By Aisha Hassan on February 4th, 2021
A mother's love
Shirley Ong’s brand is named after her daughter, Sophia, because motherhood is intrinsic to her work. “After trying to have a child for 10 years it finally happened, so I decided to stay at home so I could focus on that,” Shirley says. She started making one of a kind bags to help earn an income whilst doing the two things — crafting and being a parent — that she loves. “Sophia knows the bags support our livelihood,” Shirley says.
SOPHIA by Shirley was born in 2016 when Shirley began selling her exquisite creations to other Malaysian mothers on Facebook support groups. Today, she receives custom orders from around the world and was even invited to present her bags to Tun Siti Hasmah.
“I started this business when I was 40,” Shirley says. “It’s never too late to decide to launch a business or do something entirely new!”
Together we can
Like many small businesses, Shirley relied on her community at each stage of the brand’s journey. For instance, she found a trusted Japanese supplier of authentic vintage fabrics through a family friend who studied in Japan. Today, they work together closely to ensure that only the most lovely silks, genuinely woven with Japanese craftsmanship, make their way into a SOPHIA by Shirley bag. And of course, the brand first gained momentum thanks to enthusiastic word of mouth and referrals from Shirley’s Facebook network of mothers.
Importantly, Shirley pays this forward too. The accessories on Shirley’s bags, such as genuine jadeite dangles that can be removed and repurposed as pendants, or customized silk tassels that make the bags even more luxurious, are sourced from other working mothers in Malaysia. “We support each other,” Shirley says.
Symbols of joy
In addition to the fact that each bag is the result of many mothers’ efforts, Shirley pays extra attention to the pattern of each bag.
“For me the priority is to get a nice piece of fabric motif...it has to be something that stands out,” Shirley says. Whether it’s the image of a peony (symbolizing good fortune) or of a chrysanthemum (symbolizing rejuvenation), Shirley is thoughtful about the meaning woven into her craft. “I want my bag to bring beauty and good energy,” she says.
Especially during the pandemic year, when there are less causes for celebration or occasionwear, Shirley notes that people still look for her bags because such an investment signals hope for happier times. “If you like it, you’ll buy it and keep it for the future,” Shirley says. “There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aisha Hassan is a writer, journalist, and co-founder of Dia. Previously, Aisha worked for Quartz in New York and Harper’s Bazaar in Malaysia. Her fiction has been published in international literary magazines. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Language & Literature from the University of Oxford, and a master’s degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.