RENEGADE | Stephanie Ibbitson of Sonya Lee

Jan
17th

Every so often you meet a creative who is unlike their counterparts – bold, confident, outspoken and sharply business savvy. They understand creativity as a business, are steadfast in their vision and don’t let the haters get them down. They’re hard to come by, but as soon as I sat down with Stephanie Ibbitson, I could tell she was one of those badass creative renegades (disclaimer: I was right).

The designer of Toronto-based handbag brand Sonya Lee, Stephanie has a no-bullshit attitude that I was immediately drawn to, fully engaged as she told me how she got started in the fashion industry with no formal training (‘a lot of sewing experience and a shitload of determination’) and how most of her creations come from a background in industrial design.

You would never guess it though. Her collection of high-quality leather bags are beautiful and incredibly well-made, handcrafted by Stephanie herself in Sonya Lee’s Toronto studio. The bags and backpacks (named after strong females in her life) are durable and actually designed to get better with age, something that’s rare in this world of fast fashion. She describes her bags as “clean, industrial and a bit androgynous”, made for a woman who loves style just as much as functionality (and prefers to buy for quality rather than an over-priced luxury label).

Keep reading find out how Stephanie took the risk of quitting her advertising job to launch Sonya Lee, why her bags differ from other designer goods on the market, and what smart business advice she has for aspiring renegades like herself.

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Although you work in the fashion industry, you studied industrial design in college – how did you get started designing bags?

Well once I graduated from OCAD, I actually went to work at an advertising agency. They had an opening for the Unilever team and I got hooked up through one of my professors who put me in touch with the VP there. So I’d been working there for about a year and a half, having moved from a project co-ordinator to an account executive, when my roommate was like, “I can’t stand to look at you being so miserable all the time, I think you should rethink what you’re doing with your life.” At the time, I was already filling that creative void by doing a bunch of side projects sewing for friends, so I gave the agency my two weeks’ notice and they were like, “What other agencies are eyeing you up?” – haha! When I told them I was starting my own handbag business, they were just like, “Um, yeah, good luck with that” – they thought I was completely insane.

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Haha – so did you consider changing your mind at that point?

It’s funny because they actually approached me 6-8 months later and offered me my job back with a significant salary increase. I considered it, but thought, “If I go back, I’m killing this brand I’ve started.” I mean, the people were great and they treated staff really well, but it’s agency life and it just wasn’t for me. I figured that if I was putting in that amount of hours, I wanted it to be something creative – something for me.

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You launched a handbag brand even though you weren’t formally trained in fashion design – how did you even know where to start?

I had actually started sewing when I was young (my mum taught me), but I’ve also always had a very determined state of being – I declare things and then set out to make it happen.

So, I would come up with a drawing but have no clue how I was gonna make it happen. I would often go into stores and look at bags and think, “I wonder how they put that together?” then analyze the stitching and hardware and figure it out for myself. And that’s the thing – I’ve realized that it’s not just about being talented in something. At the end of the day, there are loads of talented people out there, but it’s the combination of talent and steadfast determination that make you successful.

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There are loads of talented people out there, but it’s the combination of talent and steadfast determination that make you successful.

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That’s really interesting, because I feel like that lack of immediate knowledge is what stops a lot of people from starting in the first place.

Totally. But this curiosity and determination, that’s an industrial design thing – you’re constantly designing new products that have nothing to do with each other. One’s a candle holder and the other’s a children’s car seat. It’s so vast, but the expectation has always been to do your research, make your prototypes and figure it out. And that has totally helped me run this brand from a non-fashion background.

I’ve also just researched the shit out of it – I’ve watched a million YouTube videos on leather-working and also helped out friends so I can see how they would work with different pieces of leather.

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When you first launched the brand, you originally named it St. Lawrence Luggage – why did you rebrand to Sonya Lee?

I initially set out to make bags for commuting – to suit an urban dweller who was grocery shopping or running errands, but could do it all whilst being stylish. No one wants to carry their grandma’s grocery cart. The brand started with that and I actually named it after St. Lawrence Market here in Toronto – it was a port where everything came to Toronto and was being sold to the public. As I progressed in my designs and skill, I honed in on my aesthetic and quality of work, and that’s when I decided to do the rebrand to Sonya Lee. St. Lawrence was very crafty Canadian and focused on functionality – a simple product that was well-made and purposeful. So we did Sonya Lee and since then we’ve gone to Capsule trade show in New York and have done a whole new look-book with a more industrial vibe and feel.

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One of the things I love about your bags is the leather – the quality is amazing, super strong but surprisingly soft too.

Yeah, I use high-quality bison leather on the majority of my bags. And I choose leathers that look even better over time – they age really well and get a really nice patina over time. My bags have character to them. And look… it depends on the woman. Some women want that pristine Celine bag that looks like it has never graced the floor EVER, or shit, somebody’s gonna pay… but others want a gorgeous bag that they can still wear on their bike, in the rain, wherever, and that’s what Sonya Lee is all about. Your life shouldn’t be worrying about a fucking leather bag. It should be about enjoying your life.

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Your life shouldn’t be worrying about a f*cking leather bag. It should be about enjoying your life.

