Five Women. Five Questions. Five Days.
Who: Kathryn Wilson, footwear designer and entrepreneur
Why: An AMP scholarship recipient at the age of 22, Kathryn Wilson went on to carve out a reputation as not only New Zealand’s leading shoe designer but one of our most successful businesswomen. She’s achieved success on her terms and sets a benchmark of excellence all Kiwi women can strive for.
I was born wearing Converse and at 42, when I’m not wearing jandals, I’m still wearing Converse. So I’m quaking in my Cons at the idea of talking to Kathryn Wilson – New Zealand’s footwear doyenne. We’re doing this interview by phone, so at least I don’t have to stress about that moment I walk in the room expecting a look of utter disappointment when she realises I wouldn’t know a Miss Wilson heel if someone clonked me over the head with it.
Still, I feel an obligation to let her know that these feet are planted firmly on the ground at all times. She doesn’t seem at all fazed. In fact, it’s like she totally gets it. But I want her to help me understand that famous quote ‘Give a girl the right pair of shoes, and she can conquer the world’. What does it mean to Wilson that she’s designing these objects of fabulosity others speak so highly of? And can a pair of shoes really make you feel a million bucks?
“You probably do feel like you’re conquering the world when you put on Converse,” she says. “You know that you can rock up to work and do your job. You can run to your car in the rain without worrying about falling over. You can meet your girlfriends after work for a drink and then maybe go to dinner, and you still feel happy in what you’re wearing.
“It could be the same for someone in heels. You put them on before a meeting, and it makes you feel empowered. You know, chin up, and shoulders back. That’s how it makes me feel, excited and confident. And that’s what I celebrate most about being a designer – helping women to feel that they can take on the world.”
My word, that’s such a responsibility. Imagine designing something that has the power to make someone feel this good. “It’s the fun part because as a business owner, the amount of time I’m putting pencil to paper is twice a year - winter and summer. Imagine if I got to do that all day long, just draw shoes and design shoes. It’s more that every other part of the business is sucking you in. You’re thinking about marketing, what does the customer want, what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong?”
After launching her footwear brand in 2003 when she was just 22, Wilson is now recognised as one of the country’s leading designers. Not only that, she’s also one of our most celebrated entrepreneurs, with production houses in Europe and China supplying dozens of retailers in New Zealand and Australia and a growing online market.
When I set out planning this series of profiles, I wanted to try and unravel some of the reasons why the five women I’d chosen to focus on were so successful. And for those who have read each of the pieces up to this point, it’s obvious why each woman has excelled. But I’m yet to ask point blank, ‘What’s the secret to your success?’ and so, I put this question to Wilson.
“I absolutely love working in a career doing something I love and a lot of our messaging is around that. For me that’s always been the bigger picture. When I was 22 and graduating university, I was just busting to be a shoe designer who designed shoes that were different to what everyone else was wearing. It was never about the commercial success.
“Of course I’m interested in business, and I love the marketing, but the profit sheets and the bottom line were not a consideration. So it’s been a nice organic growth. I mean, I didn’t have a business plan for 10 years. And that’s stupid, but I love that, because my success has come from a passion for a product that is really sincere to the consumer.”
“I wonder whether approaching business like that has helped me because it’s genuine. The love of the product is where it started and that’s a nice place to be,” she says.
Wilson is so lovely. It doesn’t quite fit with the bitchy, hard-nosed image one might think you need to be successful in the cut-throat world of fashion. In preparation for this interview, I read a bit about the #HeForShe campaign Emma Watson launched in 2014, calling for gender equality in all walks of life, including in fashion. The British actress shone a light on an industry, which many assumed was based on equality simply because of the large numbers of women within it, and because of its liberal nature. Watson’s campaign featured fashion icons like Stella McCartney, Bella Freud and Jonathan Saunders. It was powerful. But is the New Zealand fashion industry impacted by inequality as much as say London, Paris and New York?
In short, no, says Wilson. “I was born in the 80s, and I came through university around 2000, and I’ve found it the opposite. I studied fashion design and product design and it was 80 percent female in tertiary education. Now in terms of leading designers, it’s also skewed towards women. Business owners like Juliet Hogan, Kate Sylvester, Liz Finlayson and Zambesi are all big success stories.
“And my role models have been female. I’ve gone to Julie Christie for advice, Sara Tetro, Karen Walker. They’re all women I look up to. So it hasn’t stood out to me as an issue.”
The presence of strong identifiable women in fashion is in stark contrast to their representation on boards, which I discussed earlier in this series with Diane Foreman. Why?
“I reckon women are probably too busy actively working in their own careers, trying to nail it. Boards are for people who have got time on their hands, or have retired,” she laughs. “None of us have got time to be on a board.”
I also remember Foreman saying that parents tended not to encourage their daughters to pursue careers in business. What does Wilson think when she ponders what her one-year-old daughter Lola might be when she grows up? Let’s say in 10 years’ time Lola goes to her mum and says there is one of four things she’d like to be – a nurse, a mechanic, a model, or a fashion designer “just like you.” In her heart of hearts, which one of those would Wilson truly wish for her daughter?
“I always thought I wanted to be a nurse and my mum was so stoked because being a teacher or a nurse showed you had empathy. But now that I’m a woman in business, I get so much satisfaction from what I do. I always think, how cool is that, to be in a position to encourage the next generation to just go for it. And if Lola was super mad on design, of course I’d encourage her to do it. Also, I’d absolutely love it if she was a mechanic and into cars. Whatever she was into I’d want her to do it,” she says.
“My dad died when I was seven and I always wondered if that was a trigger for me to get on with it. I’ve always been in a hurry to do things. I’ve never had that fear ‘What if it doesn’t work’. I’m like ‘What’s the worst that can happen? Give it a go’. So I hope I’ll give that message to Lola.”
Wilson hasn’t said whether she’d be happy if Lola wanted to be a model so I push her on that. “There are definitely pros and cons. I would probably still encourage her to hopefully do that on the side for a while,” she chuckles. “But we want her to live her life however she wants to.”
I’ve learnt so much from all of these amazing women – Jane Hastings, Diane Foreman, Natalia Sheppard, Marama Fox and Wilson’s no exception. I am not going to rush out and buy a pair of the latest Kathryn Wilson heels any time soon but what I loved is that she made me feel ok to still be wearing Converse in my 40s. If I could, I’d reach through the phone and hug her for giving me that little bit of reassurance.
And I’m delighted with Wilson’s reply to that fifth and final ‘happiest, most fulfilled moment’ question. “Beyonce wearing a pair of my shoes and then posting it on Instagram, where she’s got 38 million followers, was a warm fuzzy for me. It was someone I love, who loved my shoes, without me prompting her to or asking her to do it. It was more like a genuine response to my design and I look up to her as a woman who empowers other women and she celebrates success and she represents striving for your dreams.”
Who wouldn’t die with excitement if Beyonce posted a photo of her wearing something you had designed? Wilson didn’t need Beyonce to tell her how amazing she is, but she deserved that moment of joy. She’s one of New Zealand’s greatest ambassadors right now. If she could just design me a personal pair of flats I’d be happy wearing on my scooter and at Diane Foreman’s house, I'd love her forever.Support Villainesse