Meet the Shoe Maker

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 08/12/2013
 Kathryn Wilson
WELL-HEELED: Shoe designer Kathryn Wilson at her studio in Devonport, Auckland.

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Of course, the first thing you want to do is look at her feet. Sample size 39s, in leopard-print-trimmed loafers, tripping up the stairs to her Devonport, Auckland workspace.

"The role of shoes?" Kathryn Wilson doesn't pause.

"Practically, they should protect the feet. Obviously we are bought up in such a spoilt world - the fact that we're adorning our feet for fun. If we were practical, we probably wouldn't wear what we wear."

And Wilson, 33, wouldn't be celebrating 10 years of her eponymously named brand, the local footwear label of choice for fashionistas, boardroom babes and, more recently, Beyonce and her daughter Blue Ivy.

Wilson was in Rarotonga when her fiancé Liam called with the news. It was 5.30am and the designer was sharing a room with her sister. She went outside to take the call.

"They [Sony] had said they'd presented her with the shoes, and she'd really loved them. But I still thought, oh, you know, they probably just say that. And then to see Beyonce had posted them on Instagram. Seven million followers. Holey moley. I was sitting at this incredible beachfront. It seemed weird to even be on a cellphone because you're so far from everywhere. The sun was coming up. I was... Yeah... best 10th-birthday present ever."

Kathryn Wilson the Business Brand is an oft-reported story. The bare facts: A year-long certificate in fashion design at AUT. A bachelor of design at Massey allowed her to study, for the first time, dedicated footwear papers at Nottingham-Trent University: "Fifty thousand students. In the lecture theatres there would be 3000 people learning trend predictions from this guy from Paris who would be talking about the colour palettes for 2014. It was just like, waaah... I did literally have my jaw open."

She came home to win an AMP scholarship which funded the making of her first samples and, with financial backing from Caroline and Lloyd Sills (still her business partners), produced her first shoe: a ballet flat.

Today, there are two collections a year and two labels - the classic and more exclusive Kathryn Wilson and the more commercial and fashion-forward Miss Wilson.

Around 12,000 pairs of shoes annually, 12 staff on the books and around 100 wholesalers here, in Australia and Hong Kong. Her online platform is growing so fast she's just invested in an e-commerce strategy; there's a pop-up shoebox store currently located in Christchurch's Re:Start container mall, a store in Auckland's Britomart fashion precinct, and another pop-up in Herne Bay, which will be open for just one more week before it becomes a permanent fixture sometime in February.

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Wilson remembers fronting up to a local footwear industry AGM. "I said, as naive as ever, 'I'm going to be a shoe designer. I've just graduated. I'm busting to do it. I know there are limitations but I really want to do it and who wants to help? I'll come and work in your factories for free. I'll sweep the floor... '

They all just looked at me, these big shoe gurus of New Zealand, and they said, 'Pick another career. It's all moving offshore. It's dire and we've had to make such changes.'"

Wilson is the youngest of three daughters. She grew up in Papakura and went to Rosehill College (98 percent in School Certificate maths, 51 percent in English). Friends and family have been, and you get the impression always will be, crucial. She christens her shoes after people she knows (Beyonce's loafer is the 'Karlya', named for this magazine's fashion editor) and suffers, by her own admission, severe FOMO - fear of missing out. "I travel so much... I always felt like I was never getting to be at my friends' birthday parties and engagements."

Her first thought after winning that first scholarship to England: "I don't want to go. I'll have to break up with my boyfriend; I'll have to leave all my friends. I was terrified because I was 20 and I had always been in such a safety net. It was probably the best thing for me - being the one who didn't know anyone; who had to make friends.

"It made me realise there's this massive world out there and in New Zealand there was no one really doing what I wanted to do. Innovative footwear.  I thought, 'Imagine if I can quickly get in the market. Imagine if I can make it work.'"

Read historic press clippings on the rise of Kathryn Wilson and words like "unwavering", "dogged" and "unflappable" feature. The pinboard behind her work desk (which is really more of a table) overflows with invites, cards and notes. "Inspirational" is a recurring phrase.

"When I look back," Wilson says, "I have no idea what I was thinking, but my mum is a primary school teacher and my dad was an interior decorator, and he was really creative and really good at art. He used to draw us things, and there was music ...

"He died when I was seven, but he got sick when I was four. I think, for Mum... with Dad passing our childhood was very much about making the most of life. Mum was always encouraging us to make it fun while we're here. 'Do something you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life' kind of thing."

On the occasion of Kathryn Wilson-the-Brand's 10th birthday there was an exhibition at Parnell's Saatchi Gallery. Wilson posed for a Tony Drayton portrait in a party dress, sitting on the floor with a cake and assorted shoes - the grown-up, as a delighted girl. On the wall as you entered was a much smaller pair of shoes: brown and double-buckled.

"Once upon a time," read the caption, "a little girl with a gigantic smile was given her very first pair of shoes."

