Great shoes can make your day. Ellie Gwilliam caught up with a family busy designing shoes and embracing life in all its seasons.
Rebecca Anderson was on the couch in front of the television at 8.30pm on May 14th, 2015. At seven months pregnant, she would usually have been in bed, but a teaser for Old Men Grooving on Britain’s Got Talent had caught her eye.
The good-natured, semi-talented chaps provided more than just entertainment value that evening, as while they danced, a tornado ripped past the Anderson family’s Mount Maunganui home, picking up their front porch and dumping it in the master bedroom.
And that’s the thing with life; sometimes there is chaos, sometimes there is calm. Learning to harmoniously live through every season is a journey we’re all on. This is not the only storm Beks and her husband Greg have weathered recently, yet the couple present an inspiringly resilient, pragmatic and united front. They may live a couple of blocks from the beach, but this team are busy raising a family, growing a business and caring for their community – whatever the weather.
Greg and Beks own Chaos & Harmony, a designer shoe label with retail stores in the Mount and Ponsonby (called BLAKCHAOS, both are collaborations with clothing brand, BLAK), an online store, and wholesale distribution nationwide. Beks is the company director and designer, and Greg manages online developments.
The couple first met at a party at the Mount and were great friends for a few years before dating. 2016 marks their 20th year together. They have two children: son Matthias, who is four; and daughter Valentina, now nine months, who was born just as the post-tornado repairs were being completed on her home.
Greg and Beks come from similar backgrounds – both lived near the beach with visionary parents who took their families on adventures near and far. History is repeating itself in all of these ways, and Greg and Beks are intentional about passing on to Matthias and Valentina both the freedom of being a kid and protection from growing up too fast. “Integrity is a huge part of our lives. We also want our kids to see and love all people for the beauty they bring to the world” says Beks.
Seeing is believing
Vision is a powerful motivator. As a child, Beks remembers visiting her Nana, a successful businesswoman with a vast shoe collection, and gazing upon rows of beautiful shoes in her Nana’s wardrobe. From here, a love of shoes evolved and a business was eventually born. "Shoe design was a great opportunity to mix one of my passions with my skill set. Business is a great platform to see vision become reality. While it comes with a lot of responsibility, there is also a sense of accomplishment and making a difference” says Beks.
Pre-children, the couple spent a year in Rome where Beks studied shoe and accessories design at the Instituo Europeo di Design.
It was exhausting – learning in both Italian and English, 10 years since Beks had last attended formal studies. The 12-month course was intense – the final project presented to industry folk representing the world’s top designers, Fendi and Valentino to name-drop a few. While some students were so exhausted from preparing their projects that they failed to make it to their presentation, Beks pulled up her proverbial Kiwi boot straps and a framed certificate now sits in her lounge with the Italian grade ‘100 e lode’ (100% with honours) clearly showing what happens when talent, passion and hard work come together.
While staying on in Europe had some appeal, Beks and Greg were low on cash and keen on some recovery time back in the relaxed pace of Kiwi life. Returning home they soon saw a gap in the New Zealand market for boutique-designed shoes. They spent 2007 researching and in 2008 launched Chaos & Harmony.
The business now has 12 staff, all women except for Greg. While the couple consider the term ‘family-friendly’ a bit trite, they have built their business with the flexibility to accommodate not only their own family life, but also their staff's. Some roles require set hours but a lot of work can be done from home – especially for those staff members needing to liaise with production in China. Beks and Greg add that their staff are passionate, and this is reflected in their commitment to working around their families.
And then there are the regular trips to China that are required to oversee production and work with their manufacturing team. Both Matthias and Valentina have made the trip to China with Mum as little babies. “This is our life and we make it work. It’s not a 9-5 type of business” says Beks.
The name ‘Chaos & Harmony’ represents the juxtaposition of contrasting and complementing textures that Beks loves to use in her designs, but also the rhythm of life we all find ourselves in. “Life is tornadoes and lakes” reflects Beks. “Sleep deprivation is especially punishing – you need sleep! These can be the survival years”, she says, referring to life with small children. As a visionary person, Beks has found this challenging. “You have to see. I need space in my life so I can focus.” While this season can be a bit foggy, Beks is adamant it is also an important time to adjust expectations and learn about the valuable process of letting go. “Seasons change and as mums we can fight it, but we have to adjust; be intentional about what we can change, and let go of the things we can’t."
One step at a time
No two days are the same for this family. Matthias attends daycare four days a week, Valentina one day per week. For the rest of the working week, childcare is covered by Beks’ mum and Greg and Beks who tag-team, allowing each other time for the things that need to get done. “We both work from home a lot and don’t give ourselves a hard time if we have to work late. We used to try and separate it all out but we naturally work better this way and it’s one less thing to beat yourself up about. In saying that, we do check in with each other and make sure we communicate what’s happening so we know when to put the brakes on and rein it back in.”
“This last year has been one of our most craziest – moving house, our new house being hit by a tornado, business developments and changes, being terribly sick throughout my pregnancy, having a baby, plus some family health scares – we have had to manage one day at a time.”
“My biggest thing at the moment is wanting to create more space to think. Not 'do', just think and be, and let my intuition mull things over. Valentina will start an extra day of daycare this winter but instead of filling that up with my 'to do' list, I’m going to carve out some time to think. There are always too many jobs and not enough time, we have embraced that and do what is the most important task at the time" says Beks.
