The preeminent New Zealand fashion designer has finally crumbled and offered her many fans the bridal collection they have been asking her for, including an extraordinary fine jewellery collection.
“I just nagged her until she said yes. I had to have many goes. At least a few dozen.” “It was twice a day every day for two years.” “In advertising, you learn that repetition eventually becomes something new.” We are in Karen Walker’s Ponsonby office, and her husband, Mikhail Gherman, a former advertising creative director, is joking around about how he proposed. The pair have been married for 28 years. They’ve run Walker’s fashion house together for 30 years and been in the jewellery business for 16 years. In August, they finally launched their first bridal collection, Karen Walker Atelier.
Like her own wedding, this took some persuasion. “We have been asked for as long as I can remember about wedding dresses,” Walker says. “Our clients have a connection with our brand, they like our style, and then it comes to their wedding day…” Over the years, Walker has designed four collections a year, as well as sunglasses, jewellery, handbags, and fragrances, and collaborated with Sephora, Disney, Madewell, Uniqlo, Blunt and Resene. Countless bridesmaids have worn her dresses, but there has been no Karen Walker bridalwear. There does seem to be something incongruous about a designer so ceaselessly inventive and exploratory venturing into a category so hemmed in by strict provisos and traditions. But, she says, “the time has come”.
Karen Walker Atelier is a strikingly broad-ranging collection of 12 dresses, two suits, a fine jewellery collection involving well-conceived ring sets, and four styles of veils. There are long, elegant, dreamy dresses, shorter, fun frocks, and chic suiting. There’s a fluid, silky crêpe de Chine, a highly textured bubble jacquard, a luxurious taffeta, a sweet dotted tulle, and a breathtaking botanical lace embroidered with glass beads. Fabrics have been sourced from Gratacós, a storied Barcelona company that produces textiles for couture houses like Chanel.
The collection is accessible, though, with shapes and fabrications that would flatter many different figures and all styles made bespoke for the client. Prices start at NZ$1450 for dresses and NZ$3250 for suits, which includes a dialogue with Walker, and measuring and fittings with her team in Auckland. For brides in a hurry, there are also two styles that can be worn off the rack, and that also come in black. What unifies this collection, and what you notice at first glance, is a certain nonchalance that is unusual in bridalwear, although thoroughly characteristic of Karen Walker, who has referenced the jauntiness of the 1920s and the free spiritedness of the 60s in previous collections.
Some of her most enduring and beloved design flourishes are traceable — balloon sleeves, a swooping low back adorned with a floppy bow, pie-crust collars, a spaghetti strap, sweetheart neckline that I recognise from my best-ever party dress (a red chiffon babydoll dress worn to countless parties, that also somehow suits most of my friends). That party vibe is detectible here, too. These are not starchy dresses for simpering brides who will be trapped at the top table beside a towering cake. These are danceable styles, some of which, Walker suggests, would look cool with some white Stan Smiths.
There is also an adjacent Karen Walker Atelier jewellery collection built on champagne diamonds, black diamonds, peach morganite, rutilated quartz and grey or peach moonstones, cast in white, yellow or rose gold. The rings are the centrepieces, naturally, and there are several two or three-part suites that lock together or that could be collected over the years, as well as options for stacking.
These range from discreet, delicate styles involving a clever graphic pattern that the light winks and glances off – a take on Walker’s signature arrowhead motif – as well as more grand, Art Deco-inspired suites of nesting, flashing diamonds. Again, everything is made bespoke and clients can choose their mix of stones and metals in consultation with Walker’s team. Since its inception, Karen Walker Jewellery has been made in a family-owned-and-run Auckland workshop founded in 1953 and still faithful to laborious, traditional, and highly specialised processes.
Artisanal handcraft underpins their manufacturing and the process is end to end – from the melting down of the metals to all the filing, setting, and polishing. Each piece is made with skill and care, and the quality is extremely high, as it should be for a token of love that will be worn and cherished forever. Although Walker loves a good wedding, she knows there’s a big difference between pulling off one amazing, romantic day, and achieving a stable, lasting marriage. As she worked on this collection, she found herself thinking about why people marry.
“You know, I’m not a traditionalist, but for me, there’s something about marriage that is just different,” she says. “Even if you’ve been together for 20 years, and have five kids and a house together. It’s different when you’re married. It’s a very overt statement of your commitment to one another, and the project that you’re going to create together: your life.” She sees marriage as the dissolution of your identity as an individual and the birth of a new, shared one. “You’re no longer the lead in the movie. You’re no longer the most important thing in your world. Your partnership is the most important thing in the world, and you stick through everything by thinking of what’s right for that entity, not just yourself.”
“So you’ve put yourself down in your pecking order, but you know somebody else has got you at the top, and I think that really shifts how you walk through life. “When you walk into a room and you know that there’s one other person in that room who puts you above everything else, that cares more about you than anything else in the world — that’s quite a powerful thing to step out into life with.”
“But that doesn’t just happen. It’s a constant exploration, right? I mean, in a marriage of 50 years, you’re not going to be the same person on day one as you are at the end of 50. You’re changing all the time, your partner’s changing all the time, and your needs and wants and desires and your purpose in life is changing. And the chance of two people walking through that together and not diverging or colliding is very slim.
“So you have to keep working at it. What is it that we want? What is that we value? What do we want to build? A marriage isn’t just a habit. It’s not a given. To really be good, you have to always remember that you’re in a partnership and building something together. “And I guess everyone has their own way into it, but when it works, there’s nothing better than knowing there’s somebody there who has your back no matter what. That’s a pretty special feeling.”
Karen Walker Atelier can be viewed by appointment in the Karen Walker Bridal Suite above the Ponsonby Road boutique. To book, email the Karen Walker Atelier Directrice via [email protected]