Nathan and Kelly Coe, co-founders of Augustine at their 10 year celebration in Auckland last week. Image supplied.
Designer Kelly Coe is celebrating a decade of Augustine this month, the beloved womenswear brand she co-founded with her husband Nathan Coe. It’s been an amazing journey for the pair which began in their garage and has become a New Zealand success story with four beautiful retail stores and over 70 stockists throughout the country. Customers can’t get enough of Augustine and its sister labels Charlo, Stella Royal, Amaya, Pretty Basics, Hey Monday, Honey Denim and latest brand, bespoke t shirt label Alaska Tees.
Kelly has grown a substantial and very loyal customer base for her business with over 164,000 Facebook fans and 42,000 Instagram fans for the Augustine brand alone. She has taken a personal approach to her social media regularly posting photos of herself in the latest items as well as friends and her family. The relatability of her brand comes from this regular mum going about her life while looking great in what is possibly the most colourful wardrobe in the country. Kelly has long eschewed black in favour of a rainbow of colour and sparkles, and her positive and joyful take on life has drawn in legions of fans who are inspired to bring that same colour and joy into their lives.
There’s a lot to cover in a decade of huge growth but I recently caught up with Kelly to find out more about how the business has evolved, what her working relationship is like with her husband, and how she manages her huge social media following and designing many collections a year all while being a working mother.
Congratulations on ten years of Augustine, that is so exciting!
Thank you, it felt like it has got very quickly to that point, but now that it has got to that point, it seems a long time. In some ways it feels like it has gone quickly, and in some ways not. When I think about having all three kids in that time, it definitely feels like ten years.
Going back to 2008, what was the original vision for your brand?
Obviously it was only Augustine back then, it wasn’t any of these other brands starting out, it was only dresses. It was the only affordable occasion wear brand in the market doing anything with colour, you could go and shop at Glassons or Trelise Cooper, but there wasn’t anything that was in between, that was affordable, and still beautiful, colourful and sparkly. So that was the vision of it, doing something that was affordable, for the 30 to 50 age bracket, because I was working at High Society at the time, which was kind of catering more for the 50 plus , so I could definitely see the gap in the market.
How has it evolved since then? I know that’s a big question to answer.
Yes, it could take a long time to answer, as Augustine has changed a lot.When I first started, it was all special occasion wear, now it has got a lot more, dressy day wear pieces as well. In the beginning, I did a lot of silks, and a lot of beading and hand beading with sequins and embellishments everywhere. I think that was probably because I was 25 or 26 years old and I used to go out a lot. I didn’t have kids, and I didn’t understand what kind of wardrobe you needed to have when you did have kids, so I thought that’s just what you would wear all the time. So Charlo pretty much came about because I had kids, it was when I had my first daughter and I worked from home.
I was wearing Augustine whenever I would leave the house to go out for dinner etc. but I would still be shopping at Country Road, to get my day wear. So it seemed that there was such a need for day wear that had something special, or any colour in it. So that’s where Charlo came from and then other labels kind of evolved on from that. Stella Royal evolved obviously, because we only went up to size 16, and there is such a huge demand for plus sizes. Whenever we have seen a need or a niche in the market that is not being catered for we try to cater to that and try to fill it really.
Stella Royal and Amaya on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week 2018.
Yes, one of those really interesting things about your business, is that you have seen these opportunities and gone for them. It is really interesting to see how your audience has really responded to that. So, who is the Augustine woman?
We look at all the stats, and who we are selling to and who we are talking to online, and on Facebook. But it is mostly 35 to 44, that is the big core group, but it also goes back to mid twenties and up to mid 60’s. My Mum wears a lot of it, she is 65, but that’s not who we target. She will pick the tops, but she wouldn’t wear the majority of it. It is that 30 to 50 market, I would say, and it’s a very inclusive brand, a lot of our customers are not from Auckland, we are not known as the cool Auckland brand, that shows during Fashion Week, and is in Fashion Quarterly, has got that really cool stigma about it. We always have been and always will be catering for every New Zealander. A lot of our biggest customers live in small towns, it’s inclusive, and that’s what we have done with our social media, to make sure that it is inclusive and that is why it has had the success it has had, is because people feel that they are a part of something, as no other fashion label has opened up and allowed them to come into their community before.
