Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people in their own words.

The Karen Walker fashion empire could be said to owe its existence to a chance meeting in a nightclub. It was there that the 18-year-old Walker first set eyes on Mikhail Gherman, the former Soviet refugee who would eventually become her husband and her brand’s creative director. The Ukrainian, in Walker’s own words, has a brilliant creative mind and they talked all night — until she had to leave to meet a curfew. In 1988, after he had completed art school and just as she was finishing fashion school, the Karen Walker fashion label was born. Seven years later, Walker opened her first store in Newmarket, Auckland, and in 1998, the year of her first runway collection, she began selling to the luxury department store chain Barneys New York; she later also signed a partnership for a seasonal collaboration with US-based retail chain Anthropologie. Walker has since designed clothes and sunglasses worn by such household names as Michelle Obama, Adele, Lady Gaga, Lorde, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Natalie Portman, Sienna Miller, Kate Winslet and Björk. Her services to New Zealand fashion were formally acknowledged by the Queen and government in 2004 when she was appointed a member of the NZ Order of Merit, and again a decade later when she was promoted to the rank of companion. And for the past seven years, she has been consistently ranked in the Business of Fashion’s BoF 500, reflecting her standing and influence in the industry worldwide. 

The backdrop to my childhood was a very solid, middle-class, suburban life in the 70s – the five o'clock sound of the milkman and one TV station, which turned off at nine o'clock. It was a very solid household of me, mum Beverley, dad Noel, and older brother Nick. I'm very lucky that in my entire childhood, there was never a moment of uncertainty or unease. That's something I'm very grateful for.

My father taught me about what it is to follow your dream. He was entrepreneurial in the travel industry. He showed me what being an entrepreneur or being creative could be like. My mother taught me about having a solid basis for the family. There was always structure around time and place and it was a chaos-free zone. She came from a Waspish background, so everything was always buttoned down. My father was more flamboyant. 

My mother had a Bernina sewing machine and a box of perfectly folded fabric in the bottom of the cabinet. On rainy Sunday afternoons, I would diddle around with the sewing machine. It’s not that I particularly loved fashion, but I loved having a way to make things. So I thought, okay, well that's what I'll do.

Karen Walker with her father, Noel and brother, Nick in 1977.


There's only been a count-on-my-hands number of days where it's like, oh my God, I don't want to face the day. 

I’m very proud of my family and serving my community for more than three decades. Building a brand is not easy. And building a business that's thrived for three decades is also not easy.

I think my success has been because of some luck, curiosity, and not sticking rigidly to something. Knowing the purpose is probably the biggest thing. Everything serves the pursuit of that purpose, from the tiniest thing of what's this meeting about, to what’s the next 50 years about. And everything in between.

You don't get to be in business for 30 something years without having failures. And we've had plenty. When I think back, the common thread has always been when I've gone ahead with a project despite knowing that it is not the right fit. 

One of my big tests before I go into any partnership is, do I like these people, would I have them around my house for dinner? If the answer is no, then we don't do it. 

Stress can be at least partly solved by a bit of meditation and yoga. Or a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle and a John Le Carré audiobook. My husband and my dog make me join them for a walk twice a day, perhaps the best stress release of all. 

On weekends, I always talk to my brother, who lives in the UK. We have an appointment on FaceTime on my Sunday morning and his Saturday night. He'll have a cognac or a port in his hand and I’ll have my cup of Earl Grey and we chat for about an hour.  

I don't have any particularly exciting or interesting hobbies. If I'm lucky I might be able to get somebody in the household to challenge me to a game of chess, although I think they're a bit afraid of my pragmatism and my stickability.

I will always happily spend money on myself when I'm travelling, to do it in a nice way and a fun way. If I'm travelling for work, often I'll schedule a free day for myself just to explore the city and perhaps get a private tour.

I've got a favourite teacup – it’s Wedgwood and it’s beautiful. Nobody else is allowed to even touch it. It’s one of those things that just gives me joy, and it’s irreplaceable. 

As told to Jacqui Loates-Haver.
This interview has been edited for clarity.