As brands work to tell their own story across every customer touchpoint, designer Karen Walker is building on a physical retail concept centered largely on other labels.  

On Tuesday night, timed with Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday, half of Walker’s 7-year-old, New Zealand-based concept store, Playpark, was transformed into a Disney store. Along with her new 30-piece collection created in partnership with the company, the 2,000-square-foot display features styles from collaborations between Disney and brands like Nixon and Levi’s.

It’s par for the course for the 30-year fashion industry veteran, who calls retail “theater” and refreshes Playpark’s setup every two weeks. In-store product, including pieces from Walker’s namesake fashion label and collaborations with brands like Adidas and Doc Martens, is updated daily.

“Everything had to be movable,” she said of designing the store. “When customers come into the store, I want them to feel like they’re in a brand new place every time. And I want it to be an experience they can’t get anywhere else.”

Inventory by fellow brands is, for the most part, focused on exclusive styles in the local market and what Walker deems the best versions of classics. Saint James, known for the French Breton shirt, has been carried since the store opened, and Hansel from Basel hosiery was picked up in early November. Remaining products are part of a unique curation. For example, last week, Walker transformed a fourth of Playpark into a bookstore, with a selection of 100 titles from Hedleys Booksellers, the oldest independent bookstore in New Zealand.

Walker does four collaborations a year. One recently included a collection with Madewell, launched in August and sold by both brands. 

Walker was the exclusive New Zealand-based fashion collaborator chosen to work on a celebratory capsule. (Elsewhere, Rag & Bone, Target and Marc Jacobs were also picked.) To build excitement around the colla, Walker brought in new decor and fixtures, like a claw vending machine offering up Disney prizes, and set up huge neon Mickeys in store windows.

“At the store, we’ve got these extraordinary windows — we’re at this great corner site, and the windows are visible from the street,” she said. “We think of them as billboards and the store as a marketing exercise in itself. We do a bit of digital marketing, but a lot of our marketing budget goes toward making those windows look amazing.”

Disney x Karen Walker - Polka Dot Mickey Tee BlackwhiteA Disney x Karen Walker campaign image

Walker has nine physical stores, including Playpark, all of which are in New Zealand, save one Tokyo location. (Wholesale partners include Moda Operandi, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.) Playpark, which started as a standard Karen Walker store 25 years ago before doubling in size for the new concept in 2011, is the only location housing brands outside of Karen Walker and the brand’s collaborations.

She said Playpark started as a side project, but it has emerged as the brand’s most successful store. (The privately owned company declined to share sales figures.) The goal is to update existing stores to fit the model, with at least one making the transition within the year. Other plans include shifting the Karen Walker social media presence to make Playpark more central and exclusively featuring house imagery on karenwalker.com, eliminating photos on the Playpark page provided by partner brands.

“We need to show our point of view,” Walker said. “We don’t have just Levi’s in the store, so we don’t want to show an all-Levi’s look; we want to show Levi’s paired with a Karen Walker top, paired with an Adidas jacket — and brands are OK with that. Those old boundaries are over.”

“It makes absolute sense for us to be in this mix,” said Kate McDonell, lead merchant of Levi’s ANZ. “We want retail partners that are pushing boundaries and engaging in new ways with fashion-savvy customers, and that think outside the box with experiential retail.”

Though the motivation is often rounding out assortment with products outside of the company’s wheelhouse — a clothing brand bringing in makeup, for instance — Walker is one of many brands hosting fellow labels in store. For example, J.Crew offers a slew of brands, from Adidas to New Balance. A more apt comparison is Commes des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo and Adrian Joffe, who founded multi-brand concept store Dover Street Market

“When you go to a Disney park, it’s this unforgettable experience,” she said, when asked about the staying power of her stores. “People can download games onto their devices and have fun that way, but they still go to the park and you still see big smiles on faces — and some of those attractions at the park are 50 years old.”

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