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Co-founder and Designer Kate Corleison along with Zara Cooper.

From humble beginnings to reaching new heights: Meet the co-founder of Aussie footwear brand PaperKrane Zara Cooper

The seeds of PaperKrane were first sown by Kate’s eccentric and inventive mind in 2011. She was fascinated by origami and began making paper crane mobiles, which inspired the idea for the baby bootie with an origami theme. 

The idea was to design soft, sock-like baby shoes that would not obstruct a child’s foot development while still appearing nice and bringing some fun and style to what was, at the time, plain and monotonous alternatives for baby apparel. When Kate started creating these boots from scratch in her little home study, the brand’s popularity skyrocketed to the point that it achieved cult status.

From humble beginnings to reaching new heights: Meet the co-founder of Aussie footwear brand PaperKrane Zara Cooper
PaperKrane co-founder Zara Cooper

Later, in late 2015, a former corporate attorney named Zara Cooper came to Kate with a business idea: grow Paperkrane into a major footwear brand, expanding the line from infant booties to kids and adult footwear. Zara, who has a dual degree in law and business (marketing), began her legal career at a renowned law firm while balancing the birth of her first child and part-time fashion design studies, all while Kate performed her incredibly successful baby kicks.

After the birth of her second child, Zara decided to honour her natural entrepreneurial spirit by launching her own law firm, which confirmed what she had long known – she had a natural talent and flair for business. 

“I decided to channel my entrepreneurial desires into my own law firm, giving me a taste of running a business and confirming what I’d always known to be true – my destiny was to build my own company and to put my personal stamp on the world.  

“I discovered PaperKrane shortly after the arrival of my third child and immediately fell in love with Kate’s incredible designs! Like everyone else, I battled it out at drop time to be one of the lucky ones to secure a pair of Kate’s kicks before they sold out in a matter of seconds.”

An exciting opportunity

After purchasing her first pair of PaperKrane boots and becoming friends with Kate, Zara recalls that it didn’t take her long to realise that working for the company would be the ideal way to combine her entrepreneurial instincts, background in business and law, and passion for creativity and fashion.

“In late 2015, I approached Kate and suggested an expansion of PaperKrane into a global footwear company, designing and manufacturing shoes not only for babies but for older children and beyond.  

Zara’s natural business acumen enabled her to see the untapped potential of Kate’s designs, realising that Paperkrane would enable her to combine her entrepreneurial instincts, business and legal background with her love of creativity and fashion.

“I believed that creating PaperKrane shoes with rubber soles suitable for growing children was the way forward, and there was a real market out there for minimal footwear that was edgy and cool.  Until now, people had perceived ‘healthy’ footwear as ‘ugly’ and the antithesis of fashion, but we had a chance to apply our unique and quirky aesthetic to this type of footwear and finally bridge the gap between fashion and function.

“Largely, this entire idea was a gut instinct, and it felt like I was being pulled into it. Once the idea germinated, it just continued to grow until I could do nothing but take action and follow my gut feeling, even if that meant risking a stable legal career and potentially earning no salary for a significant length of time – or even failing completely and having to start again.”

The beginning of the expansion

From humble beginnings to reaching new heights: Meet the co-founder of Aussie footwear brand PaperKrane Zara Cooper

Starting small, Kate and Zara joined forces with a small sheepskin boot factory in Melbourne, which enabled them to create PaperKrane Kicks (dubbed ‘PKs’ by the ever-growing cult-like customer base) with harder-wearing suede soles. And while Kate continued sewing the uppers, photographing the finished products and managing the social media account, Zara turned out shoes, packaging and posting orders and networking strategically within the Australian footwear industry, seeking an avenue to take PaperKrane to the next level.

“Initially, we believed that it would be optimal to manufacture in Australia, but very quickly, we learned that this would be impossible due to the fact that there was no machinery or qualified labour, Zara recollects.

“We learned that the local footwear manufacturing industry in Australia, which had previously been quite prominent, had collapsed in the 80s due to the appeal of cheaper offshore options. 

“I had the idea to approach the head of the RMIT footwear design course (the only course of its kind in Australia), and he so generously gave me his time and pointers as well as the business cards of a couple of industry whizzes from back in the day, who could possibly give me further direction.  One of these was a shoemaker who had been very well-known in the footwear industry when it was based in Australia.  

“This guru was the one who recommended that we look into Vietnam as a place of manufacture for our brand, and he even gave us the contact details of an agent who could assist us in finding factories and materials to get started.”

Kate and Zara played a very hands-on role in the development of ‘big PKs’ and, together with their Vietnamese manufacturing partner, set out to create optimal kicks for developing and growing feet. The PK rubber cup sole, bearing the brands aptly named ‘Four F’s’ (flexible, flat, feather-light and foot-shaped), was born and at the end of 2016, the very first fashion-forward, Australian-designed barefoot shoe was released.

