JUDY BAILEY INTERVIEW
with New Zealand shoe designer Kathryn Wilson
If asked to name a Kiwi shoe label, chances are you’ll think of Kathryn Wilson. The successful designer talks about finding her feet in business, how she got Beyonce to wear her shoes, and the importance of giving back and nurturing the next entrepreneurs.
Kathryn Wilson was in a bit of a state when she first met her hero, internationally renowned shoe designer Jimmy Choo. She was, she says, a bag of nerves, excited and overwhelmed that she’d finally be face to face with the man she idolised. She says words just tumbled out of her mouth. “I had a dream about you last night,” she told him. “I dreamt I tripped and fell at your feet.” The inimitable Mr Choo smiled warmly and opened his arms wide, “Ah but I would catch you Kathryn,” he told her with a big smile.
Her eyes sparkle as she tells me this story. The two clicked instantly. She later arranged to bring him to New Zealand for a fundraising event and they spent time hanging out together, while Kathryn introduced him to the delights of Auckland’s restaurant scene and the charms of Waiheke Island.
Kathryn is, of course, a shoe designer in her own right, one of our most successful. She began her business at what many thought was a crazy time. Import restrictions on footwear had been removed and tariffs drastically reduced. The market was flooded with cheap imports and local designers were shutting up shop.
Kathryn was unfazed. “I’m pigheaded. I’m headstrong and hate being said no to. It spurred me on,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to be New Zealand’s best shoemaker. I’m going to be the next name in shoes.’” And she was.
Shoes had always been a passion, right from when she was a little girl. “Mum always let us choose a special pair of shoes each season. The first ones I remember were white leather with a
pointed toe and little cut-outs on them. The best thing about them was that when I walked they went click, click, click, just like my mother’s. You know, I should recreate them… as a one-off special.” Her eyes crinkle in delight at the prospect.
Kathryn was born in 1980 in Papakura, then a predominantly farming town in South Auckland. She was the third of Linda and Grant Wilson’s three girls. Grant was an interior decorator and painter. “Our home always looked like an ad for Dulux paints,” Kathryn laughs. Dad built it – all low-ceilinged 1970s architecture – around the family, with my grandfather’s help. Dad was a lighthearted man, really funny. He played a lot of instruments. I remember him sitting on my bed at night with the guitar, singing to us.”
Kathryn’s beloved dad died after a prolonged battle with cancer when she was just seven. “You know, I feel like he’s not far away. When something’s really important to me I’ll talk to him.”
Kathryn’s mother, Linda, a primary school teacher, gathered up her three daughters and took them on a six-week trip around the world soon after their father died. “It’s what he wanted,” Kathryn explains. “He wanted us to be exposed to the big wide world, to experience life outside Papakura.
“Mum is a really optimistic person; she was acutely aware that life is short and she told us to make sure you do what you love. ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ she’d tell us.” The advice was not lost on the young Kathryn.
She is a mix of both her parents – a cup-half-full sort of person like her mother, with her father’s sense of fun. Linda remarried when Kathryn was
12; her husband Ross has four older boys of his own. “We’re a bit like The Brady Bunch when we all get together,” Kathryn laughs.
At Papakura’s Rosehill College Kathryn was always drawn to creative subjects – art, design and technology. Growing up in the 1990s, Kung Fu slip-ons and Commando canvas sneakers were the shoes du jour. They were cheap and, most importantly for Kathryn, easy to modify. “I would decorate them with puffer pens, cut out the toes and backs and turn them into sling-backs. [The sling-back is still a trademark of Kathryn Wilson design.] I just loved having something different.”
A gregarious, outgoing person, Kathryn is still close friends with the girls she knew at Rosehill. “There are three or four of us – we’ve been in each other’s pockets since we were 10. You never have to explain anything. We’re 38 now. Even though there are a million things to do, it’s still more important to me to pick up the phone to a friend. You get so much out of friendship.”
Kathryn completed her Bachelor of Design at Massey University in Wellington, majoring in fashion. In the second year of that course she won a scholarship to study shoe design at Nottingham in England. After graduating, her first job was as an assistant knitwear designer at Caroline Sills in Auckland, but she was still dreaming about shoes. It was an AMP scholarship that would give Kathryn the means to realise her dreams.
The year she applied for the scholarship she was up against some pretty stiff competition. “There was a heart surgeon who’d developed a new technique for doing transplants, an ovarian cancer specialist who was doing world-leading research, an 85-year-old weightlifter who wanted to go to the Masters Games, a 16-year-old pro tennis player, and me!” I stood up feeling really silly and said, “I’m going to be the next big name in shoes.”
She impressed the judges, won the scholarship and used the $5000 prize to sample her first range – a sneaker design with little heels. From that modest start she’s grown a business that boasts three retail stores in Auckland and a flourishing online trade, not to mention a string of stores nationwide that stock the Kathryn Wilson brand. “I saw a gap in the market and I wanted to fill it before someone else did. I wanted to create limited-edition, affordable shoes that were colourful and happy.”
