context, you could say, 'well, she's just come off the back of a New York fashion show and she couldn't possibly get another show together'. Also, she really likes to do shows on her own. Fashion is about being out on your own. It's not about jumping in with a group. They [other designers] go, 'well, New Zealand fashion is about us all banding together'. Karen has made her reputation and is successful because she hasn't done that."
Which is another way of saying she doesn't run around on the beach with the other people, chasing sticks, wagging her tail. She may not bite (although I bet she can), but she doesn't lick, either. She doesn't need to. She's the top dog.