Hey, Kathryn Wilson. How’s business?

New Zealand’s first lady of footwear looks back on 20 years of entrepreneurialism, brand building and being inspired by Beyoncé

Fresh off the back of her crowd-pleasing, 20th anniversary showcase at NZFW: Kahuria, we step into the world of Kathryn Wilson to kick off our brand new series, How’s Business?

Hey Kathryn Wilson, how’s business?

Hello! Fun, challenging, rewarding.

In your 20 years of business you’ve surrounded yourself with strong and successful female business leaders. Who are some of the women who’ve influenced your business the most?

This will be a long list of cheerleaders! I’ve been supported and guided by so many awesome women, many of whom have been pivotal to my decision-making and growth plans over the years. In terms of influencing the business I would start with Caroline Sills, who nurtured me for 15 years as a shareholder and mentor; Dame Rosanne Meo, who interviewed me for an AMP scholarship in 2002 and, 10 years on, helped me collate an advisory board for strategic planning. Dame Julie Christie, who I met when I was a finalist for EY Entrepreneur of the Year and has since become a sister-like mentor to run ideas past and keep me striving for bigger and better things (while having a lot of fun along the way). Then the muses who have influenced the design and aesthetic of the collections – Silvana Schenone, Cecilia Robinson, Lizzie Leuchars, Kylie Cooke, Boh Runga and, of course, our creative director Julia Ford, who has worked alongside me for 12 years on the design and marketing vision for the brands.

You established your business in the early 2000s when New Zealand labels like Juliette Hogan, Hailwood, Huffer, Twenty-seven Names and Stolen Girlfriends were also starting. What do you think are some of the attributes that have contributed to your businesses’ longevity? 

I would say naivety, bravery, determination, and definitely a lot of optimism. I am really grateful to have launched at a time when there were so many great designers starting on a similar journey in business. Also, a great stable of established NZ designers who had already pioneered the way for us in a respected industry.

Kathryn Wilson with daughters at NZFW

Tell us about your first ever New Zealand Fashion Week show

I first showed at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2010, to 1000 guests on the opening night. We were the first shoe brand to host a catwalk show at NZFW, and I remember Mum helping set up the venue saying, “Gosh, Kathryn, that’s a lot of seats… do you think anyone’s going to come?” It meant a lot to me personally to present our brand to the media and wholesale buyers. There were 80 people in the front row who had helped me get to that point, and I thanked each of them with a hand-written note and a pair of custom-made shoes, in their size. We created an opening video with Garth Badger, Boh Runga, and Red 11, styled by Ange Bevan, who was someone I had always looked up to creatively. The next day, there was coverage of the show on the front page of the NZ Herald, and we picked up buyers in Hong Kong, New York, L.A and Australia. 

Describe the impact that New Zealand Fashion Week had on your business once you started to take part

We are always excited to be part of the celebrations at New Zealand Fashion Week. It’s often the only time throughout the year that the industry comes together in one place to support and celebrate each other’s work. We have showcased to crowds of up to 2,500 guests, collaborating with musicians, dancers, choreographers, stylists and models who bring our products to life and create memories of the brand for our customers. Since participating in NZFW we have experienced an uptake in wholesale orders, retail and ecommerce sales, and have been able to share fun, energetic content via our social platforms post-show. 

How did you have to change your business model during the pandemic, and what changes have stayed with you and made the business more successful?

We placed a huge focus on ecommerce and digital marketing, both financially and strategically. This is our fastest growing revenue stream for the business and we are able to see a justified return on marketing spend and activity making it a really interesting and important part of our future growth. 

What’s something new coming up in the business that you can speak to in detail?

We have just delivered our much anticipated SS23 footwear collections into stores including our leather apparel (jackets and shorts) which were debuted on the catwalk at NZFW. We are really enjoying our expansion into leather accessories, bags, belts and clothing and are looking forward to building these into our collections going forward. Our High Summer collections arrive in time for our next public catwalk event at Soul Bar in October, so we are excited to see the new colour palette of bright emerald greens, cobalt blue and bright pinks at summer cocktail events, long lunches and throughout wedding season!

Tell us about the decision to re-open a new Herne Bay store

We are proudly local to Herne Bay with our boutique and head office having been in the neighbourhood for over 10 years. Our existing lease was coming up for renewal and we were looking for an opportunity to move somewhere larger with more space to showcase the bags and clothing alongside our shoes. Our new space on Jervois Road is sunny, bright and closer to the action with neighbouring stores being some of our favourite New Zealand retailers – Simon James, Father Rabbit, Sills and Tessuti. We feel very privileged to be in such great company.

How do you service customers in different store locations? What are the subtle differences in the way they shop?

Our customer base can be slightly different depending on their needs, whether they are after a shoe for an event, for work or for play. Some customers want to take their time to try on every shoe in the store and learn about the manufacturing process and materials used. Others come in on their lunch break knowing exactly what they are after and have no time to chat. We also see a lot of women purchasing online and ducking into store to collect their orders to avoid courier delays and parking etc. We welcome all interactions in store and love being able to make people’s day with a beautiful new pair of shoes!

What’s a standout customer interaction/piece of feedback you’ve received recently?

We share our customer feedback emails – good and bad – on our KW Family message thread so the retail and head office team can all celebrate each other as well as review when something has missed the mark. It’s always wonderful and so satisfying to hear from our customers when they are pleased with their purchase, and with the experience they have had with the brand.

This week we received a lovely message from a woman who had purchased online for the first time after seeing a pair of shoes in a local store and falling in love with them. She told us the shoes were “spectacular, unique and a stunning colour”, and that she had kept seeing them in the window and finally had to have them. She described her teenage daughters looking on in awe as she opened the specially wrapped box containing a hand-written note and special shoe bag inside. She mentioned that she couldn’t wait to go home after work just to look at the shoes and know that they were hers! Lastly she thanked us for designing such stunning footwear, and making them affordable for people that loved them. These messages mean the world to me. Even after 20 years, they continue to inspire me to keep designing beautiful shoes that make women feel confident and happy.

The staff culture at Kathryn Wilson is intrinsic to your success. What are three things you focus on when hiring and/or retaining good staff?

I am grateful to have a hard-working, diligent and ambitious team at Kathryn Wilson. I look for optimism, creativity and determination. If a person possesses those traits, you can teach them everything else. I really enjoy working around people that aren’t afraid to speak up and contribute their own ideas as far as how we could be improving and growing the business. 

Who is a business figure you’d love a power lunch with and what would you grill them about?

Tim Brown from Allbirds. I really respect what they have built in terms of a global footwear brand with a sustainable focus. I would grill him on how we might apply his knowledge and supply chain contacts to our future developments and further expand our own sustainable manufacturing practices and components.

You are a famously a huge Beyoncé fan, and even sent her and her daughter shoes when she was last touring in Aotearoa. What attributes of global superstars like Beyoncé would you say you’ve tried to emulate in your own business?

Bravery, ambition, empowerment, nurturing, passion, drive, optimism, joy, collaboration, vision, celebration, encouragement, pioneering, and kindness.

Discover Kathryn Wilson’s latest collections at kathrynwilson.com