Seven years ago, when Zylstra’s two daughters were becoming more self-sufficient, she knew she wanted to give her life a jump-start, so she returned to the field she had worked in: fashion. Zylstra started her business as Swanky Belts from the loft space above the garage at her Fairfield home.
Now her business goes by the name Nancy Zylstra with Swanky Belts as just one line; she is branching out to jewelry, purses and sandals.
With the support and encouragement Zylstra received from her husband and daughters, she slowly expanded her undertaking, born from her own desire to find a really nice belt and buckle to tie her wardrobe pieces together.
“Raising a family, moms are often in jeans or cords, but still want to look nice, but it can be tough to find nice and interesting belts,” Zylstra said.
She began with an old brooch she had, got creative tinkering with it and soon was designing more belt buckles to complement her varied style.
Buoyed by her friends’ and family’s admiration of her designs, Zylstra recognized the need for beautiful accessories in the women’s market and decided to start her first line.
“A woman can have some fabulous basics in her wardrobe and integrate cool accessories to mix it up and complete a look,” Zylstra said.
After months of research online to find the right leather supplier and to perfect how she was going to produce her products, she got down to handcrafting every belt herself.
Thanks to a twist of fate when one of her daughter’s teachers opened a fashion boutique, Zylstra got not only the positive objective viewpoint that she needed but also her first order. Empowered by the experience, she stopped at other boutiques on her way home and the orders started rolling in.
Her mainstay belt buckles showcase an ornamental piece such as a cross, fish or horse, which is heavily gold-plated and then set into a background of semiprecious stones. Belt straps are made using imported leathers, and then all her products are made by hand in the United States. The result is a classic but modern and versatile accessory.
“We’ve all gotten more laid back about what we wear. It’s most important to make it simple. A basic belt can pull a look together,” Zylstra said.
Zylstra’s undertaking has grown and she now has her own separate office space where she can focus without household distractions: “It’s time for me to focus on my business and really propel it forward.”
She has cyclical workers to help her fulfill orders during busy times; otherwise it’s a one-woman operation. Her belts may be found throughout Fairfield County boutiques, the Hamptons, New York City, Florida, and the Cape. She also does a lot of business in the Caribbean and with the Ritz Carlton Boutiques.
Her main focus has always been on the buckle, and she began with just basic brown and black leather straps. Today, her office has a rainbow of colors to choose from with all the season’s hottest shade trends, including distressed black and pewter.
A customer shopping on a budget can start with one classic buckle and strap, then purchase extra pieces over time, since all buckles and belts are interchangeable. Some much-loved and collected classics include the cross buckle paired with a basic black strap for a casual look, which can then be interchanged with a brightly hued strap for an entirely different look tied to the season.
Zylstra said she is blessed to be working at something she loves and explained what she learned from starting her business: “You have to feel the need for the product or service yourself.” Her first line consisted of what she felt she needed for her own wardrobe, which gave her the feeling of confidence that what she was doing was marketable.
Zylstra admitted she was very conservative when first starting out; she didn’t stock items, but instead would wait to receive an order and then fulfill it.
“I didn’t believe in myself enough. You really need to believe in yourself. If you love what you’re making and you see great results, then go for it.”
She emphasized, “If you have a business you really love, it’s not work.”
Zylstra embodies this confidence in her own stylish look accessorized by her own designs.
The success of Swanky Belts is spreading. One of her leather strap style bracelets, the Caroline Triple Wrap Bracelet, was featured in Martha Stewart Living’s Christmas gift guide, which has caused a major tick in her online orders.
While Zylstra is open to her business expanding even more, she sees her place in the market as a specialty brand, and has even turned down offers to mass produce her belts for large department stores.
“They’re like a piece of jewelry — jewelry for your waist. They’re not mass-produced. It would take away from the specialty of the item,” Zylstra said. “I want more business, but it has to be a good fit.”
Prices for the bracelets begin at $65, $125 for the skinny belts, $145 for a belt buckle and from $60 to $80 for a leather belt. Zylstra’s one-of-a-kind items may be found in Fairfield at Island Outfitters and in Westport at Soma Boutique.
“We look at each item. If it doesn’t look perfect in our eye, it doesn’t go out,” Zylstra said. “That’s why we like keeping it in smaller boutiques, because it is such a unique, handmade item.”
More information may be found at SwankyBelts.com.