The pair attributes their success to maintaining close relationships with manufacturing partners in Vietnam and being personally involved in all aspects of the business, from design, sampling, fitting, quality control, legal, accounting, website design and maintenance, content creation, photography, social media, copywriting, advertising, networking, customer service, wholesale, shipping and logistics, distribution, licensing and marketing.

“However, even with an amazing agent in tow, we still had the challenging task of finding a factory and essentially learning the ins and outs of a complex industry on the fly.  At the time, I was still running my own corporate immigration law firm, juggling three kids and spending hours a day researching the footwear industry and offshore prospects.  

“I was also travelling to Kate’s home in Werribee at least twice a week to assist with turning out and packing shoes, and also back and forth between a local sheepskin slipper factory we were working with to develop a hardier suede sole option for our baby shoes (an interim step between sock-like soles and the full rubber soles we were working towards). Balancing all of this was a tremendous challenge during those first couple of years. 

Eventually, Zara’s efforts led the pair to a factory in Vietnam; one which met Kate and Zara’s criteria of being a happy and fair workplace and was built solidly on Australian manufacturing roots which maintained respect for the original handmade shoe techniques paying homage to the grassroots beginnings of the brand. 

Learning the hard way

According to Zara, competition and saturation are the main challenges facing the footwear business (this is a barrier to entry in many cases).

“During the initial phase, we also had little to no guidance and, over the years, have learned many lessons the hard way. This lack of experience was most challenging for us at first – we didn’t know the first thing about basic footwear construction when we began.  

“However, over time, we had the courage to try out so many things, and we were willing to take risks and make mistakes, accepting that this would be part of finding what worked for our brand.  

“We are both perfectionists and lose sleep over any minor imperfections, but I’ve come to understand that the biggest challenges and the lessons learned the hard way are often the most important and the ones that eventually lead to the most successful outcomes – if you learn from them and then have the resilience to persevere.”

“What has set us apart and allowed us to overcome the saturation challenge is that we’ve found a fast-growing niche market – fashionable minimal footwear. An increasing consumer desire for shoes that are better for our feet and bodies and bring us back to basics but that don’t require us to give up on the chance to express ourselves fashionably has allowed us to slot ourselves in and have an absolute ball in exploring our own creativity whilst fulfilling our customers’ needs.  

“Kate and I have a very tongue-in-cheek approach, too, and as part of our branding, we have always treated the brand as an extension of our respective selves. Our customers recognise us and laugh along at our shenanigans, from getting tipsy and snapping silly filtered videos of ourselves whilst on work trips to Vietnam and twerking and dancing whilst packing orders in the early days to creating ridiculous puppet shows with our shoes. 

“Our customers have grown with us and see a little bit of ourselves in each pair of shoes they purchase. In essence, having a strong and individual brand personality has allowed us to set ourselves apart and make a name for ourselves in this challenging marketplace.”

Kate and Zara launched their ‘Soles with Soul’ programme in 2021, in which they collaborate with artists and celebrities and donate a portion of the proceeds from limited edition shoe styles to various charities and organisations.

Paperkrane has donated over $10,000 to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation, Minus18 Youth, Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, Stroke Foundation, Pretty Foundation, and Cedar Creek Wombat Rescue. Yuingin and Dhagun, Indigenous-inspired shoe designs, were created in conjunction with Aboriginal Australian Artist Ailsa Walsh (Davidson), called Wulkuraka Designs.

Take the Leap: Empower women business owners

If you have an idea and the guts to see it through, Zara advises, take a chance and give it your all. “All I can say is that this experience has cemented the age-old adage of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ I mean that all women should be encouraged to enter whatever business they are passionate about. If you have a calling, take the leap and don’t be afraid to jump head first.  

From humble beginnings to reaching new heights: Meet the co-founder of Aussie footwear brand PaperKrane Zara Cooper

“You need to have a solid plan, and honestly, family and friends who support you won’t go astray (I couldn’t have done this without them!) There will be many mistakes, tears, hard lessons and moments that you question it all, but in my experience, all of these things are a crucial part of the journey.  I would choose to take a calculated risk and to fail over not taking the risk and spending my life thinking about the ‘what ifs’.  

“I had a lot at stake, being a mother of three young children and giving up a stable and lucrative career.  By the same token, I also knew that the life of a corporate lawyer would never afford me the work-life balance that I was seeking, which would allow me to be present in my kids’ lives whilst not giving up on my personal dreams and aspirations. I knew that in order to find a fulfilling career that I would be passionate about, that would also allow me to be my own boss and shape my own life (as an individual and as a mother), I had to take a big risk.  

“Needless to say, the risk has more than paid off.  Yes, running a business is vastly demanding, and the hours and required commitment can be crazy, but I feel like my work is a very important and fulfilling part of my life, and that’s probably the thing I’m most grateful for.  It’s also something that my kids love getting involved with, especially as they grow older. 

Today, Kate and Zara are still growing and expanding their company while keeping their commitment to fashionable foot health at the centre of every choice they make. 

Visit PaperKrane here.

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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