With several economic downturns already behind her, Karen Walker is preparing to take her fashion label through the biggest challenge it’s ever faced.
Karen Walker is perhaps New Zealand’s most internationally recognised fashion designer, with four New Zealand stores and hundreds of stockists across the country and around the world. As the Covid-19 crisis puts the world into a ‘shelter-at-home’ hiatus, Karen tells Britomart’s Melinda Williams that right now, she’s focused on looking after her people and taking a tough-minded approach to reimagining her business, while remembering that customers will never lose their essential need to dream.
Melinda Williams: Hi Karen. How are you and the others in your bubble (husband and Karen Walker creative director Mikhail Gherman and daughter Valentina)?
Karen Walker: We’re good. We’re just trying to carry on as best we can. I’m working heaps, probably more than I would be normally. Mikhail is doing whatever work he can, but he’s spending the rest of the time just thinking about what’s next. Valentina’s at school remotely from her desk in her room from 8.15 to 4 o’clock, coming down briefly for morning tea and lunch. Then she’s into homework. So she’s working hard. I do a bit of meditation and yoga in the morning. I take the dog for a walk, Mikhail takes the dog for a walk, Valentina goes for a bike ride. That’s about it.
What does your business – which extends across New Zealand, international wholesalers and an online shop – look like at the moment? Are any parts of it still functioning, even in a limited way?
In terms of income, there’s nothing right now. So, we’re just planning for what’s coming up for us when we can sell, and continuing to prep for the seasons to come, but in terms of the current moment, there’s nothing happening in terms of trading. We’ve got 51 staff – about half of them are working and the other half aren’t, but they’re all still getting paid of course. Most other businesses are in the same boat. People can still browse and shop on our site, but we’re not shipping. The coming weeks will just be more of the same. We’ve got some people thinking about tasks for the moment, some people thinking about tasks in the future once we’re able to serve our customers again and others of us thinking about what a completely reinvented post-C19 world looks like.
What are your thoughts around that – how might the changed landscape look?
Well, last week was pretty much putting out fires for me and this week is about damping down the hotspots, but now I’m starting to think about the bigger stuff, and how I’m looking at it is that C-19’s an accelerant for whatever the trajectories were anyway. It’s just poured fuel on those fires. That trajectory might be thinking more locally, thinking smaller, thinking more sustainable, thinking more digital and less bricks and mortar and big corporates looking for constant growth. Those are all trends we’ve already seen, they’re not news to anybody. I feel like this really has the potential to accelerate.
Also, we’re about to walk into a depression. I just heard someone on National Radio, one of the economists at Westpac, I think, saying it’s probably going to be 18 months of shrinkage and then a year flat. That’s a big paradigm shift for the world. It’s time to throw out the rule book and travel lightly. Everything has shifted. The value of every asset, of every product, of every person, every service, every object, the value of that has shifted fundamentally. We’re about to walk into 11 percent unemployment here and 25 percent or something in the States. The NYSE is 25 percent down. I think a lot of people are still thinking it’s going to be four weeks of something a bit strange. Try four years. Try 40 years, because your kids are still going to be paying for it
You’ve been through recessions and downturns before – what have you learned from those experiences that will help you through this?
This is the fifth time for me, and this is no doubt going to be the biggest, but the learnings are the same. There’s a ‘before’ and there’s an ‘after’, and some things you can take with you and some things you have to leave behind. Everyone goes back to zero. But what we do know is that people won’t stop dreaming, and that is fashion’s fundamental purpose in the world. It might have a toe in need, but the rest is desire. The question for me is ‘What does desire look like, post C-19 and how do I service that?’
How do you think people’s buying behaviour might change?
People are being forced to use technology even more than they were, even to where they’re out of their comfort zone, which can actually be quite good. I’ve signed up for online grocery shopping, which I’ve never done before. I used to like going, ‘What am I going to cook tonight?’ and popping down to Harvest or Farro and getting whatever I needed. I didn’t like being dictated to like, ‘Here are your groceries for the week; make it work.’ I’ve had to shift that model and actually, it’s kind of become a game. ‘I’ve got one head of broccoli and three carrots… what do I do with that?’ [laughs] Maybe I won’t go back. I think we’re all being forced into new habits and some of those habits will keep. That might include working from home in trackpants. So, what does that mean for people who sell fancy shoes? Everything has to be re-thought.
What’s going to be the biggest challenge for the fashion business?
That you’ve got high unemployment, and fear. If someone’s husband’s role has been made redundant and their job’s been cut back 50 percent and suddenly there’s a lot more people wanting their job, what does that do to your household budget? You have to go through line by line and make decisions about what you can live without and what you can’t live without. Ultimately, this all creates a great deal of fear. This is a seismic shift that will change everything and no amount of comfort baking will change that.
That’s true… and unnerving. Any words of comfort?
I’m a passionate believer that the only way to solve any problem big or small is through creativity. Throw out everything you thought you knew, everything you thought you valued and start with a fresh, clean, white sheet of paper. That’s what it’s going to take. We’re going to have to place a lot of faith in our creativity to get us through to the other side. It’s crazy times. I never thought I’d see something like this in my lifetime.