This was not your usual dinner party. UNO and Lexus of Hamilton hosted 30 ladies for champagne and dinner with Karen Walker at Sisters & Co in the Mount.

INTERVIEW JENNY RUDD / PHOTOS SALINA GALVAN

Over a dessert of Black Stump strawberries from Te Puke and glittery chocolate truffles, we interviewed Karen about why her design thinking makes Lexus a great partner, and how her ancestor, William from Katikati, gave her the character to lead the country’s most successful fashion label.

UNO: You’ve been an ambassador for Lexus for 12 years – that’s an extraordinarily long partnership. How did it come about?

KAREN: I have been part of the Lexus family for so long that I can’t actually remember how it came about. There are lots of things I love about Lexus. Obviously, they’re beautifully made luxury cars, and their service is fantastic. My husband managed to get a flat tyre the other day so we took it to the Lexus dealership. A couple of hours later, one of their guys is standing at my desk with my car keys. He managed to somehow get in the building, past reception, and find my office – which he’d never been to before – and return the car. They take service very seriously.

UNO: Your husband is the creative director of Karen Walker. What’s it been like, working together for such a long period, and how has it evolved?

KAREN: People who don’t work with their husbands are often fascinated about how I stomach it. First of all, I’ve never known anything different. He was there since day one. When we met, I was just starting out as a designer and he’d just finished at the school of fine arts. He’s always had a love for fashion, and he just kind of came along for the ride. We managed to build this thing together which neither of us could have built without the other.

He is extremely good at what he does. He’s probably the most intrinsically creative person I’ve met. Don’t ask him to put away the dishes in the right place though. I’ve actually given up that battle. But he is so fundamentally creative, and it looks so easy and so effortless for him.

There are a lot of good points about working with your husband. I know that no matter what the situation is, somebody in that room has got my back, who cares about me more than anything else in the world. I can also just tell him to shut up, just get to the point, or whatever it is that you can’t do with people who aren’t your husband!

UNO: There’s a wonderful story of your ancestors who immigrated to the Bay of Plenty.
KAREN: My great-great-great grandfather William Gray was born in Belfast and settled in Katikati. He had a construction company which built a lot of the founding structures of Katikati – bridges, churches, schools and so on.

There is one particular story about him I’d always thought was family mythology, so when I passed through Katikati with my daughter last year, I said, “You know, there’s this family story about our grandfather having built this church in Katikati. Let’s stop and find it.”

Salina Galvan Photography

We found St Peter’s Anglican church in Katikati; a pretty little structure from 1884. Solid kauri – very solid and stolid and sensible, but also beautiful. We had a peaceful moment inside then, on the way out, I noticed a book about the history of the church, so I asked the verger about it. She asked why, and I said that I thought my many-greats grandfather and his construction company were involved in building the church. “Is that William Gray?” she said. “Yes, yes, it is!” I said.

She asked if I’d seen the mural. Katikati has lots. We went out the front and there was William Gray, two-metres high outside the church. But you don’t get a mural just because you built a church. And that’s when I found out that the family folklore was true. After he built it, the bishop arrived to consecrate the church and my great-great granddad said, “ Steady on, you haven’t paid for it yet. And they went, “Yeah, but we’re the Anglican church.” And he said, “I don’t really care.” And so they had to stand across the road to consecrate it because William wouldn’t give them the keys until they paid for it. In the mural, William’s holding the keys in one hand and the bill in the other and going, “Not going to happen!”

What I love is that, 120 years later, he’s speaking to me about two things that I’ve held very dear in my heart about business before I even knew that story. The first is to make something that’s beautiful and functional for your community that will last. And second, always stand up for yourself.

UNO: You and Lexus share a love of craftsmanship. Tell us why it’s important.

KAREN: Lexus is a Japanese brand, and one of the core pillars of Japanese identity is the notion of takumi – craftsmanship. It’s the idea that it takes 60,000 hours before you’re at that level, regardless of whether you’re building a car, doing origami, or learning to cut a fish for sashimi. It ties in with something a friend with a graphic design business says: “Detail isn’t the detail. Detail is the thing.” It’s not the bit you throw on at the end. It’s everything. That’s how I go through my own design process and I think that’s very much at the heart of Lexus’s process too.