Karen Walker has run her eponymous fashion design and retailing business for 30 years, and opened a new store on the ground floor of The Hotel Britomart in 2020. For the last decade, much of her attention has been focused on bringing transparency and a stronger sustainability focus to the famously opaque supply chains of the fashion industry.
JEREMY HANSEN The fashion industry has changed radically since you started out, and not only in terms of sustainability. Can you give me a sense of what it was like when you began? KAREN WALKER I've been in business 30-plus years – the business of fashion and retail – and nothing is the same as what it was when I came into it. The conversation and thinking around sustainability when I came into the business in the late 80s was non-existent. There were some exceptions – Patagonia, for example – but most companies wouldn’t have even known what the word sustainability meant. Now I think it's the opposite. You wouldn't have a single company out there now who doesn't have that on their agenda, to different degrees.
KAREN WALKER I've been in business 30-plus years – the business of fashion and retail – and nothing is the same as what it was when I came into it. The conversation and thinking around sustainability when I came into the business in the late 80s was non-existent. There were some exceptions – Patagonia, for example – but most companies wouldn’t have even known what the word sustainability meant. Now I think it's the opposite. You wouldn't have a single company out there now who doesn't have that on their agenda, to different degrees.
JH A lot of your focus around sustainability has been on your supply chain, which must be complicated in this era of diffuse globalisation. Can you talk a bit about that?
KW We started the conversation with our supply chain around transparency and who they are and what they do between 15 to 20 years ago − we started manufacturing offshore, so that kind of had to go hand-in-hand with it. Some brands or makers will work with an agent who sends the work out, and you’ve got no idea where it goes to. That was never going to be right for us. We always wanted to engage directly with factories.
Similarly, there are a lot of makers in this business who'll buy fabric off what they call the stock market – not the financial stock market, but stocks of fabrics in China and other countries where there's just millions of metres of fabrics you can choose but you have no idea where they’re made, who made them, where the fibres come from or anything like that. That's something we did do in the early days, but we haven't done that for about a decade. With our fabric supplier, we can go and visit any factory we work with at any time. We know the owners, we know the teams. I've been to most of our factories in China, and my production team’s been to all of them. We have an independent, third-party quality control manager on the ground there who's in and out of all of them, probably on a monthly basis. I think that was always the approach we took: that we wanted to know the people, be able to visit, be able to go and take photos and meet the teams.
Most of our partner factories are small, family-owned businesses, maybe the owners and 10, 20, 30, 40 people on the team. And from day one, we have a very clear Code of Conduct for Social Compliance that all our factory partners have to agree to and work to. If they don’t, then we won’t work with them, because if your partner isn't going to be transparent and commit to working in the way that you want them to work, then they're not the right partner.
JH I imagine that for a long time it was difficult to get a lot of the things you needed in a partner certified by an official third-party organisation.
KW Yes. For a lot of our partners, the code of conduct and the people going in to do checks and all that kind of stuff was the first time they'd ever had people ask for that. Some of them were happy to go on the journey with us and learn about it and make improvements where necessary, and others found it too hard, so we couldn’t work with them anymore. I think most of them realise that's going to be the new normal, and they might as well just do it now.
JH From the outside, fashion can look like the most unsustainable of industries, because it can look like it’s predicated on unnecessary consumption.
KW It can. Fashion with a capital F is about built-in obsolescence, and I've never really been personally interested in that. I like pieces that are solid and real and beautiful and well-crafted, and well-made and well-designed, and that's always what we present to our customers. I think that tendency towards built-in obsolescence is changing across the board, because the community on either side of the counter is demanding that change. We all know that the most sustainable wardrobe is the one you already own, or the one you swap with friends. So that idea of new for new’s sake, I don't see that around much anymore.
JH How does all this change the way you design and bring products to market?
KW When we design we start by asking, what does our community actually need or want? It’s about items that are going to be functional and a little bit fun and exciting as well. People need a uniform, in a way, with tweaks around the edges. It might have a little bit of fun and glamour and fairy dust in it, but ultimately when you peel that back with everything that we make or we sell, they're elevated uniform pieces. When people buy product from us, we want it to be in their wardrobe for years, if not decades. We want it to be multi-generational, or something that they can send to the second-hand shop and there's a market for it. Those things only come about by designing well and making well. We also design to best use the skills of the makers we work with. We don’t dream something up and make them shave their margins so it meets an arbitrary price point we’ve imposed.
JH To get more granular, how has your examination of this process affected things like fabric selection, for example?
KW It definitely has shifted things. Two-thirds of the product we now make in terms of number of units is GOTS certified organic cotton grown in India. Every cotton piece you’ll see in our stores is certified organic and Fair Trade-made. There's a lot in that, but what it comes down to is that we know exactly where it has come from. We know the teams who've turned it into fabric and have sewn it and that they’re being paid well and taken care of. The other thing I love about using organic cotton is the way they’re finding ways to use it better. When you cut from a roll of fabric for a pattern piece, about 10 percent of that roll – the offcuts – isn’t used and is traditionally sent to landfill. Our teams in India gather those offcuts and break it back down to yarn, then re-knit or reweave it. With other fabrics, about 18 percent of our styles are 100 percent cashmere, and that's partly sourced from Inner Mongolia and partly from Nepal. About 8 percent is silk blends. If we do use polyester – it’s generally one or two percent of total fabric composition – it’s 100 percent recycled. All our puffer jackets that we’ve got in the range for next year, they’re all recycled polyester.
JH What’s your end game in terms of sustainability, the ultimate goal?
KW There's no end game. It's never done. You have to be questioning all the time. The situation changes, the world changes. Even if you think everything is really good and you're happy, something's going to come along tomorrow that's out of your control, and you're going to have to be flexible and go back to questioning what is in line with your standards.