Karen Walker celebrates the coming-of-age of the hardest-working teenager in the game — the iconic Runaway Girl. In the process she’s putting a typically fresh spin on an old school tradition.
October 2017 was a busy old month for Karen Walker — although you imagine most months are pretty busy for our most internationally recognised designer.
In her central Auckland HQ she’s calmly overseeing a study in (extremely) organised chaos, with her pre-spring 2018 collection being shot in the showroom downstairs and seasons well beyond that being dreamt up and drawn up above. She’s also getting ready for her new addition to the family, a puppy. “It’s a labradoodle,” says Walker with a slight roll of the eye. “That probably seems a bit predictable actually, but they’re good dogs!”
To top it off she and her team have been organising a very special birthday. 2017 marks the sweet 16th of Runaway Girl — a little drawing that has almost come to life, capturing both the spirit of the Karen Walker brand and imaginations around the world.
In an industry prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandisement, the word “iconic” rolls off tongues and fingertips far too freely at times. But if there’s an industry player that’s earned a straight-faced right to the “i” word, it has to be Runaway Girl. Her boot-wearing, bindle-carrying and bouncy-haired silhouette is an icon in the literal sense, and almost instantly recognisable to anyone with even a passing interest in fashion.
Created in 2001 by Karen Walker creative director (and Walker’s husband) Mikhail Gherman, Runaway Girl had a particularly auspicious debut — appearing as a print in Walker’s first-ever showing at London Fashion Week.
“The collection itself was called Runaway and was designed around this fantasy of a girl sort of running off to the Midwest — it was a little bit Badlands, a little bit intrepid and just had a general sense of escape and adventure. We were using a lot of maps as graphics and Mikhail felt we needed an actual character as a second symbol, so he just sat down and drew her.”
Since that first outing, the Runaway Girl character has grown comfortably into the role of mascot for the Karen Walker brand, the Karen Walker wearer and, yes, maybe even the fearless and independent Walker herself.
“For me, she’s always represented this intrepid nature, the constant need to always move forward, which is what fashion is about… and what drives my personality too. She’s got a lot of moxie and attitude but there’s still an innocence there.”
For me she’s always represented this intrepid nature.”
While she’s lent her image to a huge variety of Karen Walker pieces over the years — from beach towels to T-shirts to coffee mugs — the character’s most recognisable incarnation is the Runaway Girl pendant. Upon its release the necklace was an instant hit, taking on an emotional patina for wearers.
“She’s partly a good luck charm, partly a symbol of love and partly a celebration of adventure,” explains Walker, “so she’s grown into this sort of symbolic gift for mothers to give to daughters — a bit of a talisman for when she goes off to uni or goes on her first overseas adventure. We’re also finding more and more that people are buying her for newborns as something to put away to be given later, and that’s a totally new thing for us. It’s a pretty nice feeling to be brought into people’s lives in that sort of intimate and meaningful way.”
You get the sense that for Walker, mother to nine-year-old Valentina, there’s extra pride in seeing her work becoming symbolic in that mother-daughter connection, and that there’s a personal appreciation for the role that fashion in general can play in this relationship.
“[Valentina] comes up to about neck-height now so she’s finally at an age where I can start passing things down to her, and it’s quite special to see things you’ve loved be handed down to the next generation — even if it’s just a slightly pilled jumper she runs around in on weekends!”
Pilled or otherwise it’s fair to say that Walker’s daughter is in line for some hand-me-downs we’d all be pretty envious of, at any time of life.
The coming-of-age story is central to Girl with a Pearl, a limited-edition jewellery range created to honour Runaway Girl’s sweet 16th. As the name suggests, the collection uses pearls as a focal point of the celebration. The beloved Runaway Girl pendant is a key piece, but she’s been given a grown-up polish via a soft pink pearl in place of her famous bindle, and various takes on the marine gem appear throughout the range. Explains Walker, “I do love a good pearl. They have such a unique quality in their look and in their feel too; that coolness and that weight to them is quite charming.”
Holding mystic associations with the moon and Venus, pearls have long had a symbolic connection to femininity, and were once the de riguer gift for a young lady turning 16. While it may seem unusual for our own Queen of Cool to take inspiration from such old-timey custom, a deep-dive into Walker’s work uncovers someone who’s never been afraid of approaching the out-dated and pulling it firmly into the current. In fact, Runaway Girl herself was designed as a modern take on Victorian shadow portraiture. “I think people always want tradition — they just want their own take on that tradition.
“We’d never do pearls in a straight-laced kinda way because there’s enough of that out there; we always bring our own point of view to things. It seemed like a nice twist on that traditional idea of giving a coming-of-age gift. Runaway Girl just seemed to suit the pearl but also mess with it a bit.”
And it’s that “mess with anything” attitude that Walker believes has been key to Runaway Girl’s appeal over the last 16 years “There’s a toughness but playfulness that I think people really connect to. She’s got a real sense of mystery to her as well — no-one really knows what she looks like so it means people can attach their own vision to her. Every time we’ve tried to flesh her out it’s never worked; she just is who she is!”
Happy birthday Runaway Girl, and cheers for being just who you are. If only we’d all been so cool at 16.
Words: Katie May Ruscoe
This article was published in Fashion Quarterly Issue 4 2017.