Handbag dreams made real on Broadway

Story by Rachel Leingang

Photos by Logan Werlinger

MSUM Journalism

It all started with a black porcelain bowl. Susanne Williams, owner of Willi Nilli, saw a photo of a porcelain bowl with porcelain flowers on it, and her handbag inspiration was born.

“I saw them and thought, ‘That would be really pretty on a bag,’” Williams said. She modeled her signature leather flowers after the bowl, put them on a leather handbag and her business was born.

Now, Williams sells her handmade leather bags, with plans to sell other leather goods like photo frames and coats, wholesale to retailers around the country.

A former communications professor and administrator at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Williams has always been creating. She left her university job and went full-time with Willi Nilli two and a half years ago, and hasn’t looked back since.

Susanne Williams works on sewing her leather handbags in her downtown studio space.

Finding a way to market her creative outlet

After finding a studio space to create in, Williams took a class on how to wholesale artwork.

“I learned how to sew when I was 7 in 4H,” Williams said, “but I never dreamt that what I would be doing was making handbags. That was really a business decision – trying to combine a person’s need to be creative … and then putting it into a product that’s easily marketable.”

Williams chose to specialize in leather handbags for marketing purposes and is currently working on other leather goods, like picture frames and coats.

Successful marketing has become increasingly important during the economic downturn that began when Williams quit her university job.

“In a lot of ways, I think launching my business at the time that I did is probably the best thing I could be doing because I’m working out all the snags now,” she said. “I’m lucky I’m still standing. A lot of people aren’t.”

Williams' handbags are each a unique work of art and are sold mostly at museums, galleries and boutiques.

But Williams isn’t only “still standing” – she’s thriving. Willi Nilli creations won two Niche awards in the past two years for surface design in fiber.

Her ideas are largely the source of an active imagination and creative mind.

A whiteboard in Williams' work space shows the various handbags she creates and their specifications.

“I dream them, and I don’t mean to be cliché, but I seriously do,” she said. “Inspiration will hit at any time – I carry my sketchbook with me through the airport and I’ll be sketching or doodling on a napkin.”

Being her own boss

Owning and operating a one-woman show with the help of one part-time assistant, Michelle Mailloux, certainly has its challenges, but the rewards are many.

“If I fail, it’s my own fault,” Williams said.  “If I make it, it’s because I’ve done the hard work to make it. I have nobody to blame but myself for everything, and I love that. I love being able to see what I produced at the end of the day. I love seeing tangible evidence of what I’ve accomplished in a day.”

Mailloux assists Williams with making the parts that are used to construct a handbag. An MSUM art graduate with an emphasis in sculpture, Mailloux began working with Williams in November 2009.

Williams' assistant Michelle Mailloux helps make the multiple parts that make up each handbag

“I sort of stopped doing fine art, so to speak, because I like making things that are useful and beautiful at the same time,” Mailloux said. “I think it’s more fun. I like people being able to touch what you make and not feeling like it’s absolutely precious.”

Williams does her own marketing, photos, graphic design, web design, writing and, of course, creating.

Williams does her own marketing and design in addition to creating handbags. She recently put together a Willi Nilli catalog for prospective buyers.

“The most difficult part and the challenging part is having to be responsible for everything,” Williams said. “It’s at once the best part and the most challenging part.”

Expanding the brand

Williams has a grand vision for Willi Nilli, and expects that after weathering the bad economy, her business will grow and expand. Currently, her creations are sold at galleries, museums and boutiques.

Each "x" marks a location that sells Willi Nilli creations.

“I want to take it up a notch,” she said. “I want to get it into places like Neiman Marcus or Anthropologie. I want to get it to a bigger audience.”

Expanding to larger stores would also require bringing in reinforcements.

“It would be more people, more equipment, more supplies, more space,” Williams said. “It’s building up to that. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting closer. I have visions of having like 20 employees, 20 machines. That’d be fabulous.”

Willi Nilli headquarters is located at 412 N. Broadway Suite 3 in Fargo. Her leather handbags are sold at Ecce at 216 N. Broadway.

Edited by Tyler Anderson, English and mass communications major

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