The Designers Institute John Britten Black Pin is awarded to a designer for their leadership, vision and achievement both in New Zealand and internationally.

Speech presented by Designers Institute Black Pin 1999 recipient, Karen Walker.

I remember New Zealand in 1979. I was only 9 but that was old enough to be cognitive of a general beige-ness, blandness, flatness.

Politically we were deep in the grips of Muldoon-ism with no respite on the horizon.

There were four types of cheese in the shops - if you were lucky.  There might have been one coffee machine in all of Auckland. A dinner out was a treat saved for birthdays and there was a massive choice of Cobb & Co., Tony’s Steak House or The Top Of The Town.

In wider news, 1979 offered us the Erebus disaster, the pardoning of Arthur Allan Thomas and the murder of Mr Asia.

Economically, inflation and unemployment were high. The economy was fully regulated, sheltered and unresponsive to consumers. It meant controlled interest rates and foreign exchange rates.  Perhaps the most strongly felt effect of a controlled economy was the controlled imports with only a favoured few with licenses to import being able to do so.  That meant, well, you just couldn’t find anything decent to buy and, if you could, it was hugely expensive.

It was a huge deal in my household when we got a colour TV. That’s because, in today’s money, it would have cost over $8,000. And, there were only two TV channels to watch. And, all they played was The Dog Show and The Good Life. 

I remember the challenge of just getting a Levi’s denim jacket in the early ‘80s.  You couldn’t. It’s unthinkable now, but you just couldn’t buy anything then. Back in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s my grandmother used to go on  annual shopping trips to Norfolk Island! I mean, can you think of anything more depressing than going to Norfolk Island to shop. Whilst cleaning out my mother’s house a few years ago I came across a notebook my grandmother had kept on one of these trips listing every cardigan, nightie, set of sheets and Oroton handbag she’d bought.  God help us!  What a grey and grim place New Zealand was that the shopping in Norfolk Island was better!

And so, when Zambesi opened, in 1979 it was different.  So different. It was eye-opening and exciting and broke all the rules and set a new paradigm. It questioned what fashion looked like. It questioned what retail looked like. It was one of the first seeds in creating a culture that loved fashion, design and the arts and questioned constantly what they were.  Zambesi were one of the very first explorers to really question what design, fashion, culture could be for us here. Their approach to the world of fashion paved the way for a whole community to grow. I cannot over-state how critical they were to seeding the culture we now all benefit from. 

Liz and Neville, my thanks to you both for paving the way for my own brand to take it first steps on. Without the work you have done in the decade before I came along there would not have been the listening for indie fashion that there was in my nascency. And, my thanks and congratulations on four decades of questioning and raising the bar and dedicating yourselves to growing a community that values taste and design. All New Zealanders who have a love of design, art and culture owe you a debt of gratitude.