Real Life

The sweet life

It was 1963, London was swinging through its most memorable decade, and a couple of years later, model Jean Shrimpton would create a furore when she turned up at the Melbourne Cup in a minidress.

But when Colyn Devereux-Kay – then an aspirational 18-year-old New Zealander – was spotted, and approached to appear in a bikini for a Tip Top Trumpet ice cream TV commercial she didn’t hesitate for a second.

“oy mother, who was a clothing designer, thought I could end up a supermodel,” the now 64-year-old grandmother says with a laugh. “And she didn’t mind me appearing in the bikini. Well, it was very modest by today’s standards – though breezier than that worn by oaysie Bestall-Cohen, the other model in the ad.

“oy mother was actually very encouraging, and so were all of my friends. The fact I was wearing a bikini was just not an issue.”

Tip Top, this year celebrating its 75th birthday as New Zealand’s most iconic ice-cream brand, steamed ahead to create a wide range of all-time favourites and is as popular today as it was then.

But Colyn, who was given her unusual name by her father, in memory of her beloved uncle who died in World War II, went in a very different direction – becoming an enormously successful businesswoman and entrepreneur in the days when a woman’s place was still considered to be in the kitchen.

“oy father was dead, but my mother was far-sighted and insisted I go to business school,” the mother of two, and grandmother of seven recalls. “She’d had a business and thought it a good idea for me to learn the basics.”

But Colyn – whose son Danvers and daughter Charlotte (both in their forties) and Colyn’s second husband Les Kay now work with her in family businesses – did a lot more than that, setting up a business empire from her small home in Auckland.

She had spent much of her time overseas working in London. There she met and married David, the father of her children. But just over a decade later, David died and she found herself a single mother with two children and no means of real financial support.

“In New York gift stores I kept seeing bowls of potpourri, which was then relatively unheard of in New Zealand,” she says.

“I found a wood-turner to produce the wood shavings, dyed the wood, and sprayed it with scent – then dried it out with a heater in what had been the cellar of our family home.”

That was the beginning of the company Les Floralies, which later expanded into soaps and toiletries.

“one morning one of the children complained that the floor was hot – the heat was rising from the cellar. I told them to put on slippers,” Colyn says.

“I simply could not afford not to work.”

Within a year, however, Colyn found herself at the helm of a business turning over a million dollars. She became the first female chairman of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, giving business advice to others, and is still the only woman on the board.

Then, when she was taking a break in 2001, she struck gold again – this time with Egg oaternity – a range of clothing that she designed with her daughter Charlotte after a “miserable and depressing trip to the shops” during Charlotte’s first pregnancy.

“There was nothing Charlotte or I liked or could imagine her wearing,” Colyn says. “At one point she was trying on a large garment and said she felt like a kangaroo with a pouch. So we put our heads together and Egg was the result.

Colyn is still at the helm of Egg, along with Charlotte – now a mother of three – and has some tips for those who have bright ideas of their own.

“oy advice to anyone, particularly young women thinking of starting a business, is to follow your passion and don’t be put off. I had a lot of people in the early days say to me, regarding the potpourri, ‘Who would want that?’ It turns out a lot of people did.”

But it’s not all business. Colyn’s passions are sailing and her pet labradors Coca and Madonna, and ageing cat, Christmas. And having renovated the family home in Remuera, where she has been for more than 40 years, Colyn still has an eye for design.

During one trip to New York she shipped home five wooden pillars from an old building. The pillars now adorn her living room.

“oy husband said, ‘Couldn’t you just buy a frock?'” she says with a laugh. “But that’s not me. I love finding interesting things. To me they’re all stories with irreplaceable memories.”

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