The Fashion Futurist Features : Nikki Williams
In the very first of my Q+A series with the brands and businesses shaping the future of our fashion industry and the thoughtful wardrobes of many the world over, I sat down with Nikki Williams, Sydney-based luxury leather goods designer recently to chat about her simple brand values, the passion she has for her craft and just how she went about building her business.
Whilst I have been lucky enough to have known you for many years, why don’t you start by giving our audience a few vital stats about Nikki Williams the woman.
I have three children aged five, three and one I am married to a beautiful man who is very supportive! I grew up on a farm in Sofala NSW and we had to make our own fun, I truly believe this helped nurture my creative streak. I was very much into horses and loved all the saddlery, bridles and leather work and think that is where my passion for working with leather first developed. Another little unknown fact about me is that my Grandfather was an accessories importer, he used to import jewellery and hats to Australia in the early 20’s, so you could say the passion to design fashion accessories was in my genes from the very beginning.
It’s hard to not love beautifully crafted, luxurious leather goods and we all really want to own a lot of them, was that why you started Nikki Williams or was it more about the passion for owning your own business? And what really made you take the plunge?
I always wanted to own my own business, my parents had their own business so thought I would always follow in their footsteps. I don’t think there’s any one reason to start your own business, it can be a combination of wanting to be your own boss or it could be simply testing yourself to see how much you can achieve. For me, the big thing that made me take the leap was when I started building a family and I really wanted to be a great role model for my children. The world is a tough place and everyone needs a good head start in life and I thought it would be wonderful to give my children an understanding of business and managing finances and that you must work for what you get in life.
The Nikki Williams brand values are simple and super clear and I love everything that the brand stands for. Having known you for many years I feel these values truly reflect you as a person, would I be right in saying it was somewhat easy to build a brand based on your own personal beliefs and sense of style?
I thought about my business for about 3 years before launching, so there was a lot of planning that went into it. I never wanted the business to be named after myself but I think if you’re going to do something, put yourself out there and be brave and so after searching for a name that matched my values I decided it couldn’t be called anything but Nikki Williams. There’s a big sense of trust that comes with putting your name to something. Every aspect of the brand comes back to my name.
How did working for industry majors like Selfridge's help sculpt the way you created your own label?
I will be forever indebted to Harry Gordon Selfridge! He was an incredible mentor, I learned invaluable lessons from the man who coined the term, “The customer is always right” he came up with the way we all shop and is a retailing pioneer. He is very much about the theatre and the art of shopping and I think if you can tap into the experience you will do well. I learned that in any business you need to go behind the scenes and understand the inner workings of your business and particularly focus on the finances, you can’t make money just designing beautiful handbags. You need to understand the costs involved in creating that handbag and how to sell that bag to a customer.
Which leads in perfectly to my next question, Funding which is the biggest challenge for any new business, how or where did you find the funds to kick start your brand?
I started my business with my savings, throughout the 3 years of planning my business I was working and every spare minute I found I was working on the business and tried to just do something towards building the business every day. A didn’t have a big end goal, I just thought if I put one foot in front of the other I would get somewhere. Any money that I make from the business goes straight back into the business. I’m realistic, it will be a few years until I make a true profit.
So, with some savings and a plan to do something towards building the business every day, what exactly did you do first?
I got some cardboard and some leather and made a handbag! Unless you get an understanding of just how you can make something and what goes into making it you don’t really have a business at all. So, I made a handbag and then I thought about what designs I might like and what would sell from that. The next and most important step that I took, once I had the confidence to know that it was something that I could do and had validated my own creativity was to start working on my logo, branding, and how I needed to market my products. I spent a lot of time developing my logo, based on my ideal customer but also based on what I liked. I did a lot of research into what makes a good logo and what makes a product sell and stand out and I guess my rule there is to keep it simple, don’t overthink things, make sure it looks good in different colours, different formats and most importantly looks good on your products.
You first launched Nikki Williams with a collection of 4 designs - The Marni, (an essential suede clutch, fondly named after your second daughter, destined to be a success!) The London, The Caviette Clutch and The Hampton. All styles quickly became wardrobe staples, when did you then decide to broaden your offer into wallets and more trend driven handbag styles? Driven by customer feedback or your own desires to grow the brand?
When I first started my business, I took my own advice and kept things simple. My first designs were simple in construction. I took this approach to reduce the number of mistakes. I have my bags made off-shore in a factory and it can be hard to communicate all the intricate details and elements of a design. I also thought that a timeless design would have a mass appeal and help generate my first sales. I mean who doesn’t need a beautiful black tote! Now that I have a great relationship with my craftsman I have moved on to more detailed designs. The Harriet saddle bag is a bag I have had designed for a long time – it’s been one of our best sellers, but I knew I had to get it 100% right and I wasn’t ready to launch with such a detailed design.
Now onto to building the wholesale side of your business, did you feel as though this was a natural progression for the brand once your online store started to gain momentum and the Nikki Williams word had spread? I know you had some wholesale accounts on board from early on, how did you go about securing these accounts?
