After a decade in banking Leia Williams went on maternity leave with her first child and never looked back. Instead, she found her true calling—designing kids’ clothes and running mum and baby boutique, Elle J.
Although she grew up in a craft-loving family, it wasn’t until Leia Williams had her first child that she discovered her love of creating and started to sew baby clothes from her spare room. What began as maternity leave from her job with a Big Four bank quickly progressed into running a baby and kids market in her hometown of Townsville, Queensland, where her handmade baby shirts were in demand.
Next came a three month lease in a shopping centre, which became 10 months, and eventually Williams’ Elle J store outgrew the space, moving to larger premises in 2014. Her store remained there until July 2017, when Elle J relocated to an even bigger space in Domain Central, the fourth largest homemaker centre in Australia.
“I found my inner designer/creator with baby and children’s fashion and started sewing baby clothing from my spare bedroom at home,” Williams says. “This was the starting point of the journey to where I am today.”
Nine years on and Williams continues to design two kids’ labels—Little Elle and Flynny + Mitch—which are stocked in her store along with around 100 other maternity and children’s brands. This includes everything from baby, kids, maternity and breastfeeding clothing to children’s gifts, toys, linen and décor.
“Our philosophy is to support women through their journey of motherhood and the milestones they encounter along the way,” says Williams. “From not being able to fit into their clothes during pregnancy to celebrating the birth of their baby, christenings, first birthdays, special events, and attending day care and school. We have a handpicked collection of products that will help them celebrate these milestones.”
Williams’ focus on supporting mums goes beyond simply selling them beautiful products. She has a dedicated ‘mums’ hub’ in-store where mums (and dads) can learn about ways to overcome some of the challenges parents face. Topics range from packing healthy lunchboxes to an infant sleep workshop (which Williams says is by far the most popular) but the aim of all the talks is to bring women together and help them connect with others going through the same stage of life. There are also partnerships with other local businesses to give Elle J customers access to exclusive offers, like discounts on a newborn photography package.
Talking to Williams it’s clear that Elle J is more than just a job. She certainly has her hands full with two boys aged four and eight and a husband who is a fly in, fly out (FIFO) worker but seems to have endless energy for improving her business.
“There are lots of things I love about having my own business, but the main things would be working with our mums and supporting their journeys and making a difference in their lives. Also watching my own designs come to life and seeing customers’ babies in my outfits and enjoying them so much… I love what I do, so it is very hard to switch off when there is always something to be done.”
Having no retail experience before taking that leap of faith to start her own business in 2009, Williams places a lot of value in finding an industry mentor. She has worked with coaches at different stages of her business who have helped turn William’s dreams for Elle J into a reality, and has also learnt her own lessons along the way.
“It is important to be self-aware and to know your strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “The business owner can make a business successful, but they can also be the bottleneck that inhibits growth and misses opportunities.
“The retail world is moving fast. With new competitors popping up every day and the online landscaping continually evolving, the business owner needs to be agile to adapt to changing conditions and position themselves to be able to take on new opportunities and not get bogged down in operational tasks.”
The next 12 months will be a year of growth and creating opportunities for Elle J, with lots of things planned including expanding the in-house collections. “The ranges are very popular and include beautiful handmade baby clothing, bibs and burp cloths and our very popular bow ties and suspenders for boys,” says Williams. “Due to demand we will be increasing the styles and ranges we carry.”
Mums-to-be will also be spoilt for choice, with an expanded range of maternity fashion and accessories. Then there’s a brand new website in the works, which is geared around providing an enhanced user experience for Elle J’s customers. “We are looking forward to seeing more of those 2am online orders while mums are up feeding their babies,” adds Williams.