Kathryn Wilson, Shoe Queen

It’s a great feeling discovering a brand I love has good supply chain practices in place. It’s an even better feeling when you get to meet the designer and they turn out to be a really lovely person. Both of these things happened recently, for a long-time crush of mine - New Zealand label Kathryn Wilson.

Kathryn launched her eponymous brand of handmade shoes back in 2003 with a small collection, after studying fashion here in New Zealand and Nottingham Trent University in the UK . Fifteen years later she enjoys a reputation as New Zealand’s most successful footwear designer.

Back in 2013 Queen B herself - Beyoncé - took home a pair of Kathryn Wilson ‘Karlya’ loafers and a pair of Little Miss Wilson’s for a then 22-month-old Blue Ivy Carter. The shoes were posted to Beyoncé’s Instagram account (and is currently at over 420,000 likes) - Kathryn describes it as a total “warm fuzzy” moment.

I met Kathryn at her Herne Bay store in Auckland. Kathryn is blonde and sunny, her smile is wide and she radiates warmth and energy. I felt immediately easy in her company. We agree to move to a café a few doors down for our interview and on the way she stops to point out a young girl on the footpath wearing a fabulous pair of sparkly pink sequinned stilettos.

We order coffee and banana bread and spend the next hour discussing her relationships with factories, her reasons for not making shoes in New Zealand (despite being extremely proud of her home country) and whether the “Made in China” tag deserves it’s rather dubious reputation.

Kathryn Wilson

Kathryn Wilson

ESH: You’re obviously very proud of your NZ heritage and motivated to reinvest back into supporting the local creative industry. Why did you make the decision to move production offshore?

I’m a New Zealand designer and very house proud, so supporting our creative industries in any way is key to me. Manufacturing in New Zealand has just never really been an option since I started making shoes in 2003. There literally just aren’t the manufacturers here – aside from the likes of McKinlays in Dunedin that still make welded soles for school shoes.

In 2001 I won an AMP scholarship to sample some shoes here, but you had to make two or three hundred orders of a single heel and I only needed literally one. I just wasn’t in a position then to order three hundred of any single competent.

Tool kit for producing Kathryn’s handmade shoes

Tool kit for producing Kathryn’s handmade shoes

The other key consideration for us has always been quality, the first priority is how a shoe feels on the foot and how it wears. Even though our shoes are handmade, there are certain processes used to get that level of quality, where machines costing a million dollars are required. These machines are used to do a single job, like to heat press the sole on. Those machines are there in our Chinese and Brazilian and Italian production houses because they make shoes every day.

I’d love to make our shoes here – imagine if I could do sampling here in New Zealand! It would short cut a lot of the process for me. I could send through a design idea and literally go and see the next day what it looks like.

All of our designs are drawn pen on paper, you have to scan, Photoshop, email, send the swatch internationally by DHL. So that whole process can be five to six weeks to get a sample sent back to New Zealand.

So if I could have any manufacturing or sampling done here in New Zealand that would be great. New Zealand has such an incredible design pool, it would be really cool to support that too. Even if you’re manufacturing overseas, you could still teach it here. As my time frees up I think that’s the dream, as opposed to manufacturing here, I’d like to teach the next generation, nurturing and encouraging local designers to go into creative industries.

Olivia Boots

Olivia Boots

ESH: So where are your shoes made?

At the moment we have two family-owned manufacturers in southern China, in the Guangzhou region. One of the factories has under forty staff and one of them employ about eighty people. So they’re pretty small, they are what’s known as ‘production houses’ as opposed to larger scale factories. We have really long standing relationships with them, twelve years and six years respectively.

We also have two production houses in Italy which both have under eighty employees. People love the idea of “Made in Europe” or “Made in Italy” – Italy and shoes kind of go together. There’s a wonderful tradition in Italy that you could possibly say isn’t there in China. In China, shoe makers are taught on the factory floor now whereas back in the Italian family businesses a lot of them are taught from their grandfathers.

We’ve also been working with two Brazilian manufacturers for about four or five years now, which employ under 100 people each. One of the factories we work with has been around for over 80 years. The villages that make shoes in in Brazil are small, like around ten thousand people.

