A Life Lived in Colour: Kelly Coe

Kelly Coe, designer and owner of Augustine in one of her boutiques.

Kelly Coe is a woman on a mission to bring more colour into the wardrobes of the women of New Zealand and she’s been leaving a rainbow of sequins in her wake since founding her label Augustine in 2008. You would be hard pressed not to have seen or heard about Augustine in the past few years as her fashion business has expanded to include three boutiques and seventy wholesale stockists around the country. A big part of her label’s presence in the market is because of social media and Facebook in particular, where Coe currently has a following of 113,000+ which is unequalled by any other local women’s designer fashion brand.

Her signature style is colourful, playful and cheerfully feminine, with lots of embellishments and prints in easy to wear styles. Coe initially founded Augustine after working at NZ label High Society where she learnt the fashion trade. Spotting a gap in the market for special occasion wear that was different to what the chain stores were producing but still at an accessible price, she set about creating Augustine at the age of twenty six. “I learnt the trade right from selecting the fabric to selling and wholesale,” says Coe.” I had all the ideas in my head of what I wanted to do but I didn’t know if I could actually become a designer myself. Because of the way the world is now and with manufacturing in China I’ve been able to do it. I’ve got such a good team in my office here and we now have our own office and sampling room in China which is awesome for our business.”

Coe’s partner in business and life is her husband Nathan, who has owned his own business from a young age and is the business brains behind the Augustine operation and the perfect foil to Coe’s creative talents. “With my husband’s experience and mine it just seemed a natural thing for me to do my own label rather than keep on working for somebody else. I had so many ideas in my head about how I could market it and how I could use social media and how I could develop something in New Zealand, but I didn’t want to do that for somebody else. When I was at High Society being Chinese made was always there but it wasn’t really happening for smaller businesses, you had to do massive minimums and when you’re starting out you’re not going to do 500 – 1000 of everything. We’ve managed to go over there and make it work and it’s been the only way for us to do it, the price point is just too high for us to manufacture in New Zealand now.”

Nathan and Kelly Coe at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

To complement her Augustine label which is made for dressing up and special occasions, Coe introduced her Charlo label in 2013 which consists of casual every day pieces. She found that she wasn’t finding what she wanted at chain stores like Country Road and Witchery, if she did find something she liked it was in the neutral colour palette of black, white or beige which was depressing for someone who prefers to live their life in vivid colour. Charlo fills that gap with colourful, comfortable clothes that are now so popular that the label is outselling Augustine in pre-orders. Coe’s was the first local brand to introduce doing pre-orders for her collections on Facebook and due to her brand’s popularity it’s not uncommon for some styles to sell out before they even reach the stores.

Having long been an advocate of dressing in colour Coe eschews black and is trying her best to get other women to follow her lead. “Ever since I started Augustine it’s always been about colour and I just don’t understand why New Zealand women wear black,” says Coe.” I get why they do because they think it looks slimming and it’s easy to have a wardrobe full of black. You don’t have to think about what you’re going to wear each day you can just go and put it on and you’re sorted. But they just don’t realise how much better they look when they put colour on, how much more alive and vibrant they look and it just makes them glow. There are women that come into our shop wearing dull colours and put on a bright dress and it just looks so much better. They only time you should wear all black is at a funeral or going to an All Blacks game. I wear bits and pieces of black and we do have black in our Charlo range but its maybe black and white stripes or something like that, just a little bit of black. I’d rather not sell anything than have a shop full of black.”

She will be singing the praises of colour to a sold-out audience of 650 women next month when her live show ‘The Augustine Life’ takes the stage at the Ellerslie Event Centre on April 16th. Tickets to the event sold out in just 48 hours which is a testament to the fervour that Coe’s brand creates. Aside from showcasing her latest collections on the runway, the show will include makeovers, motivational speakers, styling advice and is the perfect excuse for a get together with the girls for some bubbles and time away from the children or partner. Over the years Coe has found that a large percentage of her followers are mothers like herself, and many are in need of fashion advice that tells them how to adapt their wardrobe to the changes that being a mother brings, as it’s those women who often voice their concerns on Augustine’s social media.

Kelly Coe (centre right) and friends in Charlo’s pre-autumn collection.

