Most fashion houses begin with one perfume when they launch a fragrance, but not Karen Walker, whose new eau de parfum trio, A, B and C, launches on April 15, 2015.
In fact, she has a fourth planned for a future launch – but more about that later. As New Zealand’s most successful fashion export, Karen Walker is a globally respected name. A regular fixture at New York Fashion Week (after starting at London Fashion Week), her clothing, eyewear and accessories have garnered a cult following; her venture into fragrance seems to be heading that way, too. London department store Harvey Nichols has made an immediate commitment to it and will be its exclusive British stockist when the range launches in the UK on May 10.
“Karen Walker has somehow managed to bottle her exuberant and embracing attitude to life. These scents beautifully demonstrate the layers of her irreverent and fearless brand in a bold expression of fragrance. That’s why Harvey Nichols is so excited to launch her fragrances in the UK,” says Harvey Nichols beauty buyer Zahra Bishop.
It’s not unusual for a fashion brand to have a fragrance – most global brands have a stable of scents – but we asked Walker: why now, and why three? “Because we have something to say. We only take on new projects when we feel that we have a unique point of view or idea and with this, our first trio of fragrances, we feel we have that,” Walker says. “Having worked in the worlds of ready-to-wear, eyewear, jewellery et al for many years, we’re used to communicating stories in a body of work. It therefore felt natural for us to approach fragrance with the same storytelling style. Additionally, though, we believe the Karen Walker customer has multiple expressions of personality, and the trio of fragrances reflects that.”
True to form, Walker’s scents have a strong voice. The alphabetical reference of A, B, C is symbolic of words in literature and poetry, with touch points on joy and optimism. “We wanted to make a trio with an effortless expression of optimism. For us, A, B, C is the first thing that rolls off the tongue when we think about anything being possible,” Walker explains. “It’s about stimulating creativity. We wanted the names to describe the effect – a sense of inspiration and stimulation – rather than the ingredients.”
Walker used the same design process for the scents that she does when creating a garment or style of eyewear, or selecting stones for jewellery. “Creativity is about intuition and clear vision … it’s about having an idea of what you want to achieve and then trusting your instincts. Of course, this time with fragrance there was an even stronger sensory element, in that the three fragrances we chose were ones that grabbed me and I couldn’t shake off,” she says. “We had a clear vision for what the fragrance should make you feel. We also wanted to work with the best craftspeople in the world, which means you have to be in Grasse.”
The Karen Walker brand is known for combining opposites and when it came to creating fragrances, the team wanted to combine its modern vision with craft and tradition. This brought them to Charabot, a company that has been creating fragrances for hundreds of years. For Walker, working with Charabot was “hugely inspirational”. “I’m always inspired by working with extraordinarily creative people and with people who really value craft,” Walker says.
“Spending time with the team in their factories and labs was thrilling. Every inch of the project has been considered. It’s been very detail-focused throughout – from the juices themselves, to the quality of the glass, every detail of the graphic. How the pump looks and feels.” (They tested 20 pumps before they found the perfect one.) When it came to creating the juices, Walker gave the perfumers carte blanche, “as we wanted them to let loose their own olfactory expression of optimism”. They were given a clear brief of the idea, but no restrictions in terms of fragrance notes and ingredients.
As part of the background story they were also provided with a list of Walker’s likes and dislikes in plants, flowers, herbs and trees. One of the perfumers, Emilie Bouge, wove all the designer’s favourite flowers into one fragrance, C, which has become the most sensuous of the three. Bouge and fellow Charabot perfumer Dorothée Piot created the A, B, C fragrances: Piot, A and B; Bouge, C. A third perfumer created a fourth fragrance, which Walker says will be released later.
The whole process, from planning to conceptual briefing to final sign-off of the juices, took two years and included initial briefings, dozens of first samples to be sniffed, feedback, reworking and more samples. Walker worked closely with a perfume evaluator in Paris and then midway through the creative process she and husband Mikhail Gherman (Karen Walker creative director) and Miranda Waple of The Six Senses (Walker’s brand partner for the fragrance business) visited Charabot’s laboratories and factory in Grasse, as well as its offices in Paris, to work more closely with the creative team. Each of the three fragrances went through up to six reworks to perfect them.
Throughout the process Walker proved she also has a nose for fragrance, not just fashion. “Karen actually has an impressive olfactory sense,” says Waple. “At Charabot, the fragrance training manager presented various notes of natural essences. When presented with all the notes in one, Karen was able to spot that they made up the fragrance J’Adore Dior, which was impressive.”
Women in five different countries blind-tested the fragrances, “as this is a launch that’s happening in several markets at once”, says Walker. She changes her mind every day about which of the trio is her favourite. “It shifts continually. They’re designed to be like that as life changes so drastically from day to day and the fragrances are created with this in mind,” she says. So what does each fragrance mean to her? “A gives me ideas and inspiration; B makes me feel like the possibilities are endless; C makes me feel empowered.”
Alphabet eaux: A guide
A is the happiness potion. It’s sparkly, bright, herbal and fresh. It’s a sunny garden bursting with flowers.
B is feminine, lush and delicious, a warm, balmy breeze after the heat of the day.
C is opulent and generous. It’s the most sensuous of the trio, containing Walker’s favourite flowers.
ABC eaux de parfums, (50ml) $130 and (100ml) $175 each, from Smith & Caughey’s, Ballantynes, Kirkcaldie & Stains, and Karen Walker boutiques.