An Aussie Gem
08.07.14 | Posted in People I Love
She’s been dubbed Australia’s biggest export since Vegemite, and celebrities can’t get enough of her designs. Emma talks with the woman at the helm of a global accessories empire.
When I meet Samantha Wills, 32, she’s as flawless in the flesh as she is in her photos. Stepping into her office, it’s all sunshine, white paint and fresh blooms. Delicate trinkets from her eponymous brand are strung around her neck, and sun-streaked hair tumbles down her shoulders. Sweet and down-to-earth, she has the carefree air of an Aussie girl who’s grown up by the sea (she was raised in pretty Port Macquarie), and it’s almost hard to believe the laid-back beauty is now running a global multimillion-dollar brand.
Samantha has stores everywhere from Singapore to New York. Patricia Field – the biggest fashion powerhouse in TV – loved her designs so much that Carrie and her friends wore them in the second Sex and the City movie in 2010, and A-listers (think Eva Mendes, Katy Perry and Rachel Zoe) are clamouring to wear her jewellery. She has handbag and eyewear lines launching later in the year, and her bridal and stationery collections have proved immensely popular. She’s also added a winemaker string to her bow, having released a boutique range of sparkling wine, Peacock Lane (under the Yellowglen umbrella). It’s clear the Samantha Wills brand is becoming more ubiquitous than ever. So just how did she take a market stall to the streets of New York?
When A Brand Was Born
Ten years ago, Samantha Wills never set out to be a businesswoman. “Me?” She laughs. “I was so young when I started out, I don’t think I was even capable of having a dream that big.” What was big, though, was her passion to make jewellery. She was hooked after her mum put her in beading classes when she was in primary school, and started handcrafting friendship bracelets for her friends. In 2004, she decided to move to Sydney to set up shop, and started selling her designs at the Bondi Markets. “I wanted the freedom to design something that traditionally didn’t go together; pieces that break the conventions of design,” she says. A friend then offered her a small stand at Australian Fashion Week, where she logged $17,000 worth of orders. At just 21 years old, she’d launched her first collection.
Three years later, she was nearly $70,000 in debt and couldn’t keep up with the demand for her pieces. “The brand was gaining momentum, but there weren’t enough hours in the day for me to make all the jewellery I needed,” she tells me. “In the early days, no one took me seriously as I was so young. I remember going in to present my collection to a large account one day. Just as I’d finished setting up they said, ‘Thanks for getting that ready, but interns don’t normally present to us. When’s Samantha showing up?’” She credits her business partner, Geoff Bainbridge, with helping her take the business to the next level and giving her commercial success. She says she had no problem relinquishing control of that side of the brand. “Creatively, I was still in control, and it was almost a relief that I could focus more on that side of things.”
Success was Sealed
“At 21 years old, I idolised brands like Tigerlily, thinking I wanted to be Jodhi Meares,” Samantha says. “A few years later, I was in my office and looking around at my team, and I noticed my name engraved on a door in gold. That was a definite ‘pinch myself’ moment. I felt like my dream of being like Jodhi was becoming a reality.” Other I’ve-made-it moments? “Seeing my jewellery on the Sex and the City cast! From an international perspective, that gave us a lot of credibility.”
With celeb-driven opportunities in the US, Samantha decided to move to New York to nurture the business. “It wasn’t just a case of replicating the brand over there. One of the most naïve things you can do as an Australian businesswoman is to think that’s all there is to it. You really have to tailor your brand to a new market.”
The power of celebrity has been phenomenal: in 2008, Eva Mendes was papped when she stepped out wearing the SW Bohemian Bardot ring. Samantha credits her for making it the brand’s signature piece. To this day, it’s still one of the best-selling pieces from her collection.
So just what makes the Samantha Wills brand so unique? “A lot of people create statement jewellery, but there’s nothing identical to what we do,” she says. “We’re very protective about our designs. The wooden boxes that gift our jewellery is a point of difference – when we brought them in, we saw an instant increase in revenue. Just like Tiffany has the little blue box, we’ve got the little brown box.”
Inspired by her love of travel, many of her designs are affectionately named after her favourite destinations and adventures had along the way, and she’s constantly roaming the globe to spark her creativity. Having been in the business for 10 years, does she ever deal with boredom or worry about the brand getting stale? “Yes, I’ve had those moments when I’ve had to come up with another collection and I’ve been stumped; other times I’ve had so many ideas bubbling over I don’t know where to start. I find stepping back a bit can help when I’m stuck. You have to believe in yourself and trust your gut – I remind myself that the brand has got me this far, so I can’t be doing all bad!”
Samantha believes a key to her brand’s success is knowing the difference between a label and a brand. “A label produces product; a brand evokes emotion. I want the SW woman to feel something when she wears one of my designs. I design for her. She’s my muse. Is she in Paris in the summertime? On the streets of New York? You can’t be a product; you have to be a storyteller.”
She credits social media as being vital to consumer research. “Over the past year, our communications have become a lot more strategic. As a designer and a businesswoman, I feel like I’m in a really luxurious position to be able to find out what my customers want; 10 years ago, you’d be paying thousands of dollars in market research.” A self- confessed Instagram junkie, she posts regularly to her thousands of followers (87,000 at the time of going to press). Her home in New York provides a constant source of artistic stimuli. “When a brand is your name, you feel like you’re speaking organically to an audience. I want the voice in my social media to be a true reflection of me. I take the consumer on a personal journey and speak of good and bad, and that resonates with people. They then invest emotionally in the brand.”
One of the best pieces of advice she’s received comes from her Dad. “It’s simple, really: be nice. Don’t burn bridges. What goes around comes around; you run into the same people in business – it’s all about relationships. If you have a nice demeanour it makes you stand out from the crowd. I’ve tried to apply that to every element of what we do.”
These days, Samantha Wills splits her time between New York (where she lives with her American boyfriend, Will) and Sydney, where she has a team of 25. “I come back to Australia every six weeks. My staff are really important to me and it’s vital we share the same vision for the brand. Yes, it’s a 23-hour trip each way – but it’s all worth it!”
So what’s looming on the horizon for Samantha Wills now? “We have big dreams to build a global brand so we’re focusing heavily on international expansion. We have offices in France, Korea and Japan; the challenge is to break through language barriers and ensure our brand message is organic and consistent.
“We want to be a global brand with an Aussie soul because, ultimately, my home country is at the root of our business. I’m all about showing the world what Australian design is made of.” I have no doubt she’ll do just that.