Part of Coe’s success online has been her friendly and personal approach to social media which sees her documenting her life as well as her clothing labels in a way that makes her followers feel like they are part of her world. It’s a skill that is well utilised by successful fashion bloggers but less so by brands until Coe started doing it. “I think we’re probably the only New Zealand label that has really personalised our approach and really made the label about me,” adds Coe. “Most labels social media is run by an in-house PR person or a PR agency and no one would have a clue about the designers. But it’s hard to get it right if it’s not you doing it. I think people know if it’s not you too. There are a lot of labels that are starting to do it now but you’ve got to get the tone right. I’ve always been interested in writing and actually went to university to do journalism but I had to do way too much about politics and stuff and so I decided it was not for me. I did advertising and copy writing and that’s what my degree is in. So I have that background and I’ve written poetry and I think that’s what makes it work, I’m not forcing myself to write something, it just comes naturally.”

That natural style has certainly paid off with Coe not relying on any form of marketing other than social media last year. Instead she has been concentrating on coming up with new ideas that make her brand’s social media more relatable and inclusive. She has introduced friends shoots where she does a photo shoot with her own friends and often their children to show the new ranges in everyday settings that her followers could see themselves in. The fact that the clothes are shown on average women rather than models helps boost their appeal. Last year Coe also introduced brand ambassadors of different sizes to showcase her ranges, with the chosen women sending in photos of themselves for Coe to post online. Those photos were also greeted with a rapturous reception and more sales for the brand, proving the theory that women would prefer to see clothing on those who are a similar size to themselves so they can better imagine how it would look on them and are more inclined to buy it too.

The positive reception to her new brand ambassadors and the many requests for clothing that was above her current size range lead Coe to begin developing a plus-size range that will be tested and launched in coming months. “We’re actually starting a new label this year that’s going to be just plus-size,” says Coe. “It will be size 14/16 – 20 and I’m not designing it this time. I’ve got Jane who used to be the Catalyst designer at High Society and she works at my Mount shop now. She’s designing it and I’m overseeing it. She’s doing the initial designs and I just twist it to make it look like it’s in the Augustine family. But it’s going to have its own Facebook page and everything because my Facebook page is run by me and it’s me in selfies and my life and I don’t want to mix it up with this new plus-size label because being a size eight myself I can’t wear it. But we’re going to test it out in our shops in about April/May just to see how it goes before we wholesale it. It’s a whole new ballgame. I don’t know anything about that market but I’m learning quickly. We sell a lot of fourteens and sixteens so there will be a bit of crossover because my Charlo fourteen and sixteen will be the same size, but it is just giving the plus size woman more options because they don’t have them at the moment. They’ve got chain stores like City Chic and some labels go up to an eighteen but I think they’re starved for beautiful fabrics and glamorous pieces.”

Kelly Coe (second from right) and friends in Augustine’s autumn collection.

As well as working on her new plus size range, 2016 promises to be even busier for Coe with her decision to make a move into the Australian market. After initially considering Melbourne but deciding against it for a multitude of reasons, Coe is scouting for the perfect spot for an Augustine boutique in Noosa in sunny Queensland which better fits her brand. Satisfied that she’s captured her chunk of the local market, Australia is the next logical move and an exciting prospect for a business that has gone from strength to strength in New Zealand and has seen wholesale orders grow with each consecutive season.

Coe’s wholesale operation has been fundamental to her success and she is passionate about supporting the many independent boutiques that stock her brand. Her three boutiques may be the face of her business but the fact that she has a stockist in most towns means that Augustine and Charlo are worn on the streets of Kaitaia to Bluff and everywhere in between. “We need to support the retailers and I think my business model has actually changed the way the regional wholesalers operate their business and it’s changed the way that I promote everything on Facebook,” says Coe. “We support our wholesalers probably more than any other label in New Zealand and I’ve constantly been told by them that we’ve given them a new life because they were just having to wait for people to come in before, but now I’m promoting their store to 113,000 people on Facebook. They’re selling out garments because I’m putting a stockist list next to each garment photo and they’ll get phone calls before it’s even come into store. It’s given a new lease of life to something that was a dying thing in the regions. If we sell out of something we put it on Facebook and push our followers to all the wholesalers. We promote them and do VIP nights, which is stuff that other stores do but they don’t have the following on Facebook to push them.”

The huge success of Coe’s business has meant several labels have tried to copy her approach, style and garments. It’s an especially easy thing to do in the age of social media where so much is shared online often before it’s been delivered to stores. However it’s something Coe has come to see as a compliment even though it’s still frustrating, and it drives her to do things better and differently to emphasise that her success has come from her vision and originality as well as her hard work.

As Augustine heads into its eighth year this year and Coe’s social media following continues to grow with every passing day, there is a palpable feeling that anything is possible and her business is poised to slowly takeover the globe. One by one, Kelly Coe is succeeding in her mission to convert every woman to dress with colour and style, and she couldn’t be happier about it.

– By Evelyn Ebrey

Images from Augustine.

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