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‘My happy place is finding a quiet little bay with a 'pōhutukawa'.’
Gems in this
Auckland native Karen Walker fell in love with the excitement of travel from a young age and has followed her creativity around the globe. Yet despite this wanderlust and her international acclaim, the pioneering fashion designer has her feet squarely planted among the abounding natural beauty of New Zealand.
Karen finds endless inspiration in Auckland — from the works of traditional Pasifika artisans, the supportive creative community and the dramatic double coastline. It’s also from Auckland that she continues to grow an astounding fashion empire that spans dozens of countries. It’s little wonder then that Karen is heralded as a national treasure, having been awarded with the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. For our Aotearoa Country Special, Karen shares her love for the authenticity of New Zealand’s people, the arresting beauty of the volcanic mountains, and her most cherished Travel Gems to explore while in Auckland.
On Auckland being home
I’m a born-and-bred Aucklander and have lived here all my life. I’ve never lived anywhere else. It’s probably quite a rare thing in any big city to find somebody who’s born there and has lived there, always.
On Auckland’s unique natural landscape
Auckland has a very urban identity set against great natural beauty, and there are many things that you won't see anywhere else but in Auckland. We have two incredible coastlines with beautiful islands scattered down the eastern coast. It's also a very mountainous city with close to 50 volcanoes. And there’s the Waitākere Ranges on our west coast, dividing the city from the wild Tasman Sea. Geographically those are the things that make us unique.
On Auckland’s unique culture
Our diverse populations also make us unique. Many cities are culturally diverse, but what other cities don’t have is the largest Pasifika population in the world. We’re very lucky to be part of the South Pacific, which does incredible things for our culture and our community. I’ve been working with Cook Islands mamas who make tīvaevae, which is a type of traditional quilting. After 50 years of living in Auckland, I’ve managed to find myself embedded right in the center of the Cook Islands community in the last few years — that is one of the greatest gifts my career has brought me.
On where your creativity has taken you
We showed in New York for 20 seasons between 2006 and 2016, in London for eight seasons, Sydney for three and Hong Kong for one. One of the reasons we stopped showing was I woke up after 15 years of not being able to enjoy a New Zealand February and thought, ‘This sucks! I’d really like to have February at home and go to the beach’. Despite this, travel has genuinely built my business. I love travel, it’s one of my great passions and it’s in my blood. I’m happiest when I’m getting on a plane and I have my passport in hand. Yet, I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. So, we created the business in a way that could allow for travel to be at its heart.
On having a traveler spirit
My Dad was an early entrepreneur in the travel industry in New Zealand. He started a business in the 50s which was the first travel agency on the North Island. Travel was his passion and it was his business. My family and I then received the benefits of that, getting to travel with him once or twice a year. That’s where I caught the bug and was motivated by the excitement and the adrenaline of boarding a plane. It was first presented to me as a preschooler so travel from then on was always going to play a massive part in my life.
On starting your brand as a teenager
I was 18 when I started the company. We had seed capital of NZ-$100. A friend of mine who was in a band asked if I could make him a shirt to wear on stage. We decided on a male shirt with a big 1970s pointy collar and cuffs. But I got hold of a Liberty print fabric with delicate pink florals and there was this duality of masculine and feminine, which has been in our work ever since. It all started with the idea of making something cool for a friend. Other people saw it and liked it, so I made more. This was also at a time, in the late 80s, where there were heavy restrictions around imports — you couldn’t even buy a cool pair of Levi’s. So, if you couldn’t buy it, you had to figure out how to make it. Then I woke up one day and realized, ‘Oh there’s a business and a brand here and something is really happening’.
'Our diverse populations also make us unique. Many cities are culturally diverse, but what lots of cities don’t have is the largest Pasifika population in the world.'
On lessons learned in building a global brand
We've never gone into a market and thought, what does this market need? And how should we turn ourselves inside out to cater to them? Because who cares? I don't need the hassle of reinventing my brand every time we want to present it to a fresh city or marketplace. We just make what we love, and we find that people want to come along for the ride. Life's too short.
On the power of purpose and personal goals
Every summer holiday, my husband and I — we are the two sole partners in the business — sit down and work out a plan for the coming 12 and 60 months. We sit down and write our own lists about what’s important to us. It’s usually the same items on the list but the order might be slightly different. It’ll include things like our daughter, our health, creativity, mental and physical wellbeing. After we have clarity around priorities, we talk about what the plan is for the business. The business must feed into our personal goals, not the other way around. Our purpose in life is not to do whatever the business wills us to do. It’s to build great lives for ourselves and have the other elements of our lives enabling that. For us, that means living in a city that we love and having a lifestyle that we love. It also means not relocating to another city, and that’s fine, we make that choice.
On choosing the destination you want
I wanted to have a 30- or 40-year career where I’d wake up excited every day. That was a very clear decision for me as a 15- or 16-year-old. I’ve continued to use that clear thinking to help make decisions along the way. It takes clarity and it takes strength to know what to say yes to and what to say no to. Hopefully, if everything goes well, you’ll end up five years down the track in a place that you want to be, not just the place the river took you to. I try to get a spot of snowboarding in every winter, and in snowboarding it’s important to keep your eyes on where you want to end up, because that’s where the board will take you. I think there’s something useful in that for life too.
On where you find inspiration in Auckland
My happy place is finding a quiet little bay with a pōhutukawa, which is one of our native trees that loves the salt air and the wind — lying under a pōhutukawa tree when it’s in flower with beautiful red blossoms and listening to the birds. I live in central Auckland so my closest bays are Hamilton Beach Reserve, Sentinel and Sarsfield — all of those little city bays are a bit muddy and squelchy underfoot, but still really fantastic. They have a very urban feel to them.
