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.

Child­hood years

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.”

Hap­pi­est time

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.

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