On the topic of social media, which allows you to have such a personal connection to your customers. How do you keep that up? As there is a lot of momentum there, a lot of posting, and a lot of answering questions, I know there is most likely people on your team who help you, but that is a big job, all in itself, all of the social media.
Yes it is, it gets bigger and bigger, and it gets frustrating with the algorithms and things and you don’t know where you’re at with Facebook at times, no body knows the answer to the way it works. I do all the posts myself on my Augustine Facebook and my Augustine Instagram, and I’ve never let anybody ever do it, apart from when we post our full look book, one of my staff will do that. All the posts are me, and I never let anyone touch it, and never will, that’s why it is so personal, because I am doing it all myself. The part I have help with is all the private messages, that is a mammoth job, on its own. Whenever there are answers to comments that’s me, and the VIP group. It is a big job, but it is necessary that you keep your face to it. When somebody isn’t doing their own social media, it doesn’t have the right feel to it.
Thats true, I think that with fashion brands, that people are much more interested in finding out about the people behind the brands.
Yes, they do feel like they are part of it, and they do feel that they know me. That’s the way we have built it. I really like that. That they know me. Sometimes it’s quite odd really, like people coming and talking to me, without actually introducing themselves first, but I really like that, they feel like they are a friend of mine. Without ever having met me.
I think that is lovely, like it is quite a personal page, it is obviously about the clothes but your family is also on there, you put little anecdotes about being a working Mum and there was a really sweet post about your nanny, that left recently.
Yes, well, people ask if I have any help, or if I do it all on my own, but I don’t do it all on my own. I have a nanny, the fact that I only got a nanny when Havana was born, so it was all ourselves with the other two. So it is a lot easier now, than it was in the beginning, that’s for sure.
So how do you balance the creative and business demands of what you do? I guess the social media is a bit in the middle, as far as creative and business goes.
So I do all the creative, and all the Facebook, and Nathan does all the business, so that’s the reason it works. There is just no way that I would know how to do it all. I never trained in the business side of it. Neither did Nathan, he is just very street smart and business smart. He does all that side of it, he does all the numbers, he does all the ordering, he runs the business side and I run the creative side. So I don’t know if you can be both people, also I think if you are really small you have to do it all. I think the partnerships that work are when you have got one as a creative and the other is business, it just works.
How does your professional relationship work with your husband?
Well, we work together, but we don’t get into each others departments, he knows what he is doing. He doesn’t have any influence with the designs. he just loves the business side of it. Then again I don’t have any input into the business side. We work together, but we have our own specific parts of the business we work on. We also have many staff now, so we aren’t in each other’s pockets during the day. Not like in the beginning, when it was just us.
Alaska Tees kid’s and men’s campaign images.
I know you share a lot of your life online, so how do you keep a part of that private as well?
I think it comes across to people that I share a lot but I don’t share a big portion of my life online. I try to make it a happy medium and not share too much. It is quite easy to keep what you want to keep private. You are in control of what you share.
Essentially you are a designer, and the creative director of your business, that’s your role. So what is the best piece of advice you have received, that you refer back to, as a designer?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I get asked a lot who is my mentor, or who I have been inspired by or who’s given me advice. I honestly don’t think that. Nathan and I have been so busy, head down for the last ten years, that we’ve never really had advice from anybody. I think we have just got it done. Nate has been my inspiration as far as the business goes. He would be the one I go to for advice, but I don’t think anyone has given me advice. Nothing that springs to mind. Things like walk before you run, and don’t try to do everything at once, don’t launch new labels too quickly. Which are all classic mistakes, you just have to get your knitting right first. There is a lot of advice I could give people now, but I can’t think of any I’ve been given.
Everyone’s journey is different, your label very much reflects your personal style, it’s colourful, feminine and fun. So how do you differentiate them, I know you have different design hats, for the different things you do, do you have Charlo time or Augustine time, or does it all start to overlap?
