North Dakota artist Susanne Williams made a huge career change, and now designs stunning leather handbags and clothing. Here’s how she did it.
ABI: How did you originally connect with the Arts Business Institute?
SW: I have a Ph.D. in communications studies, and was twelve years into my career as a university professor and administrator. On the weekends, though, I created in my downtown studio/shop, and sold to local shoppers.
Then, the Arts Business Institute came into my life and I learned enough to give up tenure, quit my academic job, and create a new career as an artist. They offered a day-long workshop on how to wholesale your art/craft.
The ABI trainers guided us through everything from pricing our work to how to attach track lights to the booth pipes. They lifted much of the mystery surrounding the art/craft industry. Most importantly, they allowed us to see that life as a career artist was within reach. I soaked up every word.
We were asked to bring samples of our work for a one-on-one mentoring session. Stacy Simbrom met with me. I shared a small box filled with a variety of my creations — some sterling silver jewelry, letterpress greeting cards, and more. She told me that in order to do wholesale, I must focus my line. I decided on handbags.
After the workshop, I got to exhibit in a guild booth at the Buyers Market of American Craft. This would be my first art/craft exhibition experience.
ABI: How has feedback from professionals improved your line and your marketing?
SW: Nancy Markoe worked with me to prepare for our first Buyers Market show. She helped me to see that the handles on my bags at the time weren’t very functional or comfortable to hold. When she saw my revised design, she smiled and said, “Now you should apply for a Niche Award.”
One of the best pieces of advice was to walk the Buyers Market show in February and pay attention to where you can fit in. At that first show, I was showing mostly fabric handbags, and noticed far fewer artists showing leather. I came back from the show and purchased an industrial leather sewing machine, transforming my ideas into leather.
I met another professional who used to work for Coach Handbags. She suggested that I find a way to sew the linings into my bags so they lay more tightly. I figured out how to make that happen.
When professionals offer criticism of your work, listen to them. They are not critiquing you personally. They are simply helping your work improve so you can succeed.
ABI: You have started doing trunk shows. Tell us about them.
SW: Here in Fargo, ecce gallery carries my work and has hosted two trunk shows. This allows the gallery to host my entire collection. I’m there to meet the guests and sell my work.
Mark Weiler (the owner) and I have had a great time collaborating to make the trunk show more of a huge celebratory shopping event. In addition to my entire handbag collection, I also create one-of-a-kind leather coats and dresses. We hold a live runway fashion show with professional models and fantastic music. Guests are treated to hors d’oeuvres and wine and the evening becomes a shopping party.
The only way a trunk show will work is if the gallery successfully promotes the event. For the ecce shows, we created promotional posters, direct mail postcards, news releases, and print advertising, as well as Facebook announcements and invitations, email newsletters, and Twitter. About 200 shoppers attended each show.
ABI: Do you have an excusive relationship with any galleries?
SW: When I was transitioning to full-time, Mark Weiler of ecce came to me and invited me to show in his gallery. He has been hugely supportive of me. When other local store owners approached me, I declined because I wanted to be in his gallery only . He saw value in my work, and he believed in me and in my line. I respect that. His gallery is relatively new, and has a classy, modern New York feel, which elevates my work.
Buyers at trade shows do ask about other stores in their areas that carry my work. If they don’t – I ask them. It doesn’t make business sense to me to have my work competing against itself in a small geographic area.
ABI: What do you have coming up next?
SW: I’ll be at the Buyers Market in February – my bread and butter wholesale show. I was also juried into all of the American Craft Council retail shows for the 2012 season, so I’ll exhibit in the Baltimore retail show for the first time. My family and I are evaluating what we can realistically accomplish for the rest of the ACC season. My husband Tim and I have an amazing 11-year-old son, Oliver, and we are doing our best to keep up with him, too. My life is full and good.