Fast Company

Fast Talk: Kiwi Fashion

Designer Karen Walker on what it takes to start a global brand on the far side of the moon.

Karen Walker

Fashion Designer, Karen Walker LTD.
Auckland, New Zealand

Walker, 36, is the biggest thing to come out of New Zealand since director Peter Jackson unleashed a horde of Hobbits. Not only has Madonna endorsed her sexy (and gyration-friendly) pants, but The New York Times kicked off this fall's Fashion Week coverage with a page-one photo from Walker's runway show. Here, she explains how to launch a global brand "when you live on the moon."

"I started my career at age 18 with $100 (NZ) and a heap of naiveté. I don't have a fancy fashion pedigree. In New Zealand, that's okay. It's the last bastion of 'figure it out yourself.' Peter Jackson is also self-taught.

My goal wasn't to design for the popular girl. I wanted to design for real girls who know who they are, who are confident in how they want to look, and who aren't slaves to fashion. The clothes also have a real New Zealand character. They're casual, effortless, cool, and fun.

We thought that was a global concept--sort of 'high casual,' boys'-clothes-for-girls hybrid--and that we could seed this little niche by seeking out a couple of the coolest stores in any city. When you live half a block from Antarctica, you need to get up and going. The first place we were noticed was Australia. A sales representative saw us and said she'd like to rep us in New York. We weren't really ready, but she said, 'You'll never be ready.' So we thought, 'Okay, let's do it.' Within a week, we had orders from several stores in America. After New York, she took us to Tokyo and London. Now we're in 140 stores in 14 countries.

We have never been interested in being the Next Big Thing, though. Our philosophy has been to grow a small, good idea rather than an average big one. In all this time, in all these markets, we've never adjusted our style of work. Rather, we adjusted which markets we selected to fit the work we were interested in doing. We didn't get into the fashion business to make product we weren't passionate about. To this day, what we make still lights us up."

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