Just as every bride has a story — or more likely 100 stories — designer Karen Walker wants to be part of that narrative with a new bridal collection.
The Auckland, New Zealand-based designer has created an assortment of wedding-day styles, after years of customers requesting bridal dresses or outfits. Until now, the timing never felt right, Walker said. But that did not deter many from buying various Karen Walker designs to wear for their big day. “But they had never been designed specifically for that intent,” she explained.
Now there are 12 bespoke dresses, four bespoke suits and two off-the-rack dresses “for those wanting to elope,” Walker said. Retail prices range from $950 to $3,500 and are sold through the new bridal shop in her Auckland boutique and online store. Bespoke shoppers can work directly with her team that includes patternmakers, tailors and other specialists in her atelier or via e-mail, FaceTime or other means. Fittings and creating toiles are all part of the package. Such procedures have been put to use for six international high-profile clients over the past 12 months. That roster included former First Lady Michelle Obama, who needed a suit for her “Becoming” book tour. Walker said, “We were able to work with her tailor to get her measurements, create a toile, send it to her, etc., to get the right fit. That also gave us the confidence that now is the right time to create this [bridal] range because we wanted it to be made especially for the client.”
Bridal is a first for Walker and engagement rings will be part of the KW Atelier assortment. Thirty-one years ago, Walker started her company with $100 by working out of a kitchen and built it up in the decades that followed. The head office remains in Auckland — just a five-minute drive from her first location. The 65-person operation is still privately owned and for that reason, Walker declined to pinpoint annual sales.
At this point, the designer is not eyeing any new categories, but there are five or six short-term partnerships and collaborations coming up. “That’s fun for us. It allows us to work with experts in other fields, where we may not have expertise, but we still have a story to tell. We get to have relationships with different people who are skilled in their area. I really enjoy meeting and creating product with different people. It really allows you to tell different stories. That’s really the business that we’re in. I don’t really think of us as makers of products or designers of products, as I do of us as tellers of stories. We really try to be creative and open-minded about where those stories might take us.”
Disney, and the Auckland City Art Gallery — Walker’s favorite cultural institution in New Zealand — are among the projects that she worked on in the past year. “So we’ll do big or new projects — whatever it takes to tell an interesting story,” she said.
Aside from consumer demand, Walker delved into bridal partially due to the appeal of working on a project that was outside of fashion’s normal time lines, “which is so much at the heart of the business that we are in. So when we started this project, we didn’t have a launch date in mind or a time line. We said, ‘Let’s just create a body of work. If we’re happy with it and think it is good enough, then we’ll take it to the market,” Walker said. “So we didn’t have any pressure on ourselves. We just wanted to create great product. We were really playing with it at first — what can we create?”
It was only once a dozen styles measured up and were hanging on a rack that Walker decided, “OK, let’s do this. Let’s go out and present this as a story.” Going forward, the freewheeling approach will continue adding to the collection when they feel there is something to be said. “That is a really different approach for us. With everything else that we do, there are certain deadlines and certain moments that we want to have with the market. We are really completely ignoring that,” Walker said. “Also, we’re not worrying about holding stock. We’re just making for the customer when she wants it and it will fit her perfectly. There is not that idea of having every size on the rack.”
Walker also designs with a certain amount of pragmatism. “They’re not princess or merengue dresses and they’re not going to have the bride feeling trapped and unable to move. Often bridal gowns, dresses and wear feel very outside of real life, compared to how one might approach fashion any other day their life.” she said.