IN HER SHOES
Kathryn Wilson’s joie de vie
“There’s no point in being any where or doing anything unless you’re either laughing along the way or having fun”
Perched between a jeroboam of Veuve Clicquot and a noticeboard pinned with special moments — including wedding photos, Polaroids of her team and an invitation from famed fellow shoe designer Jimmy Choo — Kathryn Wilson sits in the office above her Herne Bay, Auckland store. She’s wearing a pair of her own pink slingbacks, a cherry-red suit strewn with blossoms and the most infectious smile in New Zealand fashion.
As her boutique shoe brand reaches its milestone 15-year anniversary, which is soon to be toasted at New Zealand Fashion Week with plenty of bubbles and confetti, she has a lot to beam about. Not only has her company succeeded in the often tricky business of footwear, but since starting the brand, she’s also fallen in love, started a family and inspired countless others through her various leadership and charitable initiatives.
Kathryn (38) got here by dreaming big, but determination and her own brand of unwavering optimism keep her on her toes. “For me, happiness is getting to do something that’s not only satisfying but that I enjoy,” she says, looking across to the stacks of shoebox samples piled beside her desk.
The youngest of three girls, Kathryn grew up in Papakura, Auckland, where her mother Linda, a primary school teacher, encouraged her to always look on the bright side. Kathryn likely inherited her creative streak from her interior designer father Grant, who passed away when she was only seven. “I’ve probably learned from having that terrible thing happen that there’s no point being anywhere or doing anything unless you’re either laughing along the way or having fun,” she says.
Something that brought Kathryn happiness from a young age was footwear. An ’80s kid, she has fond memories of trips to Para Rubber where she could pick a pair of canvas Commando-M sneakers or kung fu slip-ons to customise with scissors, glitter and Fluffits pens. “My sisters and I would have little competitions as to who could make the coolest pair. I’d go one step further — cut the sides out, turn them into slingbacks, make them an open toe,” says Kathryn. “I thought it was kooky, like, ‘No one else has a pair like these.’”
The budding designer went on to complete two fashion courses, one at AUT and the other at Massey University, which included a year-long exchange to study footwear at Nottingham Trent University in the
UK. When she returned, globalisation had the New Zealand footwear industry in a spin, which Kathryn learned the hard way when attending a New Zealand Footwear Industry Association meeting. “I went along like a little whippet, saying, ‘I’m going to be New Zealand’s best shoe designer. Who wants to hire me?’ And they all said, ‘Pick another career, everything is moving offshore. It’s dire.’”
But Kathryn dug in her heels and learned how to create her own footwear with the help of experts in the business, including the then head of Fashion Industry New Zealand, who helped her apply for, and win, an AMP Scholarship of $5000 to sample her first shoe designs.
Her employers, Caroline and Lloyd of Caroline Sills, offered to help finance her first footwear collection, which was the beginning of a valuable partnership. “For eight years, I was the executive designer for Caroline Sills, but in my spare time did the shoes.”
Kathryn Wilson, the brand, now has more than 80 stockists nationwide, with three of its own stores in Auckland, and has expanded to include Miss Wilson, Little Wilson, Baby Wilson and men’s ranges. Kathryn, the woman, ensures her shoes stay true to the vision she had as an up-and-coming 23-year-old designer by releasing her coveted collections in limited editions. “I don’t want all the girls to be at the party wearing the same pair of shoes!”
Growing the business in other ways, she’s hiring a development manager to help her think strategically about the next 15 years, as well as taking more ownership, officially. “I’ve put my big-girl pants on and purchased the shareholding back off Caroline and Lloyd. It’s a nice celebration for all of us.”
For this year of revelry, her spring/summer collection salutes the brand’s roots with flattering and comfortable shapes in bold colours, from cerise to marigold. “You should look down and feel like there’s a ray of sunshine on your feet,” she says.
Kathryn’s support for others goes well beyond their arches. A past recipient of the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award, along with several other accolades, she encourages people to think big everywhere from international business events to local schools. Her favourite audiences are primary-school children. “It’s realistic that kids have all sorts of things happening, all sorts of backgrounds and sickness in their family. But imagine, I can change the direction of their enjoyment — not necessarily their career choice, but their outlook.”
She’s a cheerleader for causes close to her heart, including Ronald McDonald House and the Sir Ray Avery Foundation. Initiatives include donating proceeds from shoes and event sales, gifting to charity auctions and being an avid ambassador. “It just feels like the least we can do, because we’ve got access to our database of customers who’d love to be able to help where they can, not necessarily always with funding but with raising awareness.”
For Ronald McDonald House, which supports families with children in hospital, her staff cooks meals as a team-building exercise, and Kathryn loves participating in art sessions with the children, even holding nationwide shoedrawing competitions.
Kathryn’s team, who she calls family, is a highlight of her career. “My true enjoyment comes from giving people an opportunity to do something they love,” she says. “That gives me my jollies, that I’m being part of their bigger picture or part of their happiness.”
The designer’s own happiness is helped along by many high-profile business mentors, including Ray, who’s now a close friend and the person who urged her to start a family. Kathryn met her “dream guy” Liam Taylor, the co-founder of activations and public relations agency DarkHorse, when she was 30. They were both busy building their own careers when they married. Now, with a three-year-old daughter, Lola Belle, life’s all about balance.
The family recently bought a place in Pauanui
— “a shack of a bach, but we love it” — and escape there during the weekends for some quality time. Living by the sea in the city, down the road from work in Herne Bay, also helps Kathryn stay relaxed. “You can see the horizon, and that makes me feel calm. I may have been a dolphin in another life,” she jokes.
Reincarnation aside, the designer’s butter-yellow abode seems meant to be. Kathryn used to jog past it when she was at university and leave flowers by the front door, thinking one day she’d love to own the home herself; talk about the power of positive thinking. The Resene Black White walls inside are enlivened with sentimental art, including a larger-than-life peony wall decal behind the dining table. Upstairs in the master bedroom, her shoes are artworks themselves, with 80 pairs displayed in a custombuilt shoe wall. Mainstays include different hues of the Kylie and Lola heels from her Famous Five signature heel collection.
Kathryn is a strong believer in the power of pumps to brighten everyone’s day, and her love of fancy footwork has kept her feeling uplifted in the competitive world of fashion. “When you put any shoe on, you should feel like a better version of yourself,” she says, with one last laugh. “Chin up, shoulders back. I’ve got this. Watch me go.”
Right: Kathryn and Liam at home with daughter LolaBelle. Their 1920s abode (below right) was designed by a French architect. Centre: Footwearand fresh-cut flowers in Kathryn’sHerne Bay store.