As a 24-year-old graphic designer, Kat Gee realised she had a flair for designing jewellery. She went to night school to learn how to make intricate pieces, but found it took her weeks to construct a single item.
Her keen mind for business quickly kicked in. She decided that her talent was best used for designing jewellery, and that she should outsource the manufacturing to the experts.
New Zealand-based Gee invested everything she had into buying an existing jewellery business. Now, at 32 years old, her brand Kagi is stocked in over 300 Australian and New Zealand stores and she oversees 20 staff.
Gee says that buying rather than launching a business from scratch enabled her to tap into the existing offshore manufacturing contacts.
“It meant I was able to take my ideas to market really fast, otherwise I’d have to spend years building up my supplier database,” she says.
The business Gee acquired had 20 stockists in New Zealand, which she swiftly grew to 100 within the first year.
“It was obviously a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ kind of thing. When I bought the business I travelled over to China, the Philippines and India to meet every supplier and understand the production capabilities of what we could and couldn’t do.
“I lost about six kilograms in those first six weeks, it was so stressful. I was up until two o’clock every night surrounded by beads, going, oh my God, how am I going to make a living out of this?”
She was driven by passion, and youth helped.
“At the end of the day it was a risk for me that was worth taking.”
Despite the early challenges, a surge of confidence came at New Zealand Fashion Week, when Gee set up a stall in the trade show area. On the first day of showing her designs, she secured $NZ15,000 worth of orders.
“When you’re working for yourself from the kitchen bench, to write up $15,000 of orders from key department stores on your first day at fashion week – I realised at that point I had a business that could fly,” she says.
For five years, Gee kept building the company and building her product range, as well as the brand’s profile in New Zealand. More recently, she expanded operations into Australian stores. Kagi now has more stockists in Australia than it does in New Zealand.
“The potential in Australia is huge. Kagi has really taken off, it is quite an effective product,” she says.
The concept of an “effective” product stems from the business model that is designed to encourage customers to build on their collection each season.
“They keep coming back for repeat purchases, which is fantastic for our retail partners and also for us as well, to know that our customers have eight to 10 pieces of Kagi at home, and they can mix and match for different occasions.”
Kagi releases two key ranges each year, divided into four in-store drops, along with two capsule collections. The label also offers a limited edition gold range, as well as a bridal offering.
Featuring coloured stones, pearls, silver and gold, the jewellery is manufactured in China, with gemstones sourced from all around the world.
Gee describes the products as “semi-luxury”, sitting in the “mid-market”. Many pieces are priced from $150, with the aim of being accessible for retailers and consumers.
“A pendant can have twelve steps in the process to actually get it together. It is very laborious, so we are over in the factories around four times a year meeting the teams, checking how they are going and making sure that everything is double quality-control checked along the way,” she says.
Gee says dealing with offshore manufacturers can be tricky, highlighting the importance of good inventory control and tight accounting. She has built her team to around 20 staff, in order to have experts at each step in the chain.
“It has really grown organically, so if there is one part of the business where we are pushed for resources, we put in a new person there. It was only recently that we got a marketing manager, and a full-time designer to work with me.”
In addition to retail stockists, the brand operates a comprehensive online site. It also has a prominent social networking presence, with over 6000 fans on Facebook and counting.
As the designer and director, Gee has built a public profile in New Zealand, and is happy to be the face of the company in Australia. She has been a finalist in New Zealand’s Entrepreneur of the Year awards, and the business has been one of Deloitte New Zealand’s fastest 50 growing companies for the past three years.
“Being a designer it is important (to be the face of your business), as people feel like they are buying part of the brand. It comes part and parcel with being a fashion and jewellery designer that you have to be prepared to put your neck on the line and to put yourself out there.”
“Having a face behind a brand brings authenticity. If it means that I have to be out there in the public eye that is fine,” she says.
In 2014, Gee intends to build the product range, ecommerce aspect and also find a footing in some key department stores.
Our business is growing 20% year-on-year, we are one of the fastest in the country, as well as in Australasia.
“When you are in that sweet position, daily you are having challenges and daily you are having to be innovative and there are fires to put out. But that is exciting and that is what happens when you grow in business.”
These challenges are not enough to squash the passion she had in the early days, or her ambition.
“If you love what you do, it is not work. That is not to say that it is not busy and it is not relentless, and there are days when you go, this is really, really hard and I have to dig incredibly deep for this, but honestly it is so rewarding to see our team grow.”