If you’ve wandered around bazaars at shopping malls in the city, you might have come across a lovely assortment of kimono fabric handbags. These bags, purses, and clutches are made by Shirley Ong, for a brand named after her daughter, Shirley by Sophia.
Shirley’s handbags caught our eye with all their uniqueness and tiny details. The designer behind them so elegantly weaves tradition and culture into wearable art, and we love how each bag is custom made.
Then we met Shirley, the founder, designer, and creator herself — a humble entrepreneur with passion for handcrafting handbags and overall, adding joy to her customers’ lives.
Shirley reveals that she had graduated in Scotland as a Hospitality Management personnel with a deep passion for crafting. “So here I am, took a leap of faith at 40 and started my bag business in 2016,” she tells us.
Her inspiration, is her daughter, Sophia. “As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a mother. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen for many years. But unexpectedly after 10 years, Gold blessed us with a healthy and happy baby girl, Sophia,” she opens up.
“It was an easy decision to make her my priority. So it’s perfect that I am able to make my bags and be able to care for her as well.”
Creating a bag takes about three hours to complete and is handmade from start to finish, Shirley shares. The process begins with the cutting of fabrics, followed by ironing, sewing, and stitching.
Sophia by Shirley uses Japanese kimono fabric, Obi silk, and designer cotton — all imported from Japan — to create one-of-a-kind designs she says are for those who love bags and want a kinder option for the benefit of the environment, stepping away from the conventional leather industry.
Shirley celebrates her business milestones, which she’s proud to share includes showing her designs at KL Fashion Week in 2021, and to Tun Siti Hasmah in a private hi-tea function in 2019. In this instalment of Made in Malaysia, the founder of Sophia by Shirley speaks to us about life as a mother and small business owner.
Thank you for the compliment. I have an eye for fashion and can spot pretty things easily. Each bag I make is different and unique. I’m constantly coming up with new styles so customers don’t get bored. Many customers own more than 10 of my bags, in various styles and colours.
My favourite so far is my Qing Collection. I’m pairing the bags with a piece of unique and customised jadeite — either as a tassel, to dangle or as a handle. I was very inspired after watching a drama series based on the Qing Dynasty. Turns out to be a hit and many customers are buying pieces from Qing Collection.
Short of time is always a huge challenge for me. I am a mother, wife, daughter, business owner and bag-maker. Some of the days it can be extremely overwhelming but I always try my best to keep moving forward and do my best daily.
I sell my items at bazaars in shopping malls. When I’m not working at a booth, my day in a pre-lockdown world consists of getting my daughter to and from school, housework like laundry and cooking, and helping her with her school work. I find time to make bags at the studio while she’s at school and again at night. By midnight, I call it a night.
When I am working at a bazaar, I’m away most of my whole day to mend the booth. During these days I only get to make bags in the morning before heading to the bazaar, so my husband takes over the cooking and washing at home.
Yes it has, but I’m very very thankful that I have kind and supportive customers. They are still buying my designs during the pandemic — if not for themselves, as gifts. I am still able to stay afloat and still create new designs.
As I’m running a small business, I constantly look out ways and platforms to promote my products. I was thankful to know The Artisans Haven by chance from a bazaar, where I met Rosalie, the Co-Founder of TAH. She explained how the digital mall was launched mid-last year. I’m glad that they provide a digital platform for small businesses and local artisans like me to get my brand and products visibility online, because we can’t have any on-ground bazaars as frequently as we could before.
It’s never too late to start. Be true to yourself and have integrity when running your own business.
Made in Malaysia is a series by Prestige Malaysia that showcases homegrown talents across various sectors. Through interviews, we strive to highlight the work put in by these individuals while supporting their craft.
(All images: Sophia by Shirley)