No, I keep really really clear lines between Charlo and Augustine. When I get my fabrics, I can see clearly which is Augustine, or Charlo, so I will have a day just doing Augustine, or just doing Charlo. I find Augustine so much easier to design, because it is my favourite. I know exactly where I want to go. Whereas Charlo is more day wear, and I don’t wear it as much as I like to be way more dressed up. With Stella Royal, I’ve got Jane to help, who designs that and I oversee it. I also have Fiona, who helps on that. I don’t try and do all of them myself but I do all of Augustine and Charlo.
You do new collections pretty frequently, how often do you drop new designs?
We have a drop every month and we alternate drops, one month Charlo, the next month Augustine. Because now we have got two drops in a month, and now we have shoes as well. Then we are also updating our Pretty Basics, as well. For example I realized we didn’t have any Maxi skirts, and I love having a Maxi skirt, so we dropped six in to the mix, and they will arrive and be launched for high summer. There does feel like there is something dropping every week almost. With all the labels together, it is every month. Then with Alaska launching as well, we’ve got a whole other label that is just constantly being loaded online. Alaska has been amazing.
Alaska Tees shoot in Hawaii.
I know that has been more Nathan’s brand, but what has that been like over the past few weeks? Because it hasn’t been around very long, but it took off straight away.
Yes it has, we have a Facebook page and Instagram for it but we hadn’t promoted it that much as we wanted it to start slowly, but it still took off and went crazy. It has a lot of potential. It is all Nathan, it is completely his idea, his brain child. He has got graphic designers working with him that are amazing. It is an incredible concept and no one else is doing it.
T shirts are such an everyday thing, that everyone wants to wear, so it’s really exciting where that can go. There are so many labels doing t shirts, with two or three prints, and they just keep using those. There is no one doing it to this extreme, but I just think, why would you buy a t shirt anywhere else, when you can completely customize it rather than having to have what someone else has designed for you, and other people have the same t shirt. It’s very cool.
There are all the different styles too, that was one of the things I was really impressed with. You have covered every possible, body shape, size and level of coverage that people are looking for.
We are extending our sizes, we have a couple of styles that fit an 18, but we have had so many requests to go to bigger sizes, so when we do our re-order for the t shirts, we are going up to a size 20 in about five styles, that will keep a lot of people happy, because we have been inundated with requests for bigger sizes. We try to cater to everybody, but we can’t cater to every single taste. We try.
I think that it is good, that you address these things on social media too, at the end of the day, you are not an H&M or one of those massive chain labels.
No, exactly. I think that is what has kept our customers so interested for so many years. They know that each style we do, there is such a small run of it. Yes, we are releasing stuff all the time, but we can keep our runs really, really small, you are not going to see so many people wearing the same dress, or the same top, because we have got so many styles, but very few of each style. Which I think is the key, as a lot of labels have tripped themselves up thinking that’s popular, lets make it again and make hundreds of pieces of it, to keep up with the demand. But we have always been of the idea, that we would rather the style sells out. People call us everyday and we have to say “We’re really sorry but you can’t have it, it’s sold out. You will have to wait till next season, in a different colour. “We sold out of 10 styles last week straight away and we could have so easily have made 500 of each of those styles, but the way we prefer to do it is to keep you all hungry, rather than to go and cater to the market.
I think that is fair enough. I think you almost get a bit of exhaustion too, when you just see the same thing everywhere as well.
Yes absolutely, that’s why our range is so big, it has to be, to carry the small amounts and having enough out there to keep people happy. There are still styles that sell out straight away and people can’t believe why we don’t re-cut it. Why don’t you just make hundreds of them? I get asked that all the time. Then you would complain that they are everywhere, so we keep it small.
What is it like when you see women out and about in Augustine ? Do you still get a buzz off that 10 years on?
Oh yes absolutely, I love it, I love seeing that because it is still very cool. I remember the first time I saw somebody wearing something of mine when I was at the races in Auckland. I actually went up to her and told her “You have my dress on” and she thought I was some kind of crazy lady. It’s still very cool, especially when you go to smaller towns, in New Zealand and you see so many people wearing it. You see how far the reach is, as you can get kind of in your little bubble in your office. I see my staff wearing it, but it is still really cool seeing complete strangers wearing it, then coming to tell me how much wearing colour has changed their wardrobe.
Since the beginning you’ve advocated for colour instead of black and there still isn’t a lot of black in your collections.
