News & Runway

Jewelry Designer Samantha Wills on What It Takes to Build a Fashion Brand From Scratch

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Designer Samantha Wills

Born and raised in Australia, designer Samantha Wills unveiled her first jewelry collection at Australian Fashion Week in 2004. Since then, the self-taught designer has expanded across the globe and is now based in New York City where she not only runs a thriving jewelry business, but also overseas a glossy digital magazine. We spoke with the designer to find out more about her brand and the various intricacies of producing her collections.

The Fashion Spot: What made you move from Sydney to New York?

Samantha Wills: There were a few months where it seemed every star in Hollywood wore our designs on the red carpet! Eva Mendes, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry, Kate Hudson…. From this, we were getting so many enquiries for the brand here in the USA that it required someone to make the move over to ensure the brand was being placed in the correct distribution, so I put my hand up very quickly to make the move to NYC!

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tFS: You made your debut during Sydney Fashion Week in 2004 — how do you think the fashion scene has changed there since? SW: I think the Global Financial Crisis (The GFC, as us Aussies call it!) really changed the Australian Fashion Industry. In the early 2000s, there were a lot of 'backyard' start ups (like me), across all divisions of fashion. It started to create a crowded marketplace. When the GFC hit, the only businesses that survived where those that had invested in developing their brand. So it essentially called out the businesses (I use the word 'business', not 'brands' purposely) that were just trying to produce product quickly, and at times imitate more established designers at a cheaper price. Through the GFC, consumers leant even further towards brands they were emotionally connected to and made more invested decisions. There is a such an incredible creative pool of talent in Australia, the GFC made designers ensure they were investing in all areas of their businesses, not just quick-release product.

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tFS: How would you describe your brand and your target clientele?

SW: We describe the brand as 'Bohemian Luxury'. It is nontraditional in terms design, mixing materials that technically do not go together (leather with stone, burnished metals with polished stones). I love this juxtaposition. Our packaging is individual hand carved wooden boxes that each piece comes in, the boxes are raw and very masculine, and I love that when you open them, inside is a sparkling piece that represents feminine. Living between Sydney and NYC, I'm very true to my Australian upbringing in my designs and aesthetic and this represents the bohemian, and the luxury comes from my NYC influence. Our clientele is not defined by age or demographic, which I find to be a very limiting way of defining your clientele. The SW women is creative, she is adventurous and she marches to the beat of her own drum.

tFS: Can you give us some examples of how you are inspired by New York City?

SW: New York City has inspiration for everyone, I think the more refined elements of our brand are inspired by NYC. Our SW FINE collection was definitely born here in NYC. Our color palettes have matured here to include more black onyx and polished gold. The access you have to things in NYC is like no where else in the world. Incredible galleries, the fashion district with beautiful semi-precious suppliers and metal workers, or take a walk through Soho, on 5th Ave or Uptown to be inspired by what some of the biggest brands are doing, digitally and in retail. Its an overload of inspiration across many areas of the brand.

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tFS: Can you walk us through the process of creating a piece from initial concept to final product?

SW: It is about a nine month process…. I have an idea of the overarching story behind the collection. I always start with a story. As a designer, it is not enough to just design product, you need to romance your consumer, bring them on the journey with you…. With social media you can start telling them that story very early on and if you communicate it correctly, by the time the collection actually launches, your consumers are so romanced by the story. Come launch time they will probably know more about it then you do, as by that stage, you have had to move on to creating the next collection! So once I have the story, I create a location and put my 'muse' in that location. My muse is always our clientele. She is gracious enough to show me on Instagram how she is wearing SW… Where she is wearing it, what she likes and what she doesn't. So I am designing for her always. I sketch, I build, I rebuild. The collection comes together over about six weeks of mixing sketches with vintage pendants or textures from objects. From this point, my team takes all my designs and creates technical specs from my drawings. These are then sent to our production houses. We have houses in China, India, Korea and Australia. Spending on what materials are being used, depends on where the design is sent. We then receive first round samples back, from which I either approve or make changes into second round sampling. Once the second round has been approved, we make final selections of the collection which are then shot for our look book. The sales teams then present around the world to all of our valued retailers, while we then place orders with our production houses, and about 9-10 months from my original idea, it is sparkling on retail shelves and online! In the meantime, a new collection has already began about four months in and the cycle continues.

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tFS: That sounds like a brutal process! What are some of the biggest challenges in running and growing a small business?

SW: When we started the biggest challenges where what you didn't know… in my case, I was a creative, I knew how to build a brand and design product, but I didn't know how to run a warehouse or have a logistics and supply chain that ran smoothly or run accurate accounts…. And I am of the belief that you shouldn't know how to do it all. If you know how to do it all, you might be good at all things, but what a successful business needs is people that are exceptional at a few things… then you can build teams around them. That is what sees a brand have success. My advice to people starting out in business is to surround yourself with people who are really good at what you are not.

tFS: What are some of the challenges with running your own e-commerce?

SW:There are not a lot of downsides to running your own e-commerce – every single product business should have e-commerce! If you have money to invest in marketing, invest it in e-comm and/or driving traffic to your e-comm store. I guess the biggest challenge would be keeping up with the digital world and how much it evolves before our eyes. To counteract this, invest in a good site from the start, that way changes can happen around you and it won't affect you (or cost you near as much money!) in the short term. A good site will get you through until you're at a financial stage you can build a better site.

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tFS: You spoke about the power of social media – can you talk a little bit more about that and how it impacts your business?

SW: I love social media! I think as designers in this day and age, we are very spoiled with it. I design specifically for the SW woman and not that many years ago it would have cost thousands in market research to find out (let alone visually see!) who she was, but with social media, I am shown nearly 100 images daily on the hashtag #samanthawills , not only who she is, but where she is going, what colors she likes, what are her favorites products, what apparel brands she is wearing…. She is gracious enough to share her life with me. I think I have a very personal relationship with the SW customer on social media and I love that.

tFS: Can you talk to us about SW Style and how it fits into your overall brand?

SW: SW Style is our digital magazine that covers our events. I am very interested in interiors/décor and this aesthetic has become a real signature for the brand and events. A lot of our instagram feed contains interiors of my NYC or Sydney homes and we developed SW Style to show our followers how to recreate these events and interiors themselves.

tFS: What is the Waiting List program?

SW: The Waiting List is an initiative we developed for our high exposure styles that sell out quickly. How this works is when we know we are getting a style in stock, we post it on the Waiting List, and then anyone who signs up to the Waiting List, gets priority option for 24 hours to purchase before we release to the general public. It's really a program to reward our loyal customers so they do not miss out on products they are waiting on.

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tFS: What do you consider the jewelry essentials that every woman should own?

A go-to cocktail ring… it can dress up jeans and blazer or can make a ball gown look more bohemian.