Best foot forward: Q&A with Wittner CEO, Catherine Williamson

ussie brand. Can you tell me the story behind it?

Catherine Williamson: We are 108 years young this year and we’re in the countdown for September next year, when we turn 110! Wittner is one of Australia’s most iconic family businesses. Founded in 1912, it was launched by HJ Wittner and since then, the business has transformed in lots of different ways. We’ve been a manufacturer, we’ve also been a house of brands, we’ve also been a brand for men, women and children, then in the last 20 years, we honed in on women. We’ve been a vertical business, so we design everything in-house and manufacture with our offshore partner across the globe. Everything is designed in Melbourne.

IR: How would you describe what Wittner the brand is like now?

CW: Wittner is the most loved and trusted shoe brand, it’s always been innovative but it’s also about quality. We’ve been really focused on elevating our purpose, which is to empower women to walk tall. We think about it in terms of thow we make sure we show up and how we can be a responsible business for the next 100 years, so we can look upon that [time] with pride.

We’re in a unique position because of our heritage and we design everything in-house. We have specialists with expertise in that space and we’ve been working with them for more than two decades. We’re definitely global. Our last maker is Italian, we’re utilising the best European leathers you can get, we’ve worked with global best practice in terms of sustainability. For the Australian footwear landscape, I feel like we’re at the top of it. 

I think footwear is an amazing art and expertise and probably hasn’t had its moment lately, where it deserves to be. There was that Carrie Badshaw love for footwear [in TV show Sex and the City] and I think it’s due to come back again. After Covid restrictions lifted, we saw that the special pieces were starting to sell well – everyone wants that statement piece to look and feel good in again.

IR: What’s it like steering a business with that incredible history and leading it into the future while staying true to its roots?

CW: It is a real privilege and an honour, but I won’t lie, it’s also a weight and pressure. Everyone knows Wittner and everyone has a story about how they or their mum or grandma connect with the brand. It’s amazing, because we’ve got huge brand awareness and love, but it’s also tricky in terms of making sure that we’re then relevant for the next generation. Obviously, we’ve done it well because we’ve lasted for 100 years and there are some elements of transformation required at different points of our life. We like to say innovation is in our blood and our DNA, but how do we make sure we keep pushing, testing and learning? That’s really the opportunity we have and what the customer expects from us. So it’s a blessing, but a challenge!

IR: Speaking of innovation, tell me about the new sustainable capsule for the business. What was the development process like?

CW: We launched our first sustainability capsule in February this year and it was over a year in the works. It was a range on the back of a couple of other initiatives within the business, where we identified that one of Australia’s major problems is in regards to plastics. Some of the stats about the most found items in Clean Up Australia were things like plastic bottles, so we banned plastics within our store and we now use recycled paper bags and recycled eco boxes. 

Then we wanted to go the next step in terms of circular fashion, so the design team worked with a global leader in this space, a manufacturer of this knit material who are in the early stages of working with some brands in Europe. The team was so excited to try something new and of the style we selected [for the capsule]. Everything is a bit more casual. We wanted more of a lifestyle range. We applied everything that we’ve learnt through 100 years of shoemaking into the new material. It’s the beginning of a journey, we’re excited about some other developments in terms of materials and we look forward to bringing out the ranges from some of those as well. 

IR: Prior to working at Wittner, you worked at some great Australian brands including Country Road and Forever New. What are some of the interesting insights that you gathered from your time at those businesses?

CW: For me personally, I’m really passionate about Australian brands and elevating them. I think customers love Australian design and Australian-owned businesses and we have some of the greatest talent here. For me, it really is about the community, the customer, the team, how you stay open and you’re listening and engaging. I’ve been at these different businesses at different life stages. 

At Forever New, the business was at the very beginning, there were 10 stores with a small team and it was running fast to expansion, and when I was at Country Road Group, it was at a different position. It had a portfolio of well-recognised brands and it was in a more mature phase so it was about reinvigoration. But the same things always rang true – it’s about honing in on how a customer regards and loves you and making sure that you’re delivering consistently.

IR: It sounds so simple!

