Two besties on a mission to bring about change are creating a business full of beauty.
Today, I’m bringing you the story of Willie Weston: a social enterprise that works with Indigenous artists to create the most beautiful collections of fabrics and wallpapers, printed to order right here in Australia.
Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti have many things in common. For starters, they both have a Masters degrees in Art Curatorship to their name and have held positions in the visual arts space – Laetitia working in contemporary Australian (non-Indigenous) art, and Jess spending time working with remote Indigenous artists and art centres in the Top End.
But they both felt a calling to do something “of their own” – and to work with artists in a different way.
The time came to take the leap after Laetitia had taken some time off with her first baby, and Jess had completed her Masters of Business (Marketing), with a second Masters focused on buyers of Indigenous art.
This provided the pair with a strong understanding of what people are looking for when they engage with Aboriginal art:
It solidified the sense we already had that there was a huge gap in the market for sophisticated Indigenous design that seamlessly translated into contemporary interiors.
So Jess and Laetitia set about to change that, with the launch of Willie Weston.
Today, the friends-turned-business partners are able to provide ongoing income streams to Indigenous artists through the sale of fabrics and wallpapers bearing their designs – with each sold by the metre. And in doing so, they support both the continued creation of this art and the communities behind them across remote Australia.
So let’s hear more about the Willie Weston journey so far…
What was the first iteration of your business – and how does that compare to Willie Weston now. What learnings have you taken?
Laetitia: We actually began with a limited run of indoor / outdoor furniture to showcase the fabrics in our launch collection, the Tiwi Collection: Jilamara by Jean Baptiste Apuatimi and Pandanus by Osmond Kantilla – both artists from the Tiwi Islands, in the Arafura Sea north of Darwin. The idea was to show how well the fabrics worked in furniture applications.
Jess: As we thought might be the case, there was such interest in the fabrics and designs themselves that we left the furniture alone and began focusing entirely on selling our fabrics (and then later, wallpapers) by the metre. We developed new relationships with artists and expended our range of designs. This was a great turning point for our business, as it made us realise that our passion (the unique artworks our designs are adapted from) was also our real point of difference and what appealed most to our market.
How do you create partnerships with your artists?
Laetitia: Each partnership is different. We’re lucky that a lot of our relationships were established during Jess’ former career in the Indigenous art sector, when she worked across a number of non-profit organisations in the Northern Territory, including with art centres in Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands. So we were able to hit the ground running on the basis of her good reputation and strong relationships.
Where does the inspiration come from for their designs?
Jess: The artists we work with create their art for many different reasons, although the natural world and their local traditions are common themes. For example, Colleen Ngwarraye Morton and Rosie Ngwarraye Ross, the two artists we work with from Ampilatwatja in Central Australia, draw inspiration from the strong tradition of gathering native plants and creating bush medicines that exists in their region. And Elizabeth Kandabuma, whose work is part of our Bábbarra Collection, was inspired by the ripples created by the mingling of fresh and saltwater after monsoonal rains.
Who and what is involved in the process from idea to final product?
Laetitia: To bring a new collection to life (in rough chronological order!), we begin by developing a relationship with the artists / art centres we’re seeking to work with – this is hugely important as artists have seen their fair share of people wanting to use their designs, with varying ethical intent, so it’s vital the community is confident we not only have good intentions but the expertise to back that up and bring a great product to market.
We then curate a selection of artworks we’d like to work with and begin experimenting with them to see how they’ll adapt for use on textiles. Printing and selling continuous yardage present their own set of challenges – there’s been many a beautiful painting we have been dying to build into a collection, but it just doesn’t work as a repeating textile!
Jess: Once designs have been selected and repeating patterns developed, we work on colour way development, sample those colours across our different printers and when all is looking gorgeous – print our first batch for a photo shoot and for showroom lengths / swatches for us and our trade agents (Cloth and Paper Studio in Canberra, Style Revolutionary in Brisbane, Supply Showroom in Texas USA and WallTawk in Colorado USA).
What have been some of the challenges in running your business so far?
As anyone who runs a small business would attest – being small means you do EVERYTHING!
Laetitia: With limited resources we have had to learn both the mundane little jobs and the bigger ones – strategic development, financial management, digital marketing, supplier management etc. etc., as well as the fun parts of designing and working with artists. With only two of us this is a challenge time-wise, but it does mean we know our business inside out, which is a great asset.
Jess: The other thing about running this particular small business is that we’ve not only had to develop our product and build a brand…
We’ve also had to build a category – before Willie Weston there really weren’t any Indigenous-designed textiles that could be applied across both residential and commercial settings.
As a result, we’ve had to bring the interior design community along with us in building the market for these sorts of products. There’s now a groundswell around Indigenous design, both across the fashion and interiors sectors, which is really exciting.
And what about some of the highlights?
Laetitia: Being in a position to present beautiful, contemporary artworks to new audiences, while potentially changing how they see Indigenous art, design or people. That’s a real privilege.
Jess: And… working with your bestie!
What is in store for Willie Weston – anything you can share with us?
Laetitia: Well where to start! We have so many plans and continually remind ourselves to relax and stay focused – one step at a time! We will be continuing to create gorgeous textile collections showcasing the breadth and diversity of Indigenous design across Australia. We have a few more in the works from other parts of Australia – our aim is to be able to offer our clients a variety of regionally-specific designs, with a fresh contemporary aesthetic.
We’re also working towards some new product lines…things our clients have been asking for, for a long time! Watch this space.
And what is your big hope and dream for Willie Weston?
Jess: Our core aim with the business is to help create a context where Indigenous art and design is commonplace in the public sphere – that there are many places where people can engage with and enjoy Indigenous design in their daily lives. This means forging more partnerships with like-minded interior designers and architects who share this vision. We’re on the way – there’s some real support in the industry for what we’re trying to achieve – which is really very exciting.
A big thank you to Jess and Laetitia for sharing their journey of Willie Weston – now take a look at their gorgeous work below.