Texas native Billie Hilliard has always been creative. In fact, one might say talent runs in her genes. “I love working with my hands,” she says, “so I got my first sewing machine when I was seven.”
The gift was passed down from her great-grandmother, Roxie, who was the first African American milliner in Houston, who also designed clothes. People would bring copies of Vogue to show her photos of outfits they liked, and she’d then recreate the pieces without so much as a pattern. “I got a lot of my creativity [and learned how] to sew and stuff from her,” Billie explains.
In high school, Billie found herself on the forward-facing side of fashion, modeling for United Colors of Benetton, Neiman Marcus, and international clothing designer Selven O’keef Jarmon. “I did that until I went to college … but I stopped growing, so I wasn’t tall anymore,” she says with a laugh. “But I was always interested in the behind-the-scenes [aspect of modeling], and how they put garments together.”
Billie began an apprenticeship with Selven, gathering hands-on experience with design before obtaining her business degree and moving to Atlanta in 2008. She was focusing on bead and wirework jewelry at the time, and her pieces were in several boutiques throughout Georgia’s capital. Her jewelry was even being sold in a boutique owned by Chloe Dao, who won the first season of Project Runway. “There were [also] quite a few different celebrities — Beyoncé, Robin Givens, and a lot of the Housewives — wearing [my] pieces on their shows,” Billie recalls. “But I wanted to push it to the next level, and I really wanted to do metalwork.”
While scouting various locations for her next photoshoot, she came across a space that would help her do just that. The West Midtown property, dubbed The Goat Farm Arts Center, is a 19th-century complex of industrial buildings. It has been transformed into a visual and performing arts center with studio space for more than 300 artists. “I was being nosy, looking in the buildings, and came across a British blacksmith,” Billie says. “He was actually welding at the time. I’m peeking through the door, and he flips up his little hood, and he’s like, ‘hello!’”
She and the blacksmith engaged in a long conversation. She showed him sketches of all the metalwork jewelry she’d dreamed up, and he told her that she could create those pieces there. “That was on a Friday,” Billie recalls. “My photoshoot happened that weekend, and I returned back on that Monday to learn from him, and I’m still here — it’s been 10 years now.”
Over the last decade, she has learned all the fundamentals of blacksmithing, metalsmithing, casting, and forging. After a three-year apprenticeship, Billie was able to release her first all-metal jewelry line. “It’s been this crazy ride ever since,” she exclaims. “I can glam it up and do the whole styling and all that, but then I put on my steel-toe boots and my overalls and get in there.”
Billie now does trunk shows every season to premiere new pieces. “I do what’s called ‘lifestyle accessories,’” she explains. “I create pieces that do life with you. Your ring, your necklace … the basics that women do wear — but I also make bookmarks, and hair pins, and brooches, and spoons. I love drinking tea, so I always have a spoon in my purse. I hand-forge my own spoons.”
She describes her creations as convenient, practical, and beautiful, with many of the designs inspired by her travels. European architecture has been especially impactful as Billie spent a lot of time in Europe and has some family there. “I love seeing and being inspired by other artists’ work,” she adds. “I work and live in an artist community, so my space is a work/live space, and I feed off other artists’ energy, and traveling, and food, too. Certain foods and textures of foods inspire me.”
Though Billie’s pieces were once available in multiple boutiques throughout the southwest, three years ago, she decided to move everything onto her website, with select items at certain galleries. “I wanted to just kind of make it more exclusive,” she explains. “I have quite a few collectors. I look at the pieces more as works of art — wearable works of art.”
In addition to what’s available online, Billie does custom commissioned pieces. And if that’s not enough to keep her days full, she is also busy running her brand management consultancy business, working toward her master’s degree from Harvard Business School, and creating a new capsule apparel collection with her sister.
“We’ve been talking about it for about a decade,” she says. “We’re basically taking our favorite classic garments that we’ve worn throughout the years — whether they’re pieces that were passed down to us from our grandmother or our mother — and we’re putting our own twist on them, but also adding these elements of alterations inside. Because women, we change; we get bloated at a certain time of the month. And so we’re adding these different little alteration concepts. I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a really cool concept. I’m excited about that.”
Read more interviews with inspirational women from across the South in our archives!