written by Joe S. Louis | photo by Jon Christopher Meyers
Tell us about the founding of WILL Leather Goods.
I went to Hollywood to pursue my dream of becoming an actor with an audition for One Flew Over Cuckoos Nest. That didn’t happen, but I landed several roles, including in cult classics such as Switchblade Sisters and Van Nuyes Blvd—as well as roles in TV shows including CHiPs and Welcome Back Kotter. When the Screen Actors Guild strike in 1981 hit the industry, work was hard to find. To earn a living, I opened up a small belt stand in Venice Beach. The success of the shop kept me intrigued by the business, and I went on to do design work for many other brands and retailers, including Dockers and Levi’s. Eventually, I had my own business, which earned the licensing rights for Nike Golf accessories. I established WILL Leather Goods as my vision of casual leather, and while the brand is best known for bags, it’s actually rooted in the belt business. Our flagship store stands on Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach for this reason.
What is the overlap between your life philosophy and business?
My life philosophy is to engage and inspire people to be creative. It’s the same in business. I’m interested in working with people who have creative objectives in all aspects of their lives.
What are you most proud of at WILL Leather Goods?
I am proud that we are able to offer a product that we can stand behind 100 percent. In order to create our goods, we have to be extremely detail oriented and focused on craft. This goes beyond the product. We work with the highest standards and only in the most compliant facilities.
I’m also quite proud that I have two children working in the company who are running major aspects of the business. They work incredibly hard for this business. My daughter, Shane, leads our retail expansion efforts and is based in New York City. My son, Brent, leads the Nike Golf division. I wouldn’t be able to move the business forward without their commitment.
Tell us about your Give WILL foundation.
The initiative supports low-income communities across America by donating backpacks to elementary school children to use for school. Each backpack has a blank space on the back where you can write your dream, and then be reminded of your dream every day when you carry this bag. We have a goal of donating 500,000 backpacks over the next several years. The backpack is available on our website, and proceeds from these bags go directly back to Give WILL. We’re not a huge organization, but the idea that we’re inspiring others is the single most important aspect of this entire business. I am finally living my own dream, so I want to inspire others to do the same.
Well, we’re planning to open a couple of more stores in America. Within the next three years, I’d like to have another five stores. We’re opening a store in Japan by the holidays this year. Also, we’re going be focused on Give WILL. When I notice that the children realize they can be whatever they want to be, I know it’s all completely worth it.