Kathryn Wilson, footwear designer and businesswoman. Image supplied.
It’s impossible not to be inspired by Kathryn Wilson, the talented footwear designer and clever businesswoman has grown her eponymous brand into New Zealand’s premier footwear company over the past 15 years. Today, the Kathryn Wilson brand has three retail stores and over 100 stockists throughout New Zealand and Australia, and Wilson has done it all with unwavering enthusiasm, positivity and the belief in herself that she could do things her way.
This week, Kathryn Wilson is returning to the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week after a six year hiatus. When I catch up with Wilson over the phone from Christchurch where she’s on a selling trip for her Winter 2018 collection, it’s just a week out from her NZFW show and she’s keen to share how her business has evolved, how much her customers mean to her and why she’s decided to return to NZFW this year.
Rewind six years and the designer opened her first retail store which was a pop-up shoebox the day after her last NZFW show and the pop-up spent six months in Auckland before travelling to Wellington and Christchurch. A permanent retail store in Britomart followed, with new stores opening in Herne Bay and Newmarket in the years that followed. Wilson also had a daughter, Lola, with husband Liam Taylor, so it’s safe to say that the intervening years have been pretty busy for the designer. But in August last year the idea began percolating to do another big event, Wilson wasn’t sure at the time if it would be a fashion week show or something else but she met with her PR agent Murray Bevan of leading fashion PR agency Showroom 22 to start setting things in motion.
“I decided that whether it was fashion week or whether it was something else that it was time that we make a bit of noise again just to celebrate ourselves,” says Wilson. “I’m a big celebrator of success and wanted to acknowledge where we actually are and me having the headspace for bringing the collections to life again. Because I think it’s so important for the consumer to see the products come to life, whether that’s a catwalk show, private event or fashion week, which is the best platform because people are already focused on and excited about fashion in general for that whole week. The crux of it has been that we have really been on a bit of a hiatus due to other things happening in our business or me being a mother, and now Lola is two and a half I’ve kind of come up for air again and I’m able to be a bit more hands on with the business and be more present.”
The business has also come full circle in a way since Wilson’s last NZFW show, with the Miss Wilson brand, that was also launched in 2011, having come into its own with its own identity, following and personality since then. Miss Wilson is designed by Kathryn Wilson’s head of design, Julia Ford, in collaboration with the designer and has found great success with Wilson’s customers. While previous shows have been primarily focussed on the Kathryn Wilson brand, this time they will be showcasing both brands on the NZFW runway.
Kathryn Wilson Natalie Heels from her Summer 2017 collection.
Wilson is particularly excited to be sharing both collections on the runway this year. “For us as the designers it definitely brings the collections to life – we have a vision of how we would like our footwear to be worn, the energy of the customer or just imagining the happiness that it brings to people when they wear the product. And that doesn’t really happen until you put it on a person and literally give it some life. Then with the music and styling it comes together and pulls on the heartstrings for us and the consumer and makes it a memorable experience for them. It’s really special to be able to put something together for an audience that we know are just going to love it and it’s a genuine touchpoint with the brand. Some people do more with print media but I prefer to make our shoes come to life in person.”
It’s important to Wilson that the brand’s shows acknowledge the loyal customers and retailers that support her and her brand. With every show she extends invitations to those people to come along and enjoy the collections on the runway and celebrate the brand. At Wilson’s first NZFW show in 2010 she sat 80 people in the front row that had helped her get to where she was and supported her since the launch of her brand in 2002. “I was really adamant that I thank them properly and I handwrote notes in the goodie bags for those people to say thank you for specific things and we gifted everyone shoes,” she adds. “It was a personal thing for me to thank them and we’ve done the same this year as all of our retailers are sat front row. So the people that sell our brands throughout the country and our top VIP customers that either buy online or in our store, are sat front row as a thank you. It’s a different model to a trade show where there is a different focus, but for us it is now and has always been more about the people who have helped build our brand.”