'The twin coasts say so much about our city... You've got these two completely different personalities of the Pacific and the Tasman. It’s opposites being thrown together and it makes life quite exciting.'
On walking from the Pacific coast to the Tasman coast
We’re only a city of about two million people yet we have two coastlines. We have the Pacific on the east and the Tasman on the west, which have very different oceans and nature. You can walk from one side to the other, which is about 16-km. Every school kid does the Coast to Coast Walk. I first did it when I was 12. The idea of being able to walk from the Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea in four hours is kind of mad.
On showing a friend around Auckland for the day
The twin coasts say so much about our city, so I’d start the day with an east-coast walk from Maungauika/North Head, which is this little volcano that sticks out into the middle of the Waitematā Harbour. You have the best views of Auckland from there. Then I’d walk down to Cheltenham Beach and follow the coastline right up to Milford Beach — that’s around a 10-km walk along some of the best beaches in the city. Then come back into the city to go to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Whatever’s on at this gallery is just brilliant — it’s also in a beautiful building that is one of our real treasures. Stop there and soak in some art. You can eat at the gallery, or grab a picnic and drive out to the west coast, where my favorite beach is called Te Henga [Bethells Beach]. If it's not the middle of winter there will be a little café called Bethells Cafe in the sand dunes, so grab a great coffee and fantastic organic carrot cake. You may even get really lucky with a movie or a band playing in the evening.
On the beauty of climbing volcanoes
We have around 50 volcanoes in Auckland. Climb them! The best way to get a sense of Auckland is by climbing a mountain. My favorites would be Maungauika/North Head, Ōhinerau/Mount Hobson, which is kind of an understated one that not many people think about, but it’s fantastic. Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill is the mountain I was born next to, and is probably one of the most famous in Auckland. Rangitoto is also a beautiful island right in the middle of the gulf where you just get the most stunning view. So, I’d pick three or four of those and you’ll find quite a different experience on each one.
On sailing the spectacular Hauraki Gulf
We’ve got over 4,000-sq-km of water in the Hauraki Gulf and plenty of islands, so go sailing. The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, where I’m a member, would have lots of suggestions for great ways to get out on a boat, be it for a lesson or as a paid guest. It’s a wonderful way to see the city and on the right day there is nothing better. I was lucky enough to get out for the America's Cup here last summer, nine times. Every time you're out on the water, it's just breathtaking. When you’re coming back into the city, it is spectacular to watch the light dropping over the mountains.
'We’ve got over 4000 sq kms of water in the Hauraki Gulf and plenty of islands, so go sailing.'
On a nearby getaway to Aotea/Great Barrier Island
Aotea/Great Barrier Island is the fourth-biggest island in the New Zealand archipelago, but still part of Auckland City. It's about 20 minutes by plane - a small plane — and about four hours by ferry. It has a year-round population of about 1,000. And in summer, it explodes to 2000 and that's all it can accommodate. It’s a wild, rugged, remote beauty with a very specific personality. It makes you work hard to get there. You have to take all of your groceries, the power is mostly solar, petrol is like NZ$20 a liter or something ridiculous. You really have to be dedicated to get there, but it pays you back. It’s become our regular summer spot. That's probably my favorite thing about Auckland besides walking in my own neighborhood.
On New Zealand creators you’re inspired by
I’m a huge Katherine Mansfield fan. My favorite works of hers are The Garden Party, At the Bay and The Doll’s House. If any of our audience are in Wellington, they should definitely go to Katherine Mansfield House and Garden, which is one of Wellington’s great treasures — and please read at least one of her stories. I love Eleanor Catton, who wrote The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker Prize [in 2013]. It was the most astonishing book. In terms of music, I love Marlon Williams, Anthonie Tonnon and Connan Mockasin. Art-wise, anybody coming to Auckland should take a look at Colin McCahon because he captured Auckland so well. You can visit the McCahon House and see where he lived, which is quite an eye opener. I adore Michael Parekōwhai and I think anybody coming to Auckland needs to go look at his state house [called The Lighthouse]. It’s a beautiful life-size rendering of a traditional 1950s state house but built at the end of Princes Wharf. After you come back from sailing, you’ll sail right past it — so be sure to time the end of your sail for dusk so you can see the state house glowing.
On your must-do experience in all of New Zealand
To experience Auckland's twin coasts. I can't think of another large city that straddles an entire country and allows you to have very different east and west coast situations all in one day.
On what ‘manaakitanga’ means to you
The concept of manaakitanga to me is extending love and compassion to others in whatever way is right for you. This concept is really central to what it is to be human.
'There have been times I've flown into my own city and I’ve cried because it’s like I’m looking at Auckland for the first time. I'm pleased to be home and that’s something I never take for granted.'
On what makes New Zealand so special
For me, what makes Aotearoa New Zealand so special is its intimacy, authenticity and beauty.
On a window or an aisle seat
Always the window, I need to see what's coming. I need to look at the city, whether I've been there or not, and see it from this perspective. How many people 100 years ago thought they’d be able to look down on their own city the way we can now? I put some music on and allow myself to be mesmerized by what I’m seeing. There have been times I've flown into my own city and — without sounding schmaltzy — I’ve cried because it’s like I’m looking at Auckland for the first time. I'm pleased to be home and I’m experiencing this emotion from a few thousand feet, and that’s something you should never take for granted. Put your book down, turn the movie off and look at that! You’re not going to see that view everyday.
On Auckland in one word
The Pacific is a peaceful blue, with warm, gentle waves and white sand, and the Tasman has three-meter surging dark-blue waves where you wouldn't go swimming past your knees unless there were coastguards within a couple of meters. You've got these two completely different personalities, which is one of the things I love most about the city. It’s opposites being thrown together — it makes life quite exciting.