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When the Covid-19 crisis struck, Karen Walker — known for her offbeat designs that have been worn by the likes of Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama, and carried by retailers such as Barneys and Harvey Nichols — found that she was propelled to shift the way she thought about her business, her mission as a designer and her community. Walker’s home country, New Zealand, battled the Covid-19 pandemic with a swift hand — its citizens saw only five weeks of lockdowns before the virus disappeared from within its borders. Despite the relative brevity of the country’s lockdowns, business owners and brands were still faced with the same existential crises and questions as the rest of the world. Now that people within the country have returned to something close to normal life (just without tourists), Walker notes several shifts in attitude: people want to treat themselves, but they also want to support the nation and local businesses that supported them. More generally, consumers have come out of lockdown more interested in buying products aligned with what they stand for.
On this week’s BoF Podcast, Walker joins Tim Blanks in a conversation about dealing with change, defining desire and life on the other side of the Covid crisis.
When New Zealand’s prime minister announced the country would go into lockdown in March, Walker had just finalised the next year’s budget. Instead of being able to sit back and do business as usual, she was forced to rethink everything and ask existential questions about her business that would go on to have a lasting impact. “If this goes on for six months or a year, and I really have to fight for this, what am I fighting for? What will my audience miss? What’s at stake? Why should I go into battle for this?” she said.
After going through what Walker calls nature’s “forced contemplation,” she stopped thinking of herself as primarily a designer, but rather, a retailer who serves the needs of her community. As part of that mindset shift, Walker abandoned the traditional fashion calendar, for one, because she realised it was more in her customer’s interest to do so. Even though she sees the change as good, it was still unsettling. “Change is uncomfortable, alright, even if you know you have to do it — it’s still an uncomfortable place.” Walker said.
Walker has observed transformations in what consumers think about and look for when shopping. First, they want to know what retailers stand for and how it aligns with what they care about. Second, they want products that are both beautiful and functional. “They want it to be a good product, not necessarily a new product. That speaks to how it’s made, how it’s designed, how it functions, the cost of its making — the unseen costs on people and planet,” said Walker. “Those are very much in people’s minds, and that’s what motivates me too. I’m not interested in just making more and more stuff.”