This year’s NZFW show will be a special one for that audience with a mix of the brand’s current summer collection and the upcoming winter 2018 collection that hasn’t been seen yet. Wilson sees the show as an opportunity to help her retailers sell more shoes, so it makes sense for it to include the current collection that’s in stores as well as a teaser of what’s to come next season. She sees fashion week as the only place that she would show a forward season collection with her other three main shows for the year; Clicquot on the Snow in Queenstown, Soul Bar show and Britomart Fashion Sessions are all in-season shows.
She’s well aware that the huge social media coverage from a fashion week show means there will be immediate demand for what’s on the runway so it makes sense to have some of those shoes immediately available as well. Wilson knows that the role of fashion weeks has also changed a lot too, where up until recent years designers strictly showed next season’s collections but now with the immediacy of digital coverage some are choosing to use the opportunity to push their in-season collections instead.
Kathryn Wilson looks forward to NZFW as a wonderful way to celebrate the people that have been instrumental in her brand’s success. “My favourite part is that sense of it being a celebration for everyone because everyone works so hard,” she adds. “Now that we’re 15 years in we’ve grown a bigger business and have all these retailers around the country that sell our shoes for us. We can’t be everywhere so they are the voice of our brand for their customers. We’ve got windows of opportunity of usually about twenty minutes with a retailer to show them our collection for wholesale and within that time we need to explain how the shoes are made, what they’re made of, where they’re made and how beautiful they are, how soft they are and how wonderful they look on the foot. Then you walk away and deliver the stock six months later to them and they sell it for you. This way we get to celebrate it with them and all the people around the country that help promote and sell our brand on our behalf as well as our team.”
Kathryn Wilson Julie Sandals from her Summer 2017 collection.
Her NZFW team includes many people that Kathryn Wilson has worked with for many years. Top stylist Kylie Cooke has styled the brand’s shows for the last seven or eight years while acclaimed hairstylist Danny Pato from D&M Hair Design has done all Wilson’s shows since she started. Wilson has also worked with M.A.C Cosmetics since the beginning and lead makeup artist Kiekie Stanners has now worked on ten of the brand’s shows. “It’s very cool, we’re a little family,” enthuses Wilson. “You know, I would never question any of them because I just trust what they’ll do because they know how I work and I know how they work. They’ll also bring things to the table that I wouldn’t necessarily suggest but it’s perfect because they know how far to push it. It’s not something that’s completely left field because they know the brand inside out as well.”
Wilson had a strong vision for her brand since the beginning and sees her brand values as playful, light-hearted, celebratory and empowering for women. She wants everything about her brand to embody those values: the Kathryn Wilson stores, her website, social media platforms and her shows are all carefully designed to reflect this.
It doesn’t take long in Wilson’s company for it to become clear that she is perpetually upbeat with an easy smile despite her hectic schedule and many responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, she wants the similarly sanguine nature of her brand to be reflected in her runway shows which is where she feels that happy models and good music are essential to a great Kathryn Wilson show. From the moment the models arrive for their call time they are surrounded by an energetic hair and makeup team with Wilson working exclusively with Red Eleven models and regularly working with the same girls that have done up to twenty of the brand’s shows before. “They’re complete professionals, they swing in, they just know the vibe and before the show we always play a song that everyone knows backstage that our show is about to start. It’s to hype up the models to dance, to laugh and by the time the show is starting everyone backstage is having their own little party and ready to go. So we encourage them to have a laugh on the runway,
high-five each other or flirt with someone in the crowd. The models are your one chance to portray that energy with the brand, whereas if they’re not enjoying themselves on the catwalk it’s a long show to watch when the only thing changing is shoes,” laughs Wilson.