So it changes seasonally, but currently around 60% of our stock is produced in China, 35% in Brazil, and 5% in Italy.

A pair of Kathryn’s handmade shoes under construction

A pair of Kathryn’s handmade shoes under construction

Like China, the Brazilian industry is able to service more of a fashion look. From Brazil and China we get lots of really fun colours, new shapes, silhouettes and on-trend directional shapes. Whereas Italy and Spain can be quite traditional, Italian shoes especially are more about beautiful classics.

The other important consideration when working with factories is that they do small minimums. All of our shoes are handmade limited editions. I don’t want too many people wearing my shoes - so even if it’s a really popular design that sells out I’ll change it up. We’ll do a repeat but change a detail on the shoes, so once your shoe has sold out, no one else has that shoe.

So there are lots of different reasons you’d make things in different places, but if I had my way, I’d make in one place because I could go there more often.

ESH: Can you tell me a bit about your relationships with production houses?

Over 70% of our shoes and accessories come from suppliers we have worked with for more than 10 years. We visit our production houses all the time – we’re up in China every six months. There are so many pros to Asian-based manufacturing, mostly because we are able to get there easily.

Personal, direct relationships with our production houses are really important to me. Before we’ll work with manufactures, I always meet with them first, meeting managers in person is really key. I’ve chosen not to work with Indian factories for example because I can’t just pop up there and easily visit.

In Chinese culture it’s really important to have a friendship or understanding before you do business. So you’ll be sitting in a full-on meeting environment and they’ll always talk about family, the economy - literally the weather - before you finally get down to business.

They treat me like their family, they take me to their house for dinner, when I’m there it’s every single night hosted at their family homes for dinner. We go out for karaoke with them! Its’ definitely not a purely business relationship.

In terms of employment standards - all of our suppliers sign up to our Ethical Sourcing Code. The requirements in this agreement go above and beyond simply complying with all local laws. They specify rules around child labour, respect of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, the payment of a living wage and environmental protection.

Working hours for example have to comply with local laws or benchmark industry standards – whichever offers workers the most protection to workers. This - along with Australian/New Zealand Manufacturing Standards - needs to be signed up to before we’ll even start working with a company.

A shoemaker in a production house - Guangzhou, China, where Kathryn Wilson shoes are made

A shoemaker in a production house - Guangzhou, China, where Kathryn Wilson shoes are made

ESH: So you feel you have pretty good visibility of your supply chain?

I am confident we have good visibility for the bulk of our supply chain, yes, however there are so many components to producing a shoe collection, it’s insane. We don’t sub-contract any part of the construction of the shoes themselves.

There are certain details that do need to get outsourced – leather or textile upper preparation, so details like embroidering or beading, or perhaps a buckle. Buckles for instance will at times say “European sourced component” but I don’t necessarily know what that means. All the way down into the details it gets tricky – like who knows where my glue comes?

Production house staff in a Brazilian factory where Kathryn’s shoes are made

Production house staff in a Brazilian factory where Kathryn’s shoes are made

The production houses will bring experts in-house at times, like there’s a whole espadrille trend at the moment, so many houses are bringing a team in-house that specialise in that skill, meaning that work doesn’t need to get outsourced beyond the main supplier.

We obviously have leather suppliers too – our production houses hold these relationships so we visit leather factories too. Leather suppliers are sourced based on existing relationships with our manufacturers and are sourced according to the same standards we hold with our own.

If we were manufacturing here in New Zealand it would definitely be that much easier to see everything and visit all of the stages of production.

In terms of traceability we are doing our best but there’s always work to do. I’ve been really inspired by Icereakers’s work and how they’re telling the story of New Zealand and merino wool. Icebreaker is setting a new standard for the whole industry, learning from them about what they’re doing in terms of sustainability and traceability made me feel so proud of the way they’re representing the industry.

ESH: There is a perception (albeit changing slowly) that the “Made In China” label can be associated with low quality, mass production and poor labour conditions. What has been your experience working with Chinese-based manufacturers?

People often ask which countries our shoes are made in, but now when I’m speaking to schools or corporates, I do drum it in how proud I am to work with Chinese companies because for me they are like my family. They’ve got our business to where it is because of the relationships we have with them.