CW: That’s the key thing – stay the course. It sounds so simple as a strategy, but you have to stay on it. There are a lot of things that happen in between, but you need to keep going back [to your core values] and listening, learning and tweaking and moving forward.

Every brand has that moment where they have to transform, and it’s either incremental and along the way, or you need to do a complete reset.

IR: Would you say Wittner has gone through a change in consumer over the years or has it tried to broaden its base?

CW: In the last 12 months, we’ve had a real focus on our customers and as a business, we want to make sure that we are coveted and we are showing up for the next generation of women leaders. How do we keep ourselves relevant for the next generation, what does that mean and how do we start showing up? 

One of the things we did was go to all of our employees – a lot of whom are uni students and in their early 30s – and we asked them about our sustainability strategy. We had huge engagement and huge co-creation of our strategy from that. It’s been a cornerstone for us. We need to start stepping forward into this space and telling the story of everything we’re doing behind the scenes. It’s been part of the natural rhythm of the brand. The consumer is asking it of us.

We did a collaboration with [media platform] The Grace Tales for International Women’s Day and as part of that, we showcased four incredible female changemakers, including Aminata Conteh-Biger, an author and former refugee and paralympic swimmer and disability advocate Annabelle Williams. It’s the first time we’ve ever shared our channels to amplify voices. Those things are all about us focusing on the customer, the community and how we’re sharing our stories. 

IR: A brand like Wittner would have seen those big changes in retail throughout the years. It used to be just about selling the product, but now retail is much more than that. There are a lot of brands doing great stuff, but they’re keeping it behind closed doors.

CW: You’ve got to have a great product, otherwise your brand has a timeframe on it, but now it’s about [sharing] everything that goes into it. That’s what we’re excited about. We’re known for quality, but now it’s on us to tell those great stories. Our manufacturing partner has been workin with us for 20 years and she’s a self-made woman. She’s a female manufacturer in China, which is exceptionally unusual, our sample room is run by a woman, which is also very unusual. I’m the first woman to run Wittner in 100 years, so I feel like the stars are aligning. Now’s our time. The brand mission, which was set by David Wittner 20 years ago, is about empowering women and helping them walk tall. It is so relevant now. 

IR: I really noticed in Wittner’s marketing that there’s a lot of diversity in the models in your campaigns. It’s heartening to see a mainstream brand hiring diverse models.

CW: I’m the first woman to lead this business and we make primarily female shoes. I try on all our styles and [a few months ago], I couldn’t fit them on my leg, nor could some other people in the business. We looked at each other and we said, ‘If the CEO can’t fit some of these shoes, we need to do something about it.’ 

We went out to our store teams and asked what is important in terms of empowering people to walk tall. Diversity and inclusion came through very strongly. So we need to listen. It’s as simple as that. 

Feet is an interesting thing because most of the population has differences – one foot is always bigger than the other. As I’ve been told by footwear technologists, it’s one of the hardest things to fit perfectly. People’s feet are different, their ankles are different, their heights are different, the legs are different. Now we’ve got more of a focus on multi-fit. The sales are on fire right now because now we can fit more people. The design team has done an amazing job. They’ve designed shoes with stretch. It’s very exciting. Diversity is happening at a product perspective, it’s happening in our storytelling and we’re looking to continue to reflect the Australian consumer [in our brand]. 

[Shoe fit] is almost seen as a taboo but it shouldn’t be. Our [multi-fit styles] are trend shoes that looks fabulous with the same craftsmanship [as our other shoes], but they are multi-width with stretch so more people can wear them and feel comfortable. Every last is designed from scratch and all measurements are unique to our business, so we’ve set the standards, which are wider than the rest of the market. We’re also one of the few brands to go up to sizes 41 and 42. 

IR: Is international expansion on the cards? What are your global plans for the business?

CW: We believe that we have a place for global. We believe that there is no-one on par with us in terms of what we deliver and it’s really exciting. A lot of international retailers, wholesalers and marketplaces have reached out to us but the timing hasn’t been quite right, but everyone says the same thing – our quality, price point and longevity is very unique. We believe everyone globally should have a pair of Wittner shoes in their wardrobe!