Meet the woman who made ‘daggy’ Kmart cool
TO SOME, Kate Hopwood may well have the best job in Australia.
If you've ever strolled through Kmart, flipped through their catalogue or found yourself wading through post after post of homewares 'hacks' and 'how to' on Instagram - chances are Ms Hopwood is behind each design.
From the velvet dining chairs, to geometric artworks, marble side tables and that Scandi shoe rack, she has worked on it all.
Originally from the UK, Ms Hopwood's job not only helps co-ordinate product ranges each season, but with the rest of the design team she analyses global trends within the homewares market.
Putting pen to paper, she will start at least a year out when it comes to designing a season of for the discount retailer - a process that sees her pull themes and trends from across the world.
Ms Hopwood, who started her design career working for Marks & Spencer in the UK, graduated with a degree in furniture and product design before landing her first job in the field.
"I started right at the bottom," she told news.com.au. "I had no desk … nothing. I would just sit at a workbench cutting things out, watching and learning.
"The problem was I had this degree behind me but no experience, so I had to start somewhere and just learn … but they gave me that break into it all."
Ms Hopwood, who now lives in Melbourne, ended up being a design manager of 28 designers while at Marks & Spencer. But her calling to Australia was too strong, and in 2009 she made the move.
"I was a little girl in England who decided she wanted to go to Australia when she was six," she recalled. "Nine years ago, that dream came true.
"But when I came to Australia … I came without a job. No one really knew what I did because I'd create things from brand new. and pulling trends together and designing from scratch was quite new in Australia [at that time].
"Luckily, Target was moving to be more design-led, so I got my job in their design team. I was their first recruit as part of a new way they wanted to work," she said.
"Then another [job] came up at Kmart. I met with them … they had a great strategy with low prices. So I didn't look back."
In an interview with TLC Interiors, Ms Hopwood said the real transition and evolution for Kmart began in 2006.
"This was the time we decided as a business, that we needed to become more design-led … to design and curate our own collections," she said.
"This decision has allowed us to pull together key looks more easily, and has also enabled us to provide total home solutions to our customers; which align back to mass market trends.
"Our forecast and design manager, Sally Forrest, has been really instrumental in making this happen. She helped build a design team, that could turn this dream into a reality. And today, we have over 40 designers based in our national office."
When it comes to cheap homewares, Kmart continues to dominate the market with its cult following both instore and online.
According to Fact Market Research, cheap homewares are having a moment - a trend fanned by an increased demand for housing and the emergence of "generation rent".
In its 2017 report, the preference for inexpensive fashionable homeware items is higher than premium-priced varieties, and it's a trend that's will only continue to grow.
"The youth population is more fashion oriented and seek season homeware solutions, which is why manufacturers remain focused on constantly changing product design and introducing new products," the report reads.
Speaking to news.com.au, Queensland University of Technology retail expert Gary Mortimer says a significant portion of revenue is coming from furniture, homewares and textiles, making it understandable for retailers to want a slice of the pie - and expand on their portfolio.
"Manchester is a $2 billion segment with growth expected to be 2.4 per cent for the next five years," he said.
"Key players other than Big W, Target and Kmart are Spotlight, with 35 per cent market share and Adairs, 10 per cent market share.
"Kitchen and cookware has become an $860 million segment … and we have seen consumers becoming more conscious of aesthetics over functionality."
Ms Hopwood, who has been with Kmart for seven years and leads a team of around 50 designers, said when she was first called in for an interview with the retailer, friends warned her to approach with caution.
"We don't have anything like Kmart in the UK," Ms Hopwood said.
"I remember going for the interview and one of my girlfriends here said: 'Oh don't work there, they [Kmart] are so daggy.'
"But I met with them and they know what they are doing. They are on a mission, and my role is to help them make [homewares] look pretty.
"[Now] when my friends come here they are blown away by it because the design level and the quality and the price is amazing. They want Kmart in England."
Working on trends 12 months in advance of release, Ms Hopwood said designing for a season takes her creative eye right around the world.
"We are looking at 'macro trends' so what's happening in politics, or what's happening in Milan. We do all our research, absorb it and those trends will span the next six months which we will design in to.
"We draw inspiration from so many things - cool new local cafes, intricate architecture, colours found in nature … and all these will trickle through the products you see in Kmart.
"At the moment, for example, we are working for summer next year … as we have already designed winter 2019."
Speaking of competitors, Ms Hopwood said their point of difference is to make items "last a long time" and so they can be used throughout seasons so a consumer only needs to update smaller items from time to time.
"We do our best to make our items last a long time," she said. "We do rigorous testing through our amazing teams in Asia and also in Australia to test our products.
"The success we have is from listening to the customer … working with bloggers and hearing from people on our website so we can do more of what they want. And not every company can say that.
"[With more competition] the customer wins ultimately, because they have more choice. But our point of difference is price. They can't get a lower price than Kmart, and so if they want great design at the lowest price, there's no competition."
So what won't you even see at the discount retailer?
"Sometimes trends resonate more than others," she told TLC Interiors. "Marble, copper, and geometric prints, for example … they just flew out the door! But other trends might take a little bit longer to filter through the market.
"We are starting to see chocolate brown emerging in home at the moment. If we (as a design team) feel this colour is relevant for our customers next year, we will start introducing it in a small way (through specific pieces).
"We will track the trend, and if it grows, we will grow it within the range. Because at the end of the day, we want to give customers more of what they want."