Yes, although there is still too much black in New Zealand. I do definitely feel like over 10 years, with the amount of products we have put out there, it has definitely made a difference. I do see women wearing more colour than I did 10 years ago. We have got so many copycat labels now too, it’s ridiculous, they obviously bring out a lot of colour. Certainly there is more colour out there now, which is really cool.
I think it’s good to see women being a little more adventurous, and playful with colour.
Yes, and dressing up a bit more too I think. The whole sports luxe thing is a bit of a detriment to that, there is so much active wear out there now, and people feel it’s acceptable fashion, but, I think New Zealand needs to dress up more. I will wear an Augustine dress with flat sandals or sneakers everyday, just in my daily life. But people will keep that special dress for that special occasion still, so there is a lot of work to be done, to educate them that they can just put it on any day.
Kelly, Nathan and their three daughters on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week 2018.
Fair enough, I know New Zealand Fashion Week was a few months ago already but how was it for you, in the sense that pretty much the whole crowd for your show was wearing Augustine, which was quite amazing. How important is it for you to connect with customers in that way, with the shows, and what is that show environment like for you?
It’s huge, it is pretty much the reason that we do Fashion Week, because the actual Fashion Week during the week has got no purpose for me whatsoever. I would never show during the week to an audience full of media and bloggers and social influencers and buyers from overseas. The amazing part about Fashion Week is that they created Fashion Weekend, which is perfect for us, so we can invite our customers. It is so important for us to connect and be able to say to our customers come along to Fashion Week, experience Fashion Week, but do it with the brand, that you already feel like you are part of that community, with other people there who are part of the same community. It’s not the high flyers of Auckland, there are people you can relate to.
Now with Augustine Life, it is just the same, we have a thousand women in, and they are part of the same community. I want too show them that I am not just on social media, I want to meet them, and I want to hear their stories and interact with them as well. The events we do are huge.
Yes, I guess that’s the thing too, it is just that extended way to connect with people, it is really nice to meet people in person. I am sure there are people who are really excited to meet you after having seen you on social media and feeling like they know you.
Absolutely, and it still amazes me that they are there as such, because I forget the followers on Facebook, but when I put tickets on sale for these events, they sell out fast. Like Fashion Week was about 5 hours for 700 tickets. When we did Augustine Live it was like a day to sell a thousand tickets. For our 10 year party we have got coming up we have sold 300 tickets in 15 minutes. So there is such a huge demand to anything that we are doing, they want to be part of it. Because they don’t get invited to anything else that’s like this. There aren’t social events like this that cater to everyone. I absolutely love how passionate they get about it and how invested they are in it.
I think that is one of the great things about what you are doing as well, it feels much more inclusive than a lot of brands, and fashion for a long time has felt like kind of this thing that only people with a certain amount of money buy, you know what I mean, very much a designer label, but yours is accessible, friendly and an inclusive designer label.
Absolutely, I mean I can still go myself and walk into some stores to buy sunglasses and not get a single hello, or any kind of help whatsoever. There are still labels out there that are like that and they just want their high elite status, it’s not inclusive whatsoever. God, if I don’t like going into stores like that, how would my customers ever go into stores like that? You can go into H&M and get no service, and buy a whole lot of crap that’s on a plastic hanger. But when we started our boutiques there was nobody in between that you could actually go and get a level of service, and styled, you can feel like you are welcomed and you still get a designer product at an affordable price point. I think that has been a huge part of it.
On that note, you have got four stores in New Zealand and the new stores that you have developed like the Newmarket store and the one in Takapuna have been wonderful for you to provide the full experience, with all your labels.
Yes, we will eventually look at maybe opening a store in Melbourne. We have got to the point, that small stores don’t work for us anymore. That’s why we have relocated Ponsonby to the Takapuna store, so we could have a big store. We have just realized that people come to us and want the full experience, and want everything that we have put out, and the labels all in one place, and they want everything that we have put out under that label. Before we moved the Mount shop we could only display a small selection of our range. So from now on, any shop we have has to be a certain size so we have enough room for everything.
It’s quite a rarity in retail here, a lot of the designer boutiques are generally quite small.
