Nikki WilliamsB. That’s what Nikki Williams ’09 inadvertently typed into her search engine one evening last year as she sat at home. The words bow tie immediately popped up in the search bar, almost as if the phrase were beckoning – begging, practically – for her to click on it. An aspiring fashion stylist, Williams enjoyed seeing other people in bow ties. But not once had she searched for bow ties on her own computer.

Before she knew it, Williams was hunched over her sewing machine – a recently purchased birthday gift to herself – her eyes furiously shifting between YouTube tutorial videos and the thrifted fabric moving in and out of the machine. She hadn’t the faintest idea what she was doing. But whatever it was, she was determined to make it work.

If it looks crazy, then it just looks crazy, she thought. But I’m going to try it out.

Her heart nervously skipped a beat as she posted her finished product on Instagram: a leather bow tie with gold zippers designed for a friend. The response on social media was nearly instantaneous. Everyone loved it.

Barely a year later, Williams has designed dozens of items for Foreign Öbject, her rapidly growing fashion line, now complete with T-shirts, hats, jackets, jerseys and leggings.

“It all happened really fast,” she says, her voice betraying a sense of disbelief. “This wasn’t something that I planned.”

Her designs, which have been solely promoted on social media, have been worn by rappers Bow Wow, B.O.B. and ASAP Ferg as well as singer/actress Teyana Taylor. Stephen Hill, president of music programming and specials for BET Network, requested pieces from her fall/winter 2013 line, and fashion designer Angela Simmons, daughter of Run DMC’s Rev. Run, has included Williams’ creations for sale on her website.

Her clothes have gone a long way in a short amount of time – and they’ve taken her far from her tiny hometown of North, S.C. (with one stoplight and a little more than 700 residents). North’s main claim to fame is a comedic exchange between Bill Cosby and a contestant on the early ’90s game show, You Bet Your Life, that caused Cosby utter, ongoing confusion. (“You have me someplace I have no idea where I am. I’m in the town of North, south of Due West,” stammered Cosby. “I’m in the state of South Carolina … but I’m in a city called North? …”) It’s a town that Williams will always love, but that has felt foreign to her since she left for college.

At the College of Charleston, Williams majored in business administration, proved herself a star on the basketball court and developed an eye for fashion. She was known to stop people in the street to ask them what they were wearing: “Is that Gucci and Urban Outfitters?” she’d ask.

Fashion, like sports, was a thread that kept pulling her along, even after she graduated and moved to Charlotte, where she works in the client accounts department for Vanguard, a mutual fund investment company. Encouraged by the reception of her bow ties last year, she first emulated clothes that she enjoyed seeing on others. Soon, she was challenging herself to design clothing that she loved, that she wanted to see.

What has resulted is a hip-hop–inspired, edgy, thought-provoking and sometimes controversial fashion line: a breath of fresh air to those who’ve grown tired of the preppy, almost dainty fashions often worn by Southerners.

“People kind of overkill trying to be different,” she observes. “So what I design is what I feel like creating that day. It’s just me. It’s Nikki.”

And her spring/summer 2014 line is undeniably Nikki – vibrant and bright, mixing bold patterns, foreign flags and vivid colors that practically dance off the fabric. Her favorite items from her fashion line thus far are plain shirts with very telling, yet simple messages: “Menace II Mediocrity” and “The Proof.” In those phrases, Williams is pushing herself and her brand away from the expected. Her goal, like her messaging, is direct and unequivocal: “I’m going to new heights, and that means being a household name in fashion.”

And with her drive and talent, that goal doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

“Sure, the odds are against me,” Williams says. “But they were stacked against me before, being from a single-parent home, from a very small town. But I make the most of my opportunities. And now, I have an opportunity to do something that I’m really passionate about. So, yes, I am ‘The Proof.’”

Indeed, Williams is proof that success can be found wherever you are, wherever you’re from, whoever you are – and, in fact, whatever it is you’re searching for.

– Ashley Lewis Ford ’07