Travel back to 1980s Papakura and you might get an inkling that Kathryn Wilson would become a shoe designer. Not only did she customise her Kung Fu and Commando M shoes with fluff-up pens and puff paint, but she also went one step further, cutting the heels and toes out to turn them into sling-backs.
In New Zealand, the journey to become a successful shoe designer is not exactly a well-trodden path. At Wellington’s Massey University, where Kathryn completed a Bachelor of Design, she took any opportunity to focus on shoe design. She had moved to Wellington after completing a Certificate in Fashion Design at AUT in Auckland. "My lecturers at AUT, and later Massey University, knew I loved footwear and wanted to be a shoe designer so where possible they let me base my studies around footwear when the rest of the group designed clothing."
Kathryn describes the early 2000s when she was starting out as a great time for New Zealand fashion. "New Zealand designers had such a great reputation on the global stage with the NZ 4 showing at London Fashion Week in 1999. There were a lot of mentors to look up to!"
The importance of mentors for her career path was acknowledged in 2018. After her label’s New Zealand Fashion Week Show, Kathryn hosted a party in honour of the 15 people who had helped her business reach its 15-year anniversary. Called The Tribute, Kathryn took the opportunity to highlight some of the many people who influenced her career - not just fashion colleagues but also her mother and young daughter.
Work experience with designers Karen Walker, Zambesi, and Starfish provided an early insight into the fashion industry.
During her studies, one of her guest lecturers Paul Blomfield, head of Fashion Industry New Zealand, an apparel industry advocacy group, took an interest in her career. "When I first met Kathryn, her energy and her talent was unmistakable - her creative talent is matched by marketing instinct and an ability to communicate at all levels."
Paul became one of her first mentors and helped her to apply for an AMP Scholarship in 2002. "I was not surprised at all that she won. Soon after, I introduced Kathryn to some of the leading manufacturers in the New Zealand footwear business. They dismissed her as being full of ambition, but entirely lacking in the technical skills she’d need to be successful. They weren’t prepared to accept that a young, smart, dynamic woman could do in a short time, what they’d taken decades to achieve the old way."
When Kathryn won the AMP Scholarship she used the $5000 grant to sample her first designs, working with Marler Shoes in West Auckland to create seven styles of shoes, a mini collection that she launched the following year. Initially, seven styles which were sold in seven retail stores.
Two mentors were also her first fashion industry employers - Caroline and Lloyd Sills. After graduating from Massey University, Kathryn returned to Auckland and began work as an assistant knitwear designer at Caroline Sills. She worked there for eight years, juggling the role with starting her own label - for which Caroline and Lloyd provided initial investment - in 2003. She says she had plenty of opportunities to learn from the couple. "They advised me that you’re only as good as your last collection and that you can never get too complacent and relaxed with where you sit in the market. It’s a good reminder to keep moving and pushing the envelope with designs and customer experience."
Kathryn showed at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2010 before she had even opened her first retail store. Her show was the first exclusively footwear show at the event and she has appeared at Fashion Week every year since then. "It’s a wonderful celebration for designers to be able to showcase their products to customers, media and, in those early days, the international buyers," Kathryn says. "We picked up stockists in New York, LA and later Hong Kong due to relationships that started at NZFW."
It wasn’t until 2011 that Kathryn opened her own retail store - a pop-up shop in Britomart. "We were a wholesale business for nine years before feeling ready to open our own retail stores. This was intentional so I could make the right decisions for the longevity of the brand … I wanted to remain exclusive and have limited edition footwear rather than over-saturate the market." Kathryn’s 'pop-up shoebox store' was timed for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Its success led to a permanent retail boutique in the Britomart Pavilions, while the shoebox store traveled to Wellington for six months and Christchurch for two years. There are now three permanent retail stores in Britomart, Herne Bay, and Newmarket.
Kathryn designs under three separate labels - the limited edition Kathryn Wilson label, Miss Wilson which she describes as "on-trend and playful" and a range for children, Little Wilson. In 2013, in a self-described highlight of her career, Beyoncé took home a pair of Kathryn Wilson loafers and a pair of Little Wilson’s for her daughter Blue Ivy Carter. "Beyoncé posted a photo of them on her Instagram account to 88 million followers!!"
No matter who she is designing for, Kathryn acknowledges the importance of comfort to her customers. Colour and a playful approach are also important. "We embrace the brand values of ‘Happy Feet’ so we have a lot of fun with textures and leathers to create our dream shoe!"
Self-described 'old school', Kathryn and her team use pencil on paper. “We selfishly design what we want to be wearing ourselves next year. We design 10 months out from delivery so it’s important to be innovative and unique rather than acknowledging major trends as these will already be available in the New Zealand market by the time our shoes are in-store.”
The long lead-up time is due to the fact that manufacturing footwear on this scale in New Zealand isn’t an option right now. Kathryn Wilson shoes are currently manufactured in Italy, Brazil, China, and Turkey. Kathryn says she’d love to make her shoes here. "Imagine if I could do sampling here in New Zealand!" she told the blog Ethical Style Hunter in February. "It would short-cut a lot of the process for me. I could send through a design idea and literally go and see the next day what it looks like."
As well as relying on sending physical material swatches and scanned sketches, Kathryn travels frequently to visit her manufacturers and their staff. "All of our shoes are handmade and we are working with boutique production houses with 40-120 staff. These family-run businesses are following a code of conduct set by us. We are really proud of these relationships and consider them to be important partnerships that rely on close communication throughout the season."
Since the arrival of her daughters in 2015 and 2019, Kathryn has made a conscious effort to be very focused with her time. "I have learnt to be all in or nothing. If I am at home with baby Stella I am 100% being a mum and not checking my phone. If I’m in the office, it’s time purely dedicated to the team. I make sure I’m not trying to be everything to everyone where you get spread too thin."
In 2018 Kathryn bought out co-owners Caroline and Lloyd Sills who had a 50% share in the company. It was a natural progression after 15 years of support. She’s now in a position to be a mentor for other young designers and has a Massey University intern joining her later this year.
And Kathryn has some sound advice for the rest of us. "I encourage women (and men) to wear what makes them feel good so they can walk tall and feel confident to take on any situation - in the boardroom, or at home with toddlers!"
Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image © Kathryn Wilson.
Published August 2019.