Karen Walker and the ripple effect

Written by: Nadia Shaw-Owens

The purchase of a handwoven tote from the collaboration between Karen Walker and Rise Beyond the Reef will have a ripple effect in Fiji for years to come. 

The South Pacific nation of Fiji has a special place in Karen Walker’s passport – the brilliant, shimmering blue water and the warm-natured, welcoming community always calls the Auckland fashion designer back to its shores. Her first trip was when she was four years old, her last only a few months ago, and now she has a new connection to Fiji: the Karen Walker x Rise Beyond the Reef collaboration. 

Rise Beyond the Reef is a nonprofit organisation that empowers rural indigenous women by crafting winsome handmade goods and promoting climate-smart agricultural initiatives. Walker came about the collaboration after Rise Beyond the Reef’s nifty shop caught her eye. “I spotted their products on a couple of trips and I really loved what they do. The Marama and Tagane Dolls especially put a smile on my face,” says Walker, and WOMAN can see why – the delightful colourful hand-sewn dolls are dressed in traditional Fijian wear and are created as a tool for teaching children about cultural diversities. 

Walker was also drawn to Rise Beyond the Reef’s woven pandanus leaf designs – “they just seemed to say Fiji and made me want to grab a towel and a pair of sunglasses and hit the beach,” – so the designer had a play with the style and added a few signature KW details to create a perfect beach bag and backpack summer collection. 

And why did Rise Beyond the Reef choose Karen Walker? Janet Lotawa, Co-Founder & Executive Director, says that Walker’s brand aligns just right with her vision. “I’ve been somewhat off the grid for the last ten years working in Fiji and living on a farm, so I’ve lost touch with my fashion sense, but I was immediately excited by the opportunity to partner with Karen Walker. Her brand identity has such a strong, slightly edgy female lead and power presence, and I love brick-and-mortar.” 

Pandanus, or voivoi, is the popular weaving material that is used in the collaboration. Rise Beyond the Reef produces every step of the weaving journey, from planting the pandanus, to dethorning, softening and drying the leaves, then hand weaving the bags in Ra Province, a coastal community in the Northern part of Viti Levu. The pandanus is then bundled together for horseback or boat, and arrives at the Rise Beyond the Reef office for finishing touches. 

“Upon arrival at our office, the handwoven bags are re-shaped, trimmed, and varnished before sewing the hand-painted canvas straps, and attaching the buckles with an industrial machine. Soft leather is cut by hand and hand-stitched onto the bag,” says Lotawa.

The collection has two woven styles, the pandanus tote and the backpack, each retailing for $155. With Karen Walker’s signature blend of chic-yet-practical, the bags are perfect for slinging over one shoulder for a harbour day out, and are large enough to fit your sunglasses, a summer read, and a bottle of rosé. The supple leather handles and classic ‘Runaway’ strap detailing gives the distinct utilitarian Karen Walker flavour that we all know and love. We can’t help but be reminded of Walker’s nautical collection from the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron collaboration in 2020 – which reflected the romance and beauty of sailing through silks and shades of blue and white – pairing these two collections together is a no-brainer! 

The best part, however, is the long-lasting impact that the collaboration imparts on the creators’ lives. “By producing the bags, rural women learn multi-dimensional weaving techniques. Our Studio Collection team manages the leather finishing work, which gives professional job training opportunities to youth from our rural partner communities, including persons with disabilities,” says Lotawa. 

Rise Beyond the Reef’s work is priceless. More than a third of Fiji’s population lives below the poverty line, and close to 80% of the country’s total population live in rural and remote areas. Fiji’s rising telecommunication sector and abundance of natural resources promises a brighter future, but remote Fijian communities are at risk of being left behind due to gaps in resources and education. 

By employing rural communities, Karen Walker and Rise Beyond the Reef are bolstering the skillsets of entire families, giving them a greater chance of joining the Fijian economic renaissance – while simultaneously preserving and promoting traditional art skills. The goal? To have a consistent, stable women-led value and supply chain that is market-driven and elevates the employees agency in their community. 

So, of course now we all want to get our hands on the bags! Karen Walker has the expert advice on how to style: “Dress with anything from our organic cotton collection (I’ll be wearing the Prairie Shirred Dress especially on high repeat) with a fresh pair of sunglasses.” 

The Rise Beyond the Reef x Karen Walker bags are available in Karen Walker stores and karenwalker.com for $155 each.

To find out more about maintaining the health of our Moana, head to the Moana Auckland festival hub at Te Wero Island in the Viaduct between 24 February – 17 March 2024 for hands-on educational activities.

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