Loud, audacious and proudly unapologetic about their personality. They say you can tell a lot about someone from their shoes, and the eye-catching Coast and Koi speaks volumes. Designer Caryn Wilensky founded the luxurious South African brand in 2005 after noticing a gap in the market for locally, hand-made shoes. Having studied the art of shoe making, she set out to create functional and comfortable shoes that were stylish and exuded originality. The final product is a brand powered by their vision of the African Renaissance. Here are some titbits on how this lifestyle choice for the modern woman came to be:
She was a Fashion Buyer in Vancouver
Before she made her return to Cape Town in 2000, she worked in Canada for 10 years at Holt Renfrew department store as a fashion buyer for Louis Féraud and Gucci. Using her photography training, she would make frequent sourcing excursions to New York where she would have to decipher which fashion collections would have selling power.
It’s this trained eye that has helped Wilensky materialise mental snapshots of shoes she visualises. Unlike the big brands she worked for, she doesn’t follow a seasonal timetable. Preferring to assent to inspiration as her guide, an idea of an entire shoe or perhaps a piece of fabric will initiate and guide the production process until it is actualised.
Ballet Shoes Initiated the Next Phase
After returning to South Africa, Wilensky’s first job involved ballet shoes. She was in charge of running their factory in Epping, which had 60 employees, and managing its retail stores. When it became clear that she would start Coast and Koi, she would work a full day, closing the retail stores by 7pm, and then work on her own collection until midnight.
Validation of her skills came when she was asked to design Spanish dancing shoes for Robyn Lidsky’s underwear label – Ruby – to be used at South African Fashion Week. This gave her the motivation to push her designs into the commercial arena. Naturally, she designed petite ballet pumps as one of her first pair of shoes, which she sold through her employer’s store. However, the products seemed to be out of line with the store’s direction and aesthetic. Thus, with her first range of shoes ready, she quit her job and sold them under the brand name Nunu Shoes. Since then, the brand has broadened its avenue to express its colour and patterns through espadrilles, boots, sandals, brogues, smoking slippers, babouches and pointy pumps.
She’s had Her Fair Share of Competition
It hasn’t been smooth sailing since she made the leap, but Wilensky has managed to roll with the punches to emerge a stronger brand. For starters, Chinese products came in at a lower retail price. At the time when the brand started, the customer preference fell on imported items; even if it was a China-made product. Locally made just wasn’t as appreaciated as it is today. Coast and Koi re-evaluated their focus and went in a high-quality, handmade direction. She also shifted her products to the upmarket boutiques in Plettenberg Bay. It was positively received locally and saw her expand her customer base to Amsterdam, Belgrade, Melbourne and Bredasdorp.
Then came the issue with the lasts. She realised that they were wider than the sleek svelte Italian look she was aiming for. It was an uphill battle to convince manufacturers to go narrower, since they believed that that wouldn’t be received well in SA. It was a gradual process of going against the grain and shaving down the fibreglass forms to the dimensions she was happy with. Despite their insistence that no foot would fit into such a shape, it paid off in the end with the design becoming a trademark for the brand. To avoid the over-reliance on external factors, she is now a part-owner at a manufacturing factory.
Good Things Come in Small Packages
This isn’t a mass production outfit. There’s an emphasis on unique design and individual style for a bespoke result. Working with only quality fabric – such as Indian cloth, African wax fabric, and leather or vegan materials, Wilensky has taken a holistic approach to designing feminine designer shoes. Her travelling history has come in handy as she has developed the connections to become an ardent collector of fabrics and trimmings from her many travels.
Even her showroom is bite-size; situated in a ground-floor garage in an apartment block facing Cape Town’s Sea Point Neighbourhood. She had originally started out with a huge showroom but quickly learnt what a lot of new entrepreneurs face; rent can dig into your business so profligately that, if you’re not careful, can be the death of your venture. She took her imagination and reformed the garage into a space that reflects the whimsical nature of her shoes.
Wilensky embraces a sense of innovation and exploration that some designers may be afraid of. She takes her relaxed life attitude, mixed with her international style sense, to create a product that reflects who she is as a designer. It may not be a mass market product, but she has defined her target market – the unique, independent and free thinking woman – and is investing in providing a quality product in a responsible manner; made in Africa. The biggest message you can get from this brand is that, just because no-one else is doing it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done; and successfully on that note.