In fashion today, functional carryalls seem to have reign supreme as the dominant accessory. Beyond ferrying the everyday necessity of its carrier, bags are often said to be a manifestation of its wearer’s sense of self too. Whatever that is carried within and whatever aesthetic that lies on its surface all build up to tell the wearer’s personality.
Sometimes a bag is not just a bag, so says literary critic Daphne Merkin in an article of the same title for The New York Times Magazine. “Buying a bag is nothing less than a compulsion, a fixation, a tragicomic spectacle, an indication of status anxiety, a sign of existential hope, a fetish, a clue, a puzzlement, a pity, a pleasure,” she adds.
And she is right. The bags that we choose to possess are intensely personal choices, and women, in particular, carry their lives in it. In a world bridled with creativity, the carryalls of today take on multifaceted faces, and yet minimalist, simplistic design seems to become perennial favourites. In Singapore, one female designer has also taken a leap of faith to create accessible, minimalist, functional carryalls for the working woman.
The Sophia Label
Established in 2015, Sophia Chen launched her eponymous label, The Sophia Label, with a singular vision in mind: to fill a gap in the bag market with accessible, minimalist and functional carryalls. “At that point, I just got out of the financial industry,” she tells me in her home office in the west. “Even before, I was looking for bags that are practical and not so fancy. But they were hard to find, and there were very few minimalist bags that pique my interest.”
For Sophia, her foray into the realm of bag designing goes way back. It was on a trip to Bangkok, Thailand, that Sophia got acquainted with leathercraft and she has since held a long-standing fascination with it. “It was really cool and it planted a seed in my head,” she says, noting the range of customisation services leather craftsmen provide in Thailand. “I started exploring with leather goods, and eventually landed on creating bags.”
The first series of bucket bags that were released by the label instantly caught the eye of the local crowd and in a matter of two days, they were completely wiped off the digital store. It was a surreal moment for the mother of two then, but nonetheless it was all that she needed to continue creating. “The Sophia Label wasn’t a known brand then; I didn’t expect my bags would sell out so quickly. I even asked my husband if I should continue doing this,” Sophia recounts with a laugh. “It wasn’t until when I released the second series, which was sold out in two hours, that I got my answer.”
At present, the homegrown label has already debuted an eclectic assortment of bucket bags. Meant for the corporate ladies who seek a sturdy carryall, Sophia has thoughtfully included several pockets for easy organisation within each bags as well as reinforcing the bags’ straps to support its weight. The Callie, as one of the bucket bags is called, is available in five different colourways — olive, black, latte, burgundy, and nude — and features a drawstring closure along with a boxy and sturdy silhouette.
“Sometimes, the designs of our bags are based on our customers’ feedback. Many have asked me to include a laptop compartment in the bags, which I eventually did,” Sophia shares on the topic of inspiration. But even so, the modern-day female entrepreneur also relishes in people watching at Starbucks for inspiration too. “Some of these designs are beautiful, and I’d make a note or two in my book. Although really, it’s just simple sketches and drawings that I hope to emulate in the future.”
The Sophia Label finds its distinguishing quality residing in the brand’s deep-seated understanding of its demographic. Much of the brand’s handbags were created and crafted for the working women by a working woman. In other words, Sophia has pivoted herself and her label as an invaluable asset who holds influence on the demographic of female hustlers, so much so that the brand has clinched a remarkable collaboration with Japanese company Sanrio in 2019. Then, adorable characters, such as Gudetama, My Melody and Hello Kitty, get reimagined as cutesy crossbody bags, pouches as well as a bucket bag variant. The two is set to collaborate again and release new products from the second half of 2020.
For the most part, handbags from The Sophia Label stay true to the minimalist aesthetic and are devoid of overt illustrations on their surfaces. Sophia prefers it that way but even so, she wants to foster a unique sense of ownership and offers name-embossing services on the bags, which she does so in her small studio of her flat. “The most important thing is that women have to feel good when carrying their bags. Having that sense of ownership allows that. Plus, it can be somewhat eye-catching and empowering too,” she says.
In this regard, Sophia recognises how bags can be sublimely iconographic and telling of one’s personality. Put differently, Sophia hopes to paint the portrait of the ideal woman for The Sophia Label. Behold the woman who carries Sophia’s bags: lithe yet unyielding, reserved yet determined and most importantly, insouciant yet fashionable. Such is the woman Sophia hopes to inspire and aspires to be.
“My mantra is ‘Tough times don’t last, but tough women do’,” she says, on the issue of female empowerment. “For all the ladies out there with dreams, you just have to go out and pursue it. And hopefully, my bags will be there all the way.”
This story is Part Three of three stories on the exceptional female merchants for hoolah. In light of International Women’s Day, we tip hats to the every day women who are narrating their own chapter of female inclusivity and empowerment in their own lives and in the 21st century.
Here’s wishing all ladies a Happy International Women’s Day!