Building a handbag brand from the farm
Patchwork of the past
Influenced by her childhood on a farm near the NSW gold town of Sofala, Nikki Williams has developed a handbag range that has travelled around the world and is equally at home in the city and the bush.
By Kirsty McKenzie, photography Ken Brass
Nikki Williams has several outstanding memories of growing up on a farm at Upper Turon near the historic NSW gold-mining village of Sofala. One is of being obsessed with fashion. Another is a fascination for leatherwork and being “pony-mad”. In many ways, little has changed as Nikki is now the principal of her eponymous luxe handbag collection, which reflects the quality and respect for craftsmanship that leatherworkers always put into making horse saddles and bridles.
“Some of my earliest memories are of making rugs and clothes from rabbit skins for my Barbie dolls,” Nikki recalls. “Growing up on the farm gave me freedom to ride horses in my spare time and I was always intrigued by the leather plaiting and detailing on saddlery.”
Nikki’s father, Harvey Parsonage’s family had long had farms in the area and her mother, Di (aka Annie, as in Get Your Gun), grew up at Mudgee, so the family had strong ties to the region when they went looking for land in the 1970s. Although Harvey grew up in Sydney, he studied at Hawkesbury Agricultural College after school and then “went bush” working on stations where he learned “a little bit of everything” and a lot about building. He met Di at the Mudgee Show and they both travelled and worked in Europe independently before they reunited and and married.
“We went looking for 300 acres [121 hectares] to run sheep and cattle,” Harvey recalls. “We ended up buying 3000ac [1214ha] but now we’ve whittled it down to 650ac [263ha]. We named the property Roxburgh, for the county it’s located in on the old maps of the area. In recent times we’ve mainly used the land for agistment.”
To supplement his income, Harvey ran an earthmoving business and helped a few friends build and restore houses. Meanwhile Nikki and her sister, Karla, attended the tiny Sofala primary school and then went to high school in Bathurst, as day students except when the Turon River, renowned for its ferocious flow in wet weather, was in flood and forced the girls to stay in town.
“I studied economics at Sydney University, then went to Darwin where I worked for a fashion magazine and my boyfriend, now my husband, Paul Williams, was working as a medical intern. I’ve always been pretty fearless, so in 2003 we went to London, where Paul furthered his studies and I went to the London College of Fashion. Somehow or another I managed to talk my way into a marketing job at Selfridges and suddenly the farmer’s daughter from NSW found herself working alongside designers and brands including Dior, Tom Ford, Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham.”
As it turned out, Nikki’s can-do attitude was a good fit for Selfridges, which broke the department store mould in the early 20th century by introducing toilets to encourage shoppers to linger and perfume counters on the ground floor to mask the odour of horse manure from the drawn-carriage traffic outside.
As it turns out, Harvey and Di had schooled their children well in giving opportunities a red-hot go. As Harvey tells the story, the family was on a trip to Sydney when he stumbled across the source of much of the building materials for the new house he was planning to build on Roxburgh. While Di took the girls shopping, he went wandering around Circular Quay. Purely by chance, he ran into an acquaintance who was working for the crane company, Men from Marrs, on the demolition of the landmark First and Last Hotel, which had been built in the 1940s from convict-hewn stone remnants of an 1860s pub. After driving 30 truckloads of the sandstone blocks from Sydney to Sofala, the Parsonages had the base building materials for their colonial-inspired homestead with its corrugated iron roof and wide encircling verandahs.
With the help of local friends Joseph Kovac, Graham Austin and Peter Stark, Harvey first levelled the hilltop site with his dozer, then dug foundation trenches and laid footings and the slab using river gravel and cement mixed on site. They hired a saw miller to cut up Oregon beams from a building in Sydney’s George Street for the verandah posts, while the window lintels came from another demolition site in York Street. Timber for the internal walls came from two homes being pulled down in Mosman and also from the Great Synagogue in Elizabeth Street, which was being renovated. Harvey and Di were again in the right place at the right time, when they acquired the stone for a huge fireplace that now forms the centrepiece of the living room and a massive Oregon beam from an old railway workshop in Bathurst was born again as the two main supports for the family room. Almost-brand-new commercial carpet and French-polished timber came from Lumley’s Insurance building in Pitt Street and custom-made Stegbar windows tied the whole house together and framed views of the surrounding paddocks and hills.
After three years juggling work and building, the Parsonages moved into their resplendently recycled new home just in time for Christmas 1988. In the early ‘90s Harvey and Di also bought Sofala’s historic police station, gaol and residence and turned it into a B&B, cafe and old wares store. For the next decade, Harvey threw himself into restoring the buildings while Di shouldered the responsibilities of chief cook, bed maker and bottle washer at the venture. They’ve since scaled back their involvement with this business and, since the COVID pandemic, run the B&B on reduced days, which frees them up to enjoy the property and the parade of friends and family who visit.