Kathryn Wil­son’s joie de vie

Fashion Quarterly - - Contents -

“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.

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