I always knew what the structure of my business would be before I launched it. I never wanted to have a shop and sell my bags – I’d be terrible at it, I’d probably just give them all away! Wholesale can be a tough road, but I was lucky in the beginning as I had boutiques that had seen my designs on Instagram and asked if they could stock my designs. This gave me the confidence to approach other boutiques and expand internationally. I took small steps and learnt along the way. It’s much better to be small and make small mistakes than get too big and make big mistakes, so I kept the wholesale side of my business tight, until I had all the systems in place. The core of my business is to treat people well. I take this approach when dealing with shop owners and boutiques. I think having a professional and personal approach to business is a great way to secure accounts. If people know they can talk to you and you are listening – then they are more likely to give you a chance. Oh, and do your research – there’s no point pitching to a store that only sells fashion under $200 – you must target stores that match with your customer.
As retailers started approaching you because of your presence on social media and publicity through brand ambassadors and influencers, did you feel that you needed to start building a more solid wholesale strategy for your brand? And what were the first steps in this process for you?
I have recently just launched a new dedicated wholesale website, which streamlines the buying process for shop owners. They can order easily and find all the information they need via the website – this is especially important for International stores. One of our key wholesale strategies is to make working with us easy. Store owners and buyers are busy people - having a strong and succinct idea of your brand and who your customer is vital. Shop owners and buyers want to know about your brand, how your products are made and who buys them.
We all know it can be somewhat of a rollercoaster ride, particularly in the first few years of starting a label. Are there ups or downs in your journey that you can say that you have learnt valuable lessons from? And what has surprised you the most about having your own business?
I think business mimics life. Some days I think – wow I can’t believe this is my job and others it holy shit what am I doing! They say the key to success is to simply show up every day and do what needs to be done. But showing up is the easy part. In a nutshell, the most practical, beautiful, workable idea in the world won’t work – if you don’t. You must put in the time. I give myself totally achievable goals - sort of like small steps. I don’t let those larger dreams and goals cloud my everyday work, as it can be slightly overwhelming if you are looking up at the mountain you must climb all the time. If I had sat down and looked at all the other handbag brands out there (well I think I’d still be looking), but I’d would have never taken the plunge – it would have seemed too hard. Of course, there have been hard times, but I have learnt not to be too hard on myself. I see many people who want to start their companies but hold back because their plans are not perfect. Things will never be perfect. Even if your business plan is not ready, or your sales strategy needs work, that does not mean you shouldn’t start. Heck, I haven’t even written an official press release yet (but I know I’ll get to it one day). Which brings me to what has surprised me about having a business. I would never have thought I could get featured in a magazine or on a blog without a press release. That’s the fabulous thing about having your own business, it will take you on an adventure you never imagined. You can’t plan everything!
Have you had support along the way? Whether through business coaches, mentors, online training, friends, family, next door neighbour? And if so when do you find yourself most likely to reach out for support?
That can be one of the toughest things about starting your own business, you are doing a lot of the work on your own – and at the very beginning probably all the work! As a business owner, I make all the decisions - that’s why it’s vital to have others around you who have an interest and some understanding of what you are doing – they’re the ones that are going to give you the best advice. I do chat to my next-door neighbour about my designs (she’s one of my biggest fans too), but it’s having conversations with people in the industry that are irreplaceable. Mentors like yourself, have been invaluable. In business, it’s all about connecting the dots and knowing who to work with. I have found Instagram to a fantastic source of support and a great place to connect with like-minded people, however you can’t beat an old-fashioned chat with someone who knows the industry. Whether it’s just someone to bounce ideas off or you need some hand-holding through a development stage, it’s important to reach-out and keep learning from those around you. Don’t under estimate the power a small conversation might have, you never know where it might lead.
What are you most excited about at this moment in your life and career? And what’s the biggest challenge?
Today I’m celebrating a year since we were featured in Vogue Magazine. It was such an honour to have my very first design featured in such an incredible publication. There’s still a long road ahead, but it was a fortunate place to start. I’m now currently working on the next season designs. I have just received the samples of the first collection and some of them just aren’t quite right. For me, I have to be 100% happy with the design before it leaves the studio, it can take many design-rounds to get it right it can be a challenge coordinating all the different elements from all corners of the world that go into making a bag.
I always say to my clients dream big, so in closing what would be your big dream for the future of Nikki Williams?
I have many dreams and they seem to change some-what daily, but I’d love to see one of my bags on Diane Kruger. I think she’s so effortlessly stylish. She reminds me of my Mum when she was younger, my Mum also shares the same name. It would be a dream come true to have such a beautiful, graciously powerful woman wear one of my designs. I think I had better start work on that press release if I’m ever going to achieve that goal!
I would like to thank Nikki for being so generous with her time and sharing an honest insight into her journey with us. Hopefully you picked up something from Nikki's own experience in building a fashion business to takeaway and implement into your own business. Thanks again Nikki and congratulations on the launch of your new collection of handbags fondly named after your hometown, Sofala xx