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Karen Walker: 'Visible' for the wrong reasons?

Thursday 27 Feb 2014 6:30a.m.

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Karen Walker: 'Visible' for the wrong reasons?

Designer Karen Walker is defending the use of Kenyan models in her latest eyewear campaign against criticisms of hypocrisy, saying the portraits are a tribute to the people behind the project.

The imagery for the 'Visible' collection was shot in the village of Waithaka, west of Kenya's capital Nairobi. Among the models were local craftspeople involved in making the pouches the $300-plus sunglasses are sold in.

The campaign has stirred debate online, with one writer calling it "tacky" for promoting a "symbol of hyper affluence that your models would never be able to afford".

Walker says whether or not models can afford to buy the sunglasses is not a valid consideration, but rather whether they were fairly paid. A budget of $5400 was set aside to pay the 10 models, the "same level of fees that would be paid for a similar project in NZ or Australia".

Featuring machinists, tailors and metal workers in the photography "gets the viewer closer to the people who are behind the work on this project", she said in response to emailed questions.

"It's not about shooting an eyewear campaign on the people of Kenya just for the sake of it. 'Exoticism' is not the point.

"[They] are showcasing a range of products from which they and their community are receiving many direct benefits."

Walker partnered with the United Nations' Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) to commission more than 28,000 screenprinted and beaded pouches from the Waithaka craftspeople.

The EFI works with communities throughout Africa and in Haiti, upskilling them while paying them a "fair wage" to make products for luxury brands that also include Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney.

One of the women who features in Walker's 'Visible' campaign is 27-year-old embroidery supervisor Winnifred Mwaghi, who told The Australian the EFI has been life-changing.

"It helps us sustain our life, and in future for our children, to pay their school fees," she said. "We are hoping for more work."

Eleanor Barker's open letter, published on Aych Blog, also questioned the conditions of the Chinese workers making the sunglasses, noting that the country has "an extremely tarnished history of sweatshop labour".

Walker is emphatic her label has never used manufacturers that could be considered unethical. She says all work environments are "regularly and frequently" inspected "to ensure they meet our high standards, including matters of health and safety, child labour, freedom of association, wages, hours, disciplinary action, care and harassment, and discrimination".

Sunglasses are manufactured in China because of the high quality and advanced technology on offer, as well as a reliable supply chain.

Walker's eyewear campaigns are as distinctive as the sunglasses themselves, previously featuring elderly women and toddlers. 'Visible', it seems, is just as much of a talking point.

3 News