It says a lot about the sort of person Kathryn is that her first employers, Caroline Sills and her husband Lloyd, would be her first business partners. They had faith in her ability, both as a creator and a person.
She now travels regularly to Italy, Spain and Brazil, as well as to a small firm in China, which hand-makes artisan shoes. She prefers to work directly with her suppliers and not through agents, so she can keep a close eye on her business. “It also means that if I have a gut feeling about a shoe, I can make a decision on the spot.”
As for her inspiration? “My own selfish needs. Every design is based on what I want for next season. I love people-watching at airports and spotting people who have their own take on fashion. I love a timeless silhouette, shoes that are a joy to wear, that make you feel good.”
Playful and happy are words she uses often to describe her work… you could equally apply them to Kathryn herself. Since 2012 she has been particularly happy. It’s when she met her husband, Liam Taylor. She’d just bought a house, and her friend, jeweller and singer Boh Runga, had moved in to share it with her. Kathryn first met Liam when they were working on an event together. He had been an Outward Bound instructor and was specialising in inbound hosting, mountain guiding and fishing. He followed up with an email invitation to an event he was running in Auckland on Valentine’s Day. She can thank Boh for insisting she go. He ended up leaving his mate to run the event and took Kathryn out for dinner. Soon afterwards she was walking the
“I love peoplewatching and spotting people who have their own take on fashion.”
Tongariro Crossing with her mum. “I said, ‘Mum, I’ve been out on a date’ – I never went on dates – ‘I’m going to marry him.’ I just knew. I felt like I’d known him for ever. Mum says, ‘He’s just like your father.’”
The pair have a three-year-old daughter, Lola. “I designed a whole range when I was pregnant… I won’t be doing that again,” she laughs. “It was all hot pink and turquoise snakeskin. The colour palette was so ‘off’. I was horrified when they came through. What was I thinking?! It’s now become a bit of a joke with the team. If ever I say, ‘How about we try this?’ I have to add, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not pregnant!’”
While it was Boh Runga who encouraged Kathryn to take her first tentative steps with Liam, it was another well-known New Zealander who had a hand in their marriage. Kathryn had met former New Zealander of the Year, scientist Ray Avery, at a charity dinner. They hit it off immediately and became firm friends. Kathryn and Liam were at the Averys’ for dinner when out of the blue Ray launched into what she describes as a “Dad chat” with Liam, about his intentions. “I was so embarrassed,” she remembers, colouring slightly at the thought. “I told Liam, ‘I didn’t put him up to it, honestly!’”
Ray is one of her closest mentors. “He challenges me. He says, ‘What are you going to do with the time you have left?” Others she mentions are Dame Rosanne Meo, a judge on the AMP scholarship panel, and businesswomen Julie Christie and Sara Tetro. She also meets regularly with three business mentors. “It’s great to have a dispassionate overview. I often don’t agree but it’s nice to be challenged.”
Kathryn is a staunch supporter of Ronald McDonald House, the charity that provides support for families who have a child in hospital. A percentage of every Baby Wilson shoe sold goes to the House. “Giving back is now an important concept for new start-ups,” she says. “It’s the first thing they’re thinking about. How lucky is Lola that she’s growing up in that sort of world?”
Kathryn is committed to nurturing a new generation of entrepreneurs. “I speak to a lot of schools. I tell them to choose a job you love. Look outside the expected paths. There is nothing to fear and every opportunity to shine. I encourage others to think big.”
Her shoes sell online to all corners of the world. Perhaps her greatest coup, though, was to get a pair in front of Beyonce when the singer was here. “I knew Ty Hunter was her stylist; he’d been with her since Destiny’s Child days. He was here with her and I recognised him in the hotel foyer so I just bowled on up and told him how excited I was to meet him and how much I admired his work with Beyonce. I was just genuinely enthusiastic.” An enthusiastic Kathryn is hard to resist. “Next day Ty’s on the phone saying, ‘I’d love to get a pair of your shoes in front of Beyonce.’ So I took a pair of loafers with matching Little Wilsons [for Beyonce’s daughter, Blue] up to the Sony office, thinking she’ll probably never even see them. Next day I’m in Rarotonga on holiday. It’s five in the morning and I get a phone call from home. I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, what’s wrong?’ as you do when you get random calls from home. They’re saying, ‘Look at your phone, Beyonce’s put a pic up on Instagram wearing your shoes with little Blue too.’
“It was a heart-swell moment. It wasn’t really about the endorsement. It was the fact she loves my shoes. That’s why I do it.”
LEFT: As a businesswoman, Kathryn encourages others to think big and values the input of her own mentors. BELOW: Kathryn with husband Liam and their daughter Lola. She says she knew when she met Liam that she’d marry him.