She has always prided herself on her brand’s point of difference with her colourful, beautifully designed shoes quickly turning heads from the brand’s first few seasons. For Kathryn Wilson it comes down to designing shoes that she personally loves and wants to wear. She originally set out to make shoes that were different from what was available in New Zealand and that has truly set her apart and helped make her brand beloved throughout the country. It comes back to staying true to her brand promise of delivering limited edition footwear that is handmade in her playful designs.
Fifteen years is a long time to consistently deliver stunning footwear collections but Kathryn Wilson the brand has evolved much like the designer herself in that time. “I guess the brand has grown up with me because I was twenty-three when I launched and now I’m thirty-seven,” she adds. “So as my needs and wants have changed probably so too have my designs. But I would say my own personal style of dress is probably quite classic, to a point. I don’t mind wearing fun colours, but in terms of silhouette I always tend to stick with something pretty simple. And then our shoes are made to last; they’re something that you will keep for ten years and they won’t necessarily date your wardrobe. So there is an element of timeless design even though I’m trying to make the designs irresistible and offering our customers something that they’ve never had before. I don’t want our products to be here today and gone tomorrow.”
Kathryn Wilson Janey Trainers from her Summer 2017 collection.
With that idea of longevity in mind, Wilson has long-term plans in place for her business and has advisory board meetings quarterly to revise the goals and strategies for her brand. She regularly creates five year plans but more often than not achieves those goals within three years because as soon as there is a plan and sense of urgency in place Wilson and her team are driven to get things done. There are also 12 – 18 month strategies in place in terms of the businesses retail forecasts with a bigger picture focus in mind.
Wilson is exploring the idea of expanding and exporting more into Asia and the Northern Hemisphere with the help of sales agents. Her business is at the point in terms of scale with having three retail stores that she can expand outside of Auckland and have a further retail presence throughout New Zealand. Now that all her retail systems are in place they’re easily shared across more stores. “The first and second stores are always usually the hardest to get up and going,” says Wilson. “And there’s no point growing too quickly until you’ve got all your ducks in a row because you don’t want to disappoint someone or mis-manage deliveries. You need everything to be working really well otherwise you’re probably going to let someone down.”
While Wilson has a solid understanding of her business and how to keep everything under control there, the arrival of her daughter Lola has made the designer re-evaluate her life and the priorities of her personal time. It’s easy to wonder how, like a lot of working mums, she manages to do so much and keep a work-life balance. “If I was to tell you there’s an answer, there’s not, because we’re just winging it,” she laughs. “Liam runs Darkhorse (a successful advertising agency) and together our lives are carnage and our household is carnage. And with a two and half year old we are just learning as we go but there’s no textbook approach to it. My family are so important to me so the ‘stop and smell the roses’ thing gets said out loud probably daily, if not weekly in our household because we just have to remind each other what really matters and not a lot else matters except your friends and family. It puts things into perspective and with a lot of travel that we’re doing you just have to remind yourself that if you haven’t got your health you haven’t got anything and you can’t be everything to everyone.”
The designer cites her daughter as the reason why she’s now protective of her nights and weekends when she often says no to events so she can spend that time with her family. “We have an amazing team and I know that sounds kind of like a cliché but having Lola has allowed people that work in management in our team to step up and literally be given the reins, which has been an awesome thing for the brand because it’s let people shine that have in the past been managed,” she adds. “We’ve got Jo who runs the retail stores and she’s fantastic – she manages all the staff side of things but also keeps across stock levels. Now that we’ve got three Auckland stores it’s a bit different to having a pop-up. Our e-commerce manager is now running our social media as you can’t just have a website anymore, it has to be all integrated with the warehouse in real time onto several devices and talk to our point of sale system at the same time. Julia who has worked with us for six years now has stepped up to be head of design alongside me selling wholesale and working really closely with the manufacturers. We do that together and it’s a really authentic and easy partnership rather than me having too many things on the go.”
With so much under her belt already in fifteen years it’s not hard to see how Kathryn Wilson is poised for international success. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if she achieves everything she’s ever dreamed of in the future and does it all with a smile on her face.