Balancing work and family life is a modern family conundrum. “I think the scales are always radically tipped in either direction, and on a good day, they balance somewhere in the middle. That’s the day you do everything you need to get done, plus nail the bedtime routine without anyone having a meltdown” says Beks.
Communication and teamwork appear key here. “We work hard at communicating to make sure one person is not swamped, and we also make time for each other, our kids and ourselves. We check in with each other a lot!” agree Greg and Beks.
The Chaos & Harmony brand is reflected in so many aspects of Anderson family life, even the advice they offer when asked for tips for making family life ‘work’. “Celebrate the things that you are winning at, whether it be a small detail or a major breakthrough. And if there are changes you wish to make, set yourself up to make those changes successfully. Know when to push through and when to wait – both are equally important.”
Intentionality is key. From the little games Beks and Matthias play to spend quality time together and foster their bond, to the binge telly-watching Beks admits to – “so I can have a rest and not think”. In the weekend the family love getting outside for walks or trips to the park. They also spend downtime catching up with family and friends. “We love food and dining, and Greg is a great cook, so we love a good meal” says Rebecca.
Still on the theme of making life work, while also channelling their passion for community, Greg and Beks volunteer some of their spare time to train others in Prepare/Enrich, a marriage and relationships coaching programme that aims to provide a safe forum for constructive and empowered conversations. “We don’t spend enough time on our relationship with our partner. We study parenting books, we get the car serviced regularly, but how much time do we invest in marriage?” Beks asks. "It makes sense to invest in relationships. If your marriage is good, you can work through everything." She adds: "When marriages are good, kids are good. When kids are good, schools are good. When schools are good, communities are good. Marriage fall-out is way too expensive and far-reaching. It doesn’t have to be that way. Investing in relationships is so much cheaper, and it makes sense”.
Just three things
"I went through an incredibly emotionally-challenging period last year. I felt like I was sinking most of the time and hardly present. I had this beautiful new baby but also some really awful situations to work through.
I started a gratitude journal and it was hard. Every day I picked three things to be grateful for. When I started, they seemed pathetic, like the cup of tea I had, or the Ellen show I watched, or the sun shining – but it was a start. I would pray and meditate on these and practise being thankful. I would relieve myself of anything I was holding too tight to and just focus on the three things I was grateful for. After about a month, I noticed my attitude to gratefulness increase and whilst my situations were still heavy, I felt lighter. That was a light at the end of a long tunnel and such an ‘aha’ moment."
Best foot forward
Of course we can’t tell the story of a shoe designer without dedicating some considerable space to a discussion on shoes. How many pairs does Beks have? “I don’t actually like to have too many. We have a small house, so I do a lot of culling. I have about 30 to 40 pairs at the moment, but I would have less if this wasn’t my job! I realise I am blessed to have so many shoes so I try and wear them all. I keep my favourite designs, but give pairs away when new designs come in” says Rebecca, whose friends with the same size feet as her clearly have it good.
So for those of us non-industry folk, could we get by with far fewer pairs – say, only four? “Absolutely. Get yourself a pair of ‘go to’ trainers, some classic black boots, a nice pair of heels and a pair of summer sandals.”
We were interested on Rebecca's take on 'mum-style' and how important it is to maintain a sense of style as a mother: “I don’t think we need to play it down just because we are mums, but I don’t think we need to play it up either. Just be yourself. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Confidence is the most important thing. If a woman walks into a room and she is confident, she naturally looks attractive. Find what makes you confident – for some women it is clothes and shoes, but not for everyone” is Beks' wise advice.
Good shoes do work wonders though. And, interestingly, retail therapy is not just a cliché, it would seem. Beks points out that it is common for women especially to find themselves in a shoe shop as they process terrible news or a life-changing diagnosis. “I remind our retail staff that we are often meeting people on their worst day, and that we can actually make it better.” Medicinal shoes? Why not. The vision behind Chaos & Harmony is to make women look good and feel amazing, after all. “Some women come into our shops having never worn heels. They try them on and their whole demeanour changes. We love being able to do that for women.”
Tornadoes and calm
On top of everything else, but perhaps as a result of everything else, Rebecca was diagnosed with clinical depression early this year – a surprise diagnosis “but often people don’t realise they’re depressed until they’re coming out of it”.
Together with her doctor, Beks is taking a holistic approach to treatment and recovery – with nutrition and exercise, as well as natural medicine. The couple’s faith is helping too, and Beks is grateful for the people around her family willing to pray and invest in them. “I see it as restructuring that is happening, I realised I needed to roll with it. It’s just a season. I did initially feel defeated, but along the journey I’ve let that label go. This is not me as a person, but the circumstances around me – circumstances that were extreme! When you break it down and add it all up, everything has impact.”
Beks has also started writing a blog, which is not yet published but is undoubtedly therapeutic. The blog’s theme, a mixture of vision, babies and business, reflects Beks’ love for seeing women figure out their current season. Her advice? “Accept the moment and don’t feel compelled to block or race through it. We shouldn’t be so concerned with figuring out life and making sense of the 'why' all the time; that should be left for the journey of life and discovering those 'aha' moments. Acceptance and awareness are more important gifts to share, both for yourself and for others.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: ALICE VEYSEY, PAPERANDPEARL.CO.NZ