The queen of partnerships adds a thoughtful union to her latest connection with social impact enterprise Rise Beyond The Reef.
Karen Walker’s almost four-decade career is well documented.
When you survey the designer’s back catalogue of career highlights — from showcasing as part of the “New Zealand Four” alongside World,
There are long-term partnerships close to the designer’s heart including with the SPCA, Breast Cancer Cure, Dove Hospice and supporting the United Nations’ fashion projects, the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), and Artisan.Fashion, which helps connect artisans from the developing world to the international fashion industry.
This week she releases a new collaboration with Rise Beyond The Reef (RBTR), the Fiji-based non-profit organisation that empowers women and children in remote parts of the nation by supporting their diverse crafts and processing them into a business model that gives back to these communities. The work of RBTR also includes helping facilitate a long-term supply chain that’s market-driven and helps elevate women’s agency in their communities as leaders.
By bridging the gap between remote communities, the government and the private sector in the South Pacific, this unique initiative is helping strengthen indigenous women’s craft production while exposing their products and creativity to the formality of the global marketplace.
Delivering a range of products from traditional Fijian masi (siapo) artwork to fashion and homeware items, RBTR co-founder Janet Lotawa says this first designer collaboration, orchestrated alongside Tourism Fiji, has been a rewarding project to work on.
The resulting collaboration features two woven pandanus bag styles — an oversized tote bag and a backpack — handwoven by women in Fiji’s Ra Province. Featuring Karen Walker “Runaway” straps, the bags have gone through quality control processing with Janet’s in-house team in Nadi, with a focus on delivering an item that was easier to scale up when it came to the production process.
“We landed on a product that the women had enough experience in producing that we could achieve the level of quality that you are going to have to meet for a designer like Karen Walker,” says Janet. “I like that Karen is a strong female leader, and has an edge. It’s completely different from what our products are, so it’s great to have her taste come through in the designs.”
For Karen, the collaboration is an opportunity to give back to the communities so they’re able to continue sharing their knowledge and craft.
“The women who make these products are at the centre of this project and I’m delighted to know that my team, together with our customers, are able to have a positive impact on this community of incredible makers,” she explains.
“I’d seen RBTR products on a couple of trips to Fiji and liked what they did — the Marama and Tagane dolls and the handsewn Koro print turtles especially put a smile on my face. After doing a little research, we thought they’d be the perfect partner for a couple of great summer bags.”
One hundred per cent of proceeds from the RBTR x Karen Walker collaboration support direct artisan payments and RBTR’s ongoing costs to work with other artisan communities, provide formal leadership opportunities to women, and ensure their products are market-ready.
“We were drawn to the designs that featured woven pandanus leaves — they just seemed to say Fiji and made us want to grab a towel and a pair of sunglasses and hit the beach — so we played around with the shapes RBTR had already developed and added our own thoughts and details to them to create an elevated beach bag/everyday bag,” says Karen.
For RBTR creative director and design consultant Mimi Robinson, part of her role is to ensure products are market-ready, working closely with Janet and her team during the production process. “I was thrilled to see how, after several iterations, the bags turned out fantastic. It was the perfect project,” says Mimi.
“What’s great about Karen Walker is that the visibility for those communities is amazing. We aim for this with all our products. We spend so much time on quality control. It’s time-consuming work.”
“Being an NGO, we have district coordinators, village coordinators and, when needed, quality control coordinators who are built into the role of the village coordinators depending on the size of the village and what they’re making,” Janet adds. “We resource this to make sure people have the best shot possible.”
For Mimi, the chance to involve the women in the process from start to finish is another key factor in the collaboration that appeals to her.
“It’s great to be able to show these women the final imagery from our collaboration with Karen because they get to see full circle where their work ends up. To show how it looks in a store. When you are sitting in a remote village somewhere, it’s very difficult to imagine where their work goes. It’s nice to be able to show them how the world appreciates their work.”
The Rise Beyond The Reef x Karen Walker handwoven tote bag and backpacks retail for $155 at Karenwalker.com. For more information on how much the product price goes to the artisans and to shop other unique Rise Beyond The Reef products, visit Risebeyondthereef.org.
Karen Walker’s Fijian highlights
Viva took the liberty of asking Karen about her favourite things to see and do in Fiji.
I’ve been to Fiji dozens of times — my first trip, I was around 4 years old I think, and my last trip was just last month. It’s hard to beat lying in a hammock gazing at the brilliant Pacific but I think what keeps me coming back to Fiji again and again is the genuine, authentic love the people of Fiji always have for guests.
When you check into your favourite resort and they say “Welcome home,” it’s not cheesy or scripted — there is a real feeling of welcome and home-coming there always. Apart from a recent first-time trip to Suva (where I thoroughly recommend the heritage rooms at the Grand Pacific Hotel and the Fiji Museum), my Fiji experiences are limited to the resorts.
Dolphin Island is amazing, and the incredible Dawn, your hostess, makes you feel so at home … if home included lobster, champagne and the sweetest parrot mangoes in endless supply; while over at Wakaya the kitchen garden and the island’s farm are so impressive — and wandering through the gorgeous, established palm grove to pick fresh fruit for yourself in the kitchen garden’s such a nice way to break up an afternoon. One of the team will also happily scale a palm and pick you a fresh coconut for an afternoon drink.
Vomo’s one of the loveliest natural white coral-sand beaches in Fiji. There’s not much that can beat an afternoon nap in a hammock hanging from one of the hundreds of beachfront palms but if you want to move a little, an early start hike to the top of the mountain gives you a sensational Pacific view and gets those muscles working in advance of a day of doing … absolutely nothing.
SNORKELLING AND DIVING
There’s great snorkelling everywhere in Fiji but the best I’ve enjoyed is at Wakaya Island — swim straight off the beach in front of your bure and the sea life is astonishing — the best I’ve seen in my years of snorkelling in Fiji.
HEALTH AND BEAUTY
Six Senses’ spa puts every other resort spa I’ve been to in the shade — from picking the ingredients and making your own fresh face mask to excellent yoga classes and fabulous massages — this is the perfect escape for anyone wanting pampering from head to toe.
At Wakaya Island, take 30 seconds to gaze at the sea at any time of day and you’ll see one of the many turtles living in the protected waters pop its head up for a breath and say bula; while over at Six Senses, go for an afternoon walk through the Iguana Reserve (when I stayed we were in the villa right next to it) and you’ll see any number of the 39 endangered Fijian crested iguanas who also call the resort home.
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