After graduating in hospitality management, Shirley Ong worked in a hotel, taking on jobs that ranged from administrative assistant to personal assistant. After the birth of her daughter, she decided to quit and become a full-time mum. It was at this point that Ong began cultivating a new skill that would eventually set her on the exhilarating path of becoming a business owner.
“When you’re home all the time, there’s nothing much going on. So my mother-in-law, who had a sewing machine, taught me very basic stuff like how to move [the fabric] forward and backward. That’s really all I needed to learn to begin with,” says Ong. But things quickly developed from there.
Ong clearly had a natural talent for creating purses. Taking advantage of mummy Facebook groups, she harnessed the power of social media as a platform to sell her bags since 2016. “I don’t know why but at that time, I was so brave and confident that I felt, yeah, my purses are fantastic. The moment I made them, I sold them. I didn’t wait or go through trial and error,” she says.
While she was experimenting with the different fabrics she felt drawn to, one particular weave caught her attention and became the identity for her brand.
“When I found kimono fabric, I was like, this is it. I love it so much. The quality is really fantastic. It’s not easy to work with because the silk is quite thick and my machine wasn’t too keen on the thickness. So, very quickly, I had to buy a different machine so I could handle the quality of the fabric. Even though it’s silk, it is really strong and sturdy. I have stuck to it ever since.”
You would think that all of this would take some time to build up, but Ong reminds says her business took off almost instantly. It was perhaps a week into selling her bags that she found the kimono fabrics, and a mere month before she launched her business, Sophia by Shirley, named after her daughter.
“I was a one-man show. I had to be mum, wife and crafter all at the same time, so it was really overwhelming time-wise. I had to juggle and manage everything because at the time, Sophia was only four,” Ong explains. Managing her time well and keeping up with the tremendous amount of orders was a little bit of an uphill battle.
In terms of sourcing the beautiful kimono fabrics, Ong was lucky as her relatives have friends who live in Japan and were able to put her in touch with the right people. The same woman in Japan who helped her to source fabrics is still helping her today. Through her, Ong has been able to learn more about the significance of kimono fabrics. “Every flower has a different meaning. Every bird has a different meaning. So, whatever design you see on the kimono, it conveys meaning,” she adds.
It is perhaps this symbolism, combined with vibrant fabrics of high quality, that has made Sophia by Shirley’s bags so highly sought after. “A lot of people buy my bags as gifts. So, depending on the occasion, I would recommend a suitable print. Cranes are really popular because they represent prosperity and longevity, and especially for weddings, they represent a long-lasting marriage. Everything has a significant meaning. For instance, butterflies are for finding a partner or soulmate, for love. A cherry blossom signifies a new beginning... spring is coming. For retiring colleagues or someone starting a new venture, I would recommend cherry blossoms, for instance,” Ong explains.
Over the last five years, Sophia by Shirley has featured different styles of bags, from clutches to larger handbags and totes, using one-off kimono fabrics and obi silks, so each piece is unique. As these fabrics are all hand-woven, each bag by Ong is exclusive. She can make four to five bags in different sizes from one piece of kimono or obi silk fabric, ensuring that no two customers have the same bag.
“I would say I’m a practical person, so the bags I make have to be functional. Looking pretty is one thing, but a bag has to fit your essential items.” The inside of the bags are lined with silk and include a handy pocket to organise smaller items. Sophia by Shirley also accepts
Although Ong amassed an impressive following for her exclusive bags from the start, she decided to begin selling them at bazaars in 2018 to introduce her products to more customers. While she already had a website, being in a pop-up space allowed potential customers to feel her bags and see the beauty of the silks. Selling online meant that she needed to update her stock regularly, especially as each design only has one piece.
The start of the pandemic, while difficult for sales, saw an increase in popularity for her larger tote bags. Ong managed to pivot her plans and meet this demand.
One of her key struggles has been time. “I have a lot of ideas in my mind, like, I want to try this and that, different style. But it’s very hard to realise my ideas when I have so much going on daily,” she says.
Ong wants to hire people to help her but, first, she has to ensure their commitment to the brand and quality matches her own. While she wants to expand her business, she is mindful of keeping the handmade feel and personal touch Sophia by Shirley is known for. Her dream for the future is to have her own studio so customers can visit, and to work on more custom orders.
This article first appeared on May 10, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.