At age 18, Karen Walker spent a spare $100 on some fabric and made her first shirt. This small start marked the beginning of an epic career as a designer whose product (which includes clothing, sunglasses, jewelry and homeware) is now available in over 30 countries and 200 cities worldwide. Karen shows at New York Fashion Week each season and counts Rihanna, Charlize Theron and Lena Dunham among her fans. While her reach is far, she remains in her native New Zealand, living with her daughter Valentina and husband Mikhail (creative director for the brand). These are Karen’s insights into how she’s reached her version of success.
“Growing up in New Zealand, I think I developed a sense of pragmatism, resourcefulness and clarity of vision that I believe is common among New Zealanders. These characteristics have been useful in business, particularly in the early years of the brand. During that time, what kept me going was the small victories along the way. Most projects or businesses are built upon thousands of small successes (and a few failures).
It’s those incremental successes that keep the energy, the focus and the faith in the vision.
You have to be patient with the development of your business, and also understand that being more established doesn’t necessarily reduce insecurity. As a designer you’re always stepping into the unknown and you have to embrace your insecurities.
When it comes to a formula for progression, what works for me is having clear goals and taking steps towards those goals—while also being ready to seize unexpected opportunities. I’m organized by nature, and this has always helped me too. I pay attention to both rational logic and my gut when making decisions, particularly to my instincts. Intuition plays a big role and is a very important part of being a creative and business person. I’ve always stuck by the advice of: do it if it feels right. Successful people usually have really fine-tuned intuition and listen to it—but you must be able to recognize the difference between intuition and delusion. You also need to be open to taking risks, which I think are crucial to success. The biggest risk for me was putting my name on the brand, but it ended up working out.
For me, success means happiness.
In terms of family, as does any working mother, I feel pressure trying to fulfill both roles. Who doesn’t? Mikhail and I try not to let work creep into home, which is the worst thing about working with your partner. The best things are the unconditional commitment and sharing the failures and successes.
I think it’s part of the human condition to always want more. While I’ve always dreamt big, I think I was happy quite a few years ago.”