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Podcast: Business Is Boring #15 – Karen Walker

‘Business is Boring’ is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.

To people in New Zealand Karen Walker is a household name as a designer and business person, famous for women’s clothing, the jewellery, perfume, sunglasses and pioneering powerful fashion brand partnerships, like her range of Resene paint colours.

Karen's tiny house painted with a tiny brush and tiny pots of tiny paint

Karen’s tiny house painted with a tiny brush and tiny pots of tiny paint

But Karen Walker is not just a significant figure in New Zealand, she is a fixture on the Business of Fashion’s list of the 500 most influential figures in fashion worldwide, the brand’s sunglasses are worn by the world’s most famous stars: Rihanna, Adele, LeBronJames… and when they showed at New York fashion week their show would be front page of Style.com.

The brand has partnered with some of the world’s biggest retailers, Uniqlo in Japan, Anthropologie in the US, they have around 1000 stockists worldwide, and the sunglasses are reported to be a 35 million dollar a year business.

This is success on a scale that maybe not that many people in NZ totally grasp, and it hasn’t happened overnight. Over 20 years Karen and her partner Mikhail Gherman and her teams have created a real global super-brand, and to learn a little about some of the steps on the way, about what it takes, Karen joined us for a wide-ranging and very instructive enjoyable chat.

Either download or have a listen below, subscribe through iTunes or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

How do you build those ideas that take something that is undifferentiated and differentiate it just through the shapes and the ideas and the imagery?

It all comes down to not going ‘close enough is good enough’, that’s kind of it. Not compromising, I would say, is the most important thing everyday in what we do. It’s not going ‘you can’t make the lenses flatter or bigger? Okay well that’s fine, we’ll just have that funny little curved, tinted lens that everybody else has and stick a logo on the temple.’ That sort of compromise is not something we ever allow. If you can’t do it right and do it to the vision, then you don’t do it. I think that’s probably the difference.

But also having an overall vision and being very clear on the ideas, very clear on the creative, not compromising on that. Having a clear vision not just for the product, but for where the brand and the product should sit and what it should mean. What it should say to people and how it should make people feel. What does the brand mean? What do you we want people to feel when they experience the brand, in whatever form they experience it. And not compromising on that, I think that’s the key thing.

The design business, no matter what area you’re in – typefaces or whatever – there are ones at the pointy end of the spear who are actually going, without compromise, ‘this is my vision and it’s something new’. And then you have 100 people doing that or 1000 or whatever, there’s some people who work like that and then there’s others who trail behind and regurgitate all the idea. That’s the nature of the design business. Our point as always been that we’re at the pointy end. Whatever you guys do behind us, we don’t care about, but this is our vision.

The way that you managed to bring that in stores, for the sunglasses, the bar that you built to travel around to all of the stores because otherwise they’re just sunglasses on a stand.

In-store experience is a funny one. If you have your own stores and you do it right, it’s brilliant for the brand and if you do it wrong it hurts the brand. Ditto if you’re selling into other people’s stores. If it’s in the right store it enhances your brand, if it’s, say, Barneys. And if you’re in the wrong it hurts your brand.

Then you’ve got the whole digital footprint as well that if you do that right it’s good for your brand, if you do it wrong it hurts your brand. Every decision along the way; where it’s sold, how it’s presented, what the experience is, what the product is. Every single decision has to be made on ‘is this in line with our vision for the brand or not?’ Including who we sell it to and how it’s presented in their stores. And we’re very … almost militant around that.

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