That display was supposed to feature an even older pair of red toddler's shoes, but soon after the show opened Wilson's mum took them off the wall and brought them home. Wilson roars her uproarious laugh. "She's like, 'Anyone could have taken these.

I've kept them for 33 years. I'm not losing them now.'

To me, they're my love affair with shoes. But to her, they're me as a little one, laughing and running."

Wilson was, she says, "very much a girl"; the one in a purple tracksuit, lace socks, pink shoes and hair in a matching scrunchie on family holidays at her uncles' farms in Kerikeri.

"I was always terrified of getting dirty. We'd go out on the ute and feed out hay to the horses and I would refuse to get down."

On the Monday morning of this interview she sports a neon-tipped manicure. Three days later, for her Sunday photo shoot, her nails are still immaculate but the colour has changed. Having good hair, she says, will make you walk taller. And wearing your favourite shoes? "You can take on the world. I look down at them so often in the day, and they make me so happy.

I often think that with an outfit you can look great, but other people get to see that. Whereas you get to see your shoes. Check your own self out. You know - looking good!"

She's on design deadline for Summer 2014 when she meets Sunday. Her first question to us, before she makes a round of peppermint tea: What do we want to wear?

"I've drawn the collection," she says. "I took it home over the weekend and thought, 'Oh, I hope I still like it.' It's really selfish - I just draw what I want to wear next year, or what's missing in my wardrobe, or because my friends and people around me have told me they can't find something in the market. The true ground root of the brand is what people want; what women want."

She's contemplating a white leather trainer at the request of a friend's mum ("it's a reminder not to overcomplicate things") and, sitting on the top of her desk, a sketch of Winter '08's popular 'Jimmy' boot - the one she's on record as saying she'd never bring back.

"Yes, we've resampled Jimmy. I know, I know! I'm still dilly dallying. The sample looked really cool. It's exactly what we've done before, with a new manufacturer out of Brazil, because they were initially made in Italy. So, maybe. We get asked all the time. I don't want to oversaturate a story."

All of Wilson's shoes are made off-shore. "I wish we could be manufacturing here - that would be my ultimate. But the technology isn't here. All our shoes are handmade. We're not scrimping anywhere to get them made cheaply, but the reality is more the quality that you can't get out of New Zealand."

So she sketches, and manufacturers come back with options for the 'last' or base mould, fitted to the slightly wider New Zealand foot. There are inevitable disasters. Once a shipment of 1000 pairs of coloured trainers had to be destroyed after the discovery of mould spores in a contaminated container deemed the shoes a biosecurity risk. Wilson had just 10 days to get them remade and air-freighted to meet retail orders.

"I sat on the floor of our warehouse downstairs here and cried. And then I rang Mum. She has that primary school teacher attitude: 'Don't worry, it'll be fine.' And of course it all worked out okay."

Sometimes manufacturers will make a change on a whim - "We thought it would look better with a silver toe."

But one mistake, Wilson says, was all her own.

Flat, knee-high, pointy-toe boots which were to be produced in black and a dark gunmetal green.

"Somehow I'd got the code wrong on the leather swatch. Cream. Not even cream. Pearl, like oyster. Seventy pairs of them. I'm like, 'I'm not putting them in the store.' Of course, they were the first to sell out. But maybe, the thing was, they weren't in the market. You couldn't get oyster pearl boots with flat soles.

"Because you're not manufacturing here, what are you going to do? This year we had 900 pairs of Kathryn Wilson shoes arrive in Miss Wilson boxes. The manufacturer was 'what's the problem?' We had to pay US$7000 to get empty boxes sent to New Zealand!"

Every New Year's Eve Wilson makes the same resolution: to say no more often. Of course, that might mean missing out on meeting Jimmy Choo, who she dined with recently at an event in Malaysia (she wore a stacked heel with gold embroidery on the back and a red Juliette Hogan dress and answered the Shoe God's questions about building on New Zealand's heritage as a marketing tool).

 It might mean she wouldn't be at the charity dinner where she dared the stranger sitting next to her to bid $2000 for the chance to drive a race car - he turned out to be the CEO of Ronald McDonald House, a charity Wilson's business now raises thousands for.

How do you get Wilson, who estimates she spends one night a month at home, to slow down? Maybe she gets married to the guy she met who was running an event she was working on. He is, she says, a "really good guy". And now there's this little shop in Herne Bay, not far from her home. There's an advisory board full of people she approached following conversations with other businesswomen - Sara Tetro, Julie Christie, Karen Walker and the like.

Julia Ford, her operations manager of three years, is picking up some of the travel.

"I just loved shoes," says Wilson. "I just wanted to make beautiful shoes for cool people. And now we're having to consider a whole lot of other factors, in terms of the structure of the business. We now have strategy meetings with an advisory board about forecasting and budgets. I'm always like, 'Oh, don't take all the fun out of it.'"

This year, she says, she's told Liam, that really good guy, "I really want to bring it back to my friends and family. And maybe my own family."

- Sunday Magazine

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