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Sherri Richards, Published November 12 2010

Willi Nilli has evolved from retail store to wholesaler of products

Susanne Williams’ studio is a juxtaposition of purses and power tools.

The space at 412 Broadway reflects the evolution of her business, Willi Nilli, from a part-time boutique devoted to selling her fanciful creations to a wholesale business with a standardized collection of leather handbags, totes, satchels and wallets.

Her downtown studio, which she moved into in January, has designated areas for cutting, stitching and gluing. A whiteboard tracks work flow.

“It’s much more planned and methodical than I ever was before,” Williams said. “I discovered wholesale, and my business took off in that direction.”

Now instead having a storefront for her handcrafted purses, Williams attends a few fine American craft wholesale shows a year, where buyers order her purses for retailers around the country. Williams likes giving the responsibility of selling the bags to other people so she can focus on creating them.

Her collection features about 35 purse styles in brown, black, yellow and red leather. They retail from $39 to $950.

Locally, her bags are sold down the street from her boutique at ecce art + yoga, 216 Broadway, owned by Mark Weiler.

“He sells way more than I ever did at my old location,” Williams said.

Weiler gives more credit to Williams. “She makes exquisite pieces that sell themselves,” Weiler said.

Tonight, Williams will hold a trunk show at ecce. The event will feature her handbags and a fashion show highlighting other creations – dresses made from crocheted doilies and leather coats, including one trimmed in mohair.

These projects give her a creative outlet, something that can go by the wayside in the more assembly-line construction she and her assistant follow to produce up to 30 purses a week. She varies the purses’ fabric lining to stay inspired.

“The whole reason I do it is to have a creative outlet,” Williams said.

This is what spurred Williams to open her first boutique in 2005 on Eighth Street South. She later moved to 505 Broadway.

She then attended Art Up, training for North Dakota artists on wholesaling their work, sponsored by the state’s Small Business Development Center.

Through that program, Williams attended her first wholesale show, the Buyers Market of American Craft in Philadelphia, in February 2008. As she walked the grid of a thousand booths, she saw plenty of purses, but not much in leather.

“Moving into leather, it was a business decision,” Williams said. “I wanted to be a part of this artistic community and make a living at it.”

The decision has allowed her to make her mark. When she went back to the Philadelphia show with her new line in August 2009, organizers asked to use an image of her bag in its brochure as well as in a full-page advertisement in NICHE Magazine, an affiliate publication. In February, Williams’ crinkle leather satchel received a NICHE Award in the fiber category for surface design. She recently was named a double-finalist for the 2011 NICHE awards, again for fiber surface design and in the fashion accessories category, said Erin Hartz, coordinator of the awards.

Winners will be announced at the Philadelphia show in February. Williams will attend that show again, as well as a show in Baltimore. She’s considering applying to fashion wholesale shows in New York to find a larger market than her arts-and-crafts roots.

“You’ve got to find the best market for your work,” she said. “There’s a whole world I haven’t even tapped into yet.”

Business profile

Willi Nilli

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556