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Girl, yes – 100% agree! So where do you source the material from?

A couple of places – it depends on what the hide is. The bison hide comes from across North America, particularly Minnesota and Alberta. Since it’s such a high-end hide, they’ll give me the exact name of the place and tannery where it’s from, which is important because I need to know they’re ethically sourced.

I mean, you’re talking about an animal here – it has worth on another level than something that’s plastic. So you want to ensure that with the hides they’re using, that they’re actually using the whole animal – are they using the meat of the bison? Are they paying their workers well? Are they treating them ethically? That’s something that generally gets upheld in Canada and the US rather than more non-regulated countries like India and Indonesia.

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Besides the quality of the product, what do you think sets Sonya Lee apart from other handbag brands?

The brand identity of Sonya Lee is basically a handbag company that’s designed by an industrial designer. I approach things differently than a fashion designer or accessories designer would. I think, “How many years is this going to last? How does it fit on your body? How much can fit inside of it?” Things like that are really important to me – I’m never going to make a purse that can’t fit your wallet because I think that’s stupid. The clutch I designed can fit your wallet, cash, phone and make-up. There’s a minimum requirement of what many women need to fit inside their bag, and those are the things I take into consideration just as much as aesthetic.

I also make the bags by hand, so I know every detail of every bag I make. They’re built to last.

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Well the brand’s been around for 3 years now, a product of quitting your job and taking the risk – looking back, has it been worth it?

I would like to think so. It’s been three years, and over those three years I’ve had to work a lot of odd jobs on the side to make this a reality. And even though I can’t afford to do a lot of the things I did before, I have never been this happy in my life. A lot of my friends who knew me when I was working that nine-to-five are like “It’s night and day, who you were then and who you are now.”

And it’s about being patient. Ira Glass has a really great piece on what it’s like to do something creative and often we know we have something good and it’s close but it’s not making us any money yet, so then we get into year one or two and are like, “Screw this, I’m not doing this anymore.” We need that reassurance financially or need to be seen in the public eye, and that’s why many of us don’t end up doing creative things… because it’s fucking hard. And some days I sit at home and think “What am I doing? I have some friends who are making over $100k a year. I could be in that spot right now,” but I like to think I’m really close and if I’m patient it could be something great.

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Good point. So WHAT’S BEEN THE MOST REWARDING PART OF IT ALL SO FAR?

When I’m on the street and I see someone wearing my bag – and then I’m like, “Holy shit!” It’s the best feeling. The other day, I saw a woman on a motorcycle with the Basen backpack and it made me feel soooo good. Or when people I respect tell me they love what I’m doing – knowing that someone out there appreciates what I’m doing whether they’re buying it or not, feels awesome.

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DO YOU HAVE PLANS TO EXPAND SONYA LEE GOING FORWARD? OR ARE YOU TRYING TO KEEP IT LOCAL?

In terms of the studio and production, I’d love to keep it here. I think one of the issues Canada has is that we have a major brain drain situation – it’s not just doctors and lawyers that are getting pulled to the States for more lucrative jobs, but designers as well. I think there’s a lot of talented people here who want to stay here, but can’t because there’s not a job for it.

A city lacks culture because there’s no investment in it – I’d like to invest in Toronto. I would never have my products made in China or anything like that. I like working in the studio – I like the production and to see what I’m doing, to see the product that’s being put out there. I hate the idea of something being made elsewhere and shipped to my client without having my eyes on it.

Plus, I love Canada. My family is here and friends are here. This is home.

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A city lacks culture because there’s no investment in it – I’d like to invest in Toronto.

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Well, you are just as authentic and original as your bags are. Final question – what advice would you give to aspiring creatives looking to launch their own brand?

1) If someone is starting their own business, I would say: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” Reach out to other brands that are doing the same thing – you’d be surprised how nice people are. But don’t just listen to one person – reach out to a few for advice and then determine what makes sense for you and your brand.

2) Make a lot of mistakes, and don’t beat yourself up about it.

3) Don’t let the negative thoughts keep you down. Get outside of your head and look at the bigger picture. Don’t think about the future too much or the past too much. Be present, deal with what’s going on today. You’re doing this for a reason and you just need to be patient.

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To see the full Sonya Lee collection and to purchase,
head to the Sonya Lee website and follow on Instagram.

 


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  • Dominique says:

    What a great read! Stephanie seems so cool, on top of being a driven hardworker. Super inspiring…maybe this is the kick in the ass I need to quit my own boring-as-hell office job. ?

    • Lauren | This Renegade Love says:

      Haha we allllll need that original kick-in-the-ass, Dominique. It’s one of the biggest leaps you’ll take in your life, but there are very few people I know that regret it!

  • Love this! I’d already been adoring Stephanie’s bags on IG (after first hearing of them here, I believe). But her story and the process behind their making is incredibly inspiring and magnifies their appeal. A Sonya Lee backpack is on my wish list!

    • Lauren | This Renegade Love says:

      Hi Dana – awesome! I honestly cannot praise these bags enough – they’re so well-made and beautiful too.

  • Anna Oates says:

    Her bags are beautiful and her story is super inspiring! Thank you for sharing this. I love how honest this is and the advice at the end is great!