Yes, definitely and it is a rarity to be opening stores like that at this point. You usually see so many closing down, not opening up. When we moved our Takapuna one our landlord was surprised as people are closing down in Takapuna and we opened this huge store but it has just worked so well for us. People see it all online and they do want to go in store and try things on, and see everything all at once. Retail is huge for us.
The other side of that is that you have a massive wholesale operation as well, I think the last time I read about that, you had about 70 stockists?
Yes, it is about 70, wholesale is huge for us. I started off only wholesaling, before we opened any shops, and it is the only way, that you can reach these women that live in small towns in New Zealand that need to be able to try the product on and buy it. Otherwise they have just got to rely on buying online, which wasn’t really a thing 10 years ago, when we first started so, things have definitely changed. I think the old sellers that stocked us, have moved with the times, and have a website and sell online, and the ones that have got social media are still doing really well. The ones that haven’t moved with the times, well, I can’t see that much of a future for a store like that.
Augustine and Charlo on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week 2018.
I guess that’s the thing that the retailers have had to embrace the modern way of shopping. People do want to see what is new on social media and they want to buy stuff online or when they come in they kind of want the full experience, to have those touch points, across multiple things, rather than just going into the store and seeing what’s new.
Yes, definitely. Loads of people that come into the store know what they are looking for because they have seen it on Facebook or the website before they come in, there’s not many people that come into our stores now that have never heard of us or just happen to be walking past and have no idea of what they want, they already know what they want.
Yes, I think the thing too with online, so many more people see that as a viable option now, whereas I think in the beginning, people didn’t realize how important it was to be consistent online, and as far as sizing and the like you know what you are getting.
We do free returns too, which makes it so much easier for people, so if you can shop and know that you don’t have to keep it if it isn’t right.
I think that’s the thing, consistency in sizing and the customer service, and extending all of that into your online business is so important, and kind of what makes or breaks it now.
Yes, I can’t see a future for people that just have a store that aren’t willing to have a website, you need to have a social media presence and actually put yourself out there. There are shops I know that have never gone there and just have staff and not have any social media. The are not going to last.
You would have seen a lot of that in the last 10 years?
Yes, even in the last five years, there are so many more people that are prepared to shop online, especially in our target market of 30 to 50. A 45 year old women 5 years ago wouldn’t be prepared to shop online, and they weren’t on Instagram, so yes it’s definitely changing.
What makes you excited for the future? How far ahead do you think in terms of the future?
Normally we have got things planned for the year ahead, but next year we are all about consolidating what we are doing already. I think we have got enough going on to not get too hectic, no new labels going out next year, no new stores. We are just excited about working on what we have already built and just making sure every range is better than the last one. But I still get excited every time I have started a new range and the samples start coming in, and I can see the range coming together, and shaping it, and photographing it, It is still as exciting as it was 10 years ago, so I am not feeling any less excited about it than I was. I will still be doing this for a long time yet.
On that note of the future, do you keep pieces for your daughters for when they are older, do you put away pieces of clothing like an archive for them?
No, because I am pretty sure that by the time it comes to wear it, they are not going to want to wear it. I am sure we will still be in business when they are teenagers, and they will start telling me what they want to wear, so I don’t think they will want to wear what Mum has already worn. But, oh my god, they love playing dress ups, at the moment. I get asked all the time, to launch a kids label, but I am not going to be going down that track.
Can you see your girls becoming part of the family business at some point? Or do you think they’ll go off and become a netballer or something else?
I would love one of them to be a netballer. I don’t know, one’s not really interested in fashion, but she has possibly got her Dad’s entrepreneurial spirit, I don’t think it will bend to fashion though. Whereas my middle daughter loves putting outfits together, she has dressed herself since she was 18 months old, I’ve never had a say in it. She’s really sassy and can put her own outfits together. My eldest will just wear shorts or a t shirt, whatever is most comfortable. And Havana, who knows, she is a cheeky little number three. Who knows it might be none of them.
As this business is your long term plan for you it will be very interesting to see how it evolves in 10 years time.
Yes, Indy loves working in the shop now, she likes wrapping the clothes in tissue and putting it in the bag. I am sure they will start working in the shop, when they are teenagers, part time jobs for sure.