They have done me so proud. I find they’re really wonderful to work with. They tend to under promise and over deliver, they meet deadlines, they’re very obliging - they really want to please.

Over the years I’ve had so many wonderful relationships and friendships with the agents we’ve worked with in China and they’re really proud to work with us too. I’ve definitely developed a real trust in the culture these past 15 years working up there.

I’ve found that the business is so important to their survival, they want to do you proud and they want the repeat business, they’re really loyal. As a culture, they don’t want to let you down. I think they like working with Australians and New Zealanders because we don’t mind paying a fair price, we’re about quality.

There’s a close understanding and relationship I have with them because our business is small to them, but their business is small to china - they’re boutique manufacturing, and I’m at the boutique end of the market too. For one of our manufacturers we’re the only brand that they make for. And so it’s really key that they keep us happy, if I go elsewhere it will effect forty employees.

I’m really happy working with my manufacturers in China, but the consumer also wants a bit of ‘Made in Europe’. There is still a perception that ‘Made in Italy’ is of higher quality than it is in China.

The Italian attitude is slightly more take-or-leave-it, a bit more complacent, they’re often late. They’ll do what they say they were going to do, but not in any particular hurry. There is certainly a tradition of making beautiful shoes, they are highly skilled. That’s what we would utilize them for.

A shoemaker in a production house - Guangzhou, China, where Kathryn Wilson shoes are made

A shoemaker in a production house - Guangzhou, China, where Kathryn Wilson shoes are made

ESH: So the decision to outsource production to China isn’t purely about cutting costs?

Manufacturing in China is nothing to do with price, we pay the same price out of Italy and some of our Brazilian production is actually cheaper than China. Because all our shoes are handmade, all of the orders are small runs and everything is made in production houses (not factories) it’s not a cost saving decision.

And in fact the costs are creeping up all the time in China compared to Europe because the labour is so skilled and reliable and the technicians there are just incredible. They are so in demand for boutique fashion - the level we’re at. It’s different for factories that are making thousands of pairs of shoes a day. But our little production house of 40 staff are making shoes for us and no one else’s so it’s a totally different scale.

Our interview is interrupted at this point by the young girl in the sparkly pink stilettoes that Kathryn pointed out on the street. The girl is now shyly presenting said sparkly stilettoes to Kathryn, asking very politely if she could please autograph her shoes. It’s one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen.

Kathryn joyfully obliges and gets talking to the girl’s father. It turns out he was awarded a Westpac Growth Grant when Kathryn was sitting on the judging panel. I wonder to myself if there’s anything this woman isn’t doing.

ESH: Obviously the main component of your shoes is leather. Is sustainability something you consider in the selection of raw materials in your shoes?

Again, quality is our number one priority. I want our shoes to be worn for a long time and for them to stay out of landfills unlike fast fashion shoes, so sourcing high quality, long lasting components is important to us. That’s one of our main reasons for using leather.

Having said that, there are obviously companies like Stella McCartney doing vegetarian leather shoes, using PU. At the end of the day, some of the PUs coming out now are actually lasting as long leather. They are longer wearing materials.

Although some of these PU or PVC fabrics are really clever, they are petroleum based products (where extraction) has an environmental impact and they are releasing plastic fibres into the environment so it’s a hard thing to get right. There’s loads of development, but the space is pretty new and experimental at this stage.

For me the risk is do these new materials do the same job as leather. I need my shoes to last ten years, for my customer to feel really comfortable in them, you don’t sweat in them, there’s breathability. We just don’t know how some of the new technologies like pineapple leather and fish scale leather are going to perform ten years down the track, because these technologies are still new.

I’m definitely open to doing a capsule collection of alternative materials, like a ‘black label’ for example. You’d acknowledge that it’s a new material and the price point would reflect the new material. PU lining for instance would be far cheaper than the leather based lining that we use, but we don’t currently use it because the shoe feels better the longer you wear it with our lining.

It’s always something we’re thinking about in terms of our packaging too, we only use cardboard liners to keep the shape of the arch, so there are simple changes to make. Because we’re a small company we’re quite nimble and flexible to change.

samara trainer low res.jpg

You can read more about Kathryn Wilson on her website here, and shop her winter ‘19 range here.

Tess X