Sole power: Filling the gap in New Zealand's niche shoe market

Kathryn Wilson of Kathryn Wilson Footwear

Kathryn Wilson saw a gap in New Zealand’s high streets for upmarket shoes with personality.

Kathryn Wilson had an epiphany as a 20-year-old, walking among the well-worn footwear factories of England’s Midlands. The dream she’d held since she was a child – to be New Zealand’s most successful shoe designer – could actually be possible.

On returning from a fashion internship in Nottingham, she “was really busting to go because I felt there was a gap in the market in New Zealand for innovative footwear that was limited edition,” she says.

“There was a place to do something innovative and unique and different with footwear, so you could show a lot of personality with your shoes,” she says.

By her own admission, Wilson was very green at first. She raised more than a few eyebrows when, at 22, she told people about her plans to launch into the shoe industry. That was in the early 2000s, just when New Zealand manufacturing was spiralling downwards and jobs were heading offshore.

“It was all very dire,” she says.

But while other operators were weighed down with old manufacturing plants and having to lay off workers, Wilson could be nimble. She went straight offshore with her production and had the flexibility to pick and choose which products she would have made where.

Although her brand has now found its niche, Wilson was no overnight success. Her first Kathryn Wilson shoes were released in 2003, when she was also designing knitwear for designer Caroline Sills. She remained working with Caroline until 2010. It was Sills and her husband, Lloyd, who supported Wilson to start her own business. Lloyd, an accountant, remains Kathryn’s business partner today.

"You could show a lot of personality with your shoes."

Lloyd and a hand-picked advisory board meet quarterly to keep Wilson’s business on an even keel, sometimes reining in her more optimistic ideas. While she’s always telling them to “just stop taking all the fun out of it”, Wilson admits they bring business rigour to her operations.

She now has two shoe lines: the limited edition Kathryn Wilson brand, which sells from about NZ$280 a pair, and the more widely available Miss Wilson, launched in 2011.

For the Kathryn Wilson line, exclusivity is a brand philosophy. “We only ever make up to 500 pairs of one style,” Wilson explains.

“Everyone knows when they buy them they have something unique. They won’t go to a party and have the same shoes on as every other girl there.”

While international trends do play a part in the designs – informing, say, a toe shape – Wilson adds personality with different colour combinations and textures. And the shoes are made in China, Italy, Spain, India or Indonesia, depending on the particular design.

“They’re all good at different things,” Wilson explains.

The shoe designer now has 18 staff, including one dedicated to managing the brand’s social media – an important part of marketing the business. There are three Kathryn Wilson shops in Auckland, and stockists across New Zealand and overseas.

And at 35, Wilson has one of the fastest-growing fashion brands in New Zealand. It seems plenty of people share her passion for shoes – as if proof were needed.

Related: Hear Kathryn Wilson at the CPA Australia "Be Exceptional" event

One piece of advice

"Gather good mentors around you. Have people who encourage you and have the attitude 'it’s worth a try'."

"This article is from the June issue of INTHEBLACK.

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June 2015
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