A very relaxed Karen Walker greets me in the doorway of her East Village apartment cum-workroom, cum-casting studio, cum-styling station. It’s 10:30 in the morning, I’m allowed thirty minutes. After one of those slightly awkward kissing moments – she goes for both cheeks, I go for one (I quickly recover, hoping she doesn’t notice) – she leads me into the lounge. Three or four racks groaning with the weight of hundreds of dresses, pants, blazers, skirts and possibly even a cape or two sit in the middle of the room. Rows and rows of shoes (high heels, ankle boots, boat shoes and chukka boots – the latter, a collaboration with London based footwear company Pointer) stretch as far as the eye can see. Karen calls for tea and reclines herself on what we refer to as her brown suede throne. Queen Karen. Models are just beginning to arrive for a full day of castings but this is no cattle call. “We hand pick all the models we want to see,” says Karen, “we’ve used some of these girls three or four times before so we know what to expect, but it’s always good to see them in the outfits.”
This is Karen’s sixth season showing in New York, and if she’s nervous, she certainly doesn’t look it. But a Karen Walker show is no one-woman production. The team is a well-oiled machine that works together every season, season after season. There’s Heather-Mary the expat Kiwi stylist (now based in New York) who has joined Karen for her last 17 collections; her assistant – a Kiwi named Amelia; Barbara the American casting agent who organises all the models for Karen’s shows (and who I could’ve sworn I’d seen before on a reality TV show – but she vehemently denies it); and the assistants, Amy and Olivia, led by Lylle Blackstock – also an expat Kiwi, and quite coincidentally a former high school classmate of mine. Karen’s husband Mikhail Gherman, another vital member of the Karen Walker team, is back home in New Zealand looking after the couple’s 20 month old baby Valentina, and gearing up for the in-season New Zealand Fashion Week show taking place in two week’s time. “We iChat about four times everyday though,” says Karen, “and he calls me constantly to talk, so it’s like he’s here with us anyway.”
Most New Zealand designers stick to New Zealand Fashion Week. Some venture across the Tasman for the Sydney shows and there have been a couple who’ve tried their luck in London. But Karen Walker is the only one to have gone the distance in London and then to have moved successfully into a consistently well-received New York spot. It’s a tribute to her skills as a designer, marketer and, of course, to the team she keeps. But even more so, it’s a testimony to what might just be her greatest strength (and the thing that’s lacking in many great New Zealand designers) – she’s bloody ambitious and she sees the bigger picture. “We show in New York because it’s bigger, it’s more important, more people show here, a better calibre of designer shows here, a better calibre of buyers come here,” says Karen. “It’s the next level up. New York, Milan, Paris are on a parity, then London’s kind of good, but it’s kind of an entree.” There are no plans to move to Paris or Milan, New York is where Karen wants to be. “It’s right where it feels right. We’ve got a good following here, a history here. I don’t like jumping around too much, I like to keep some consistency. The change should be what’s on the runway, not where you show.”
More models file through. Hyomi, a Korean girl, “We’ve used her the past three seasons I think. We’ll most probably book her again.” Michaela, a towering blonde Slovakian, who tries on an outfit. “She’s too tall for the pants, put her in a skirt,” says Karen. “It says on the card you’re five eleven. You’re six feet aren’t you?” “I’m five eleven,” says Michaela. “I’m six feet in heels.” “Yeah right,” Karen whispers to me, “she’s six four in heels.” A very young 16 year old German walks in, giggling like a Japanese cartoon character. Karen and Heather put her in an outfit then ask her to walk for them. They’re not convinced. “Do another walk, this time keep your eyes up and be more focussed,” says Heather-Mary. The second walk is better, but they’re still not convinced. They’ll keep her on the watchlist for next season. “She’s 16 and it’s her first season,” Heather-Mary says. “One season of messing up and she’ll be great. But you never know, she could book Marc by Marc…”
I don’t venture to rifle through the full collection, but I do ask some questions. From what I can see hanging on the racks, it’s a signature Karen Walker season – plenty of masculine blazers and pants (including beige pleated), lots of prints and some straw hats – which are swiftly becoming a KW calling card (the last four summer seasons have featured hats of some description). Colours are navy, white and a crazy multicoloured psychedelic print. Gold buttons on blazers feature a peace sign, and a pair of navy pants have a white bird print. “Is this the Karen Walker peace collection?” I ask. “No, we just liked the peace signs on buttons,” says Karen. “Isn’t that a peace dove on the pants though?” “No, it’s a seagull.” “A peace-gull?” I venture. Karen laughs. “Maybe.” “It’s a nautical resort, holiday kinda feel,” says Karen. “It’s inspired by the 60s show The Prisoner.” “I don’t think I know it,” I say. “Oh it’s really good. Kinda kooky 60s psychedelia. It was about a seaside resort that was actually a prison for retired spies. It was really f*cked up, but really good.” That explains the print. “There are lots of tanks and navy blazers and stripy breton tee shirts and just that really great 60s seaside resort feel which I’ve always loved.”
One more model’s book lies on the table. Karen picks it up. “Where’s this girl?” she asks. Lylle pipes up. “She’s in the bathroom. Apparently she’s washing her feet because she put deep heat on them and now they’re on fire.” “Oh God,” laughs Karen, “I don’t want to know.” “She’s probably taking a bath,” says Lylle. “And then having a sleep in your room,” says Heather-Mary. Like I said, the team’s tight-knit. We manage to coax the poor girl out of the bathroom and into a group photograph. First attempt fails (Karen doesn’t approve of my skills as a photographer), the second goes slightly better. Once everybody’s happy, I get ready to leave. At this point I’ve almost double overstayed my thirty minute allotment so I wish everybody luck and make my way out of the room. Four more models sit in the hallway waiting their turn. Karen walks me to the door. Once again I go for the one cheek, she goes for two. I don’t think she notices though because a moment later she’s heading back to the brown suede throne. There are more models to see, more interviews to be had, more jokes at the team’s expense to be told.
Karen Walker will show on Saturday at 4pm Eastern Standard time.
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