How did you get started working with leather, and developing your brand as a Canadian bag designer?
I have always had an interest in fashion, art, and design since I was a little girl. My mother did a lot of sewing when I was young and taught me how. Growing up as a dyslexic child meant that school was not my strong suit especially anything language based - reading out loud was my absolute worst nightmare. During this time I really explored my world through art, design and mathematics, as they were the only classes I excelled at for the most part.
I ended up studying industrial design at OCAD. After graduating I took a job in advertising for a brief period. My walk home every night from the agency passed by a leather supply store and one day I decided to walk in and buy a hide to make myself a simple tote.
I made handbags on the side for a couple of months for friends and friends of friends. During that time I realized that I wasn't happy in the career I was in and what brought me most joy was working with leather and sewing handbags. So I quit and started St. Lawrence Luggage - now known as Sonya Lee.
Where do you source the beautiful Bison leathers you use?
I found these hides at a Toronto supplier. Everything about this leather I fell in love with. The hides are dyed black through the whole skin (meaning there is no 'blue' showing (a sign of high quality), it is a full grain leather (meaning you are getting the full hide - it is not stripped or treated hurting its durability), it wears in really nicely allowing people to really put their own mark on the handbags, it shows its natural beauty and its made in Canada! what’s not to love? sorry - I just get so so excited about leather.
What inspired the name Sonya Lee?
Sonya is my middle name and Lee is my husband’s name. When we were re-branding the company from St Lawrence Luggage we wanted to change it to something more traditional in the fashion industry but I didn't want to name the company after my first and last name. I always liked the name Sonya more than Stephanie and Lee (short for Leyland) has always been my biggest supporter. When I told friends and family I was going to quit a great job in advertising to start a handbag company he was the only one who said "that’s a great idea! How can we make this happen?" He has stuck by me fully and completely through these last couple of years and has even helped us in the studio after coming home from work.
What leather bag styles are you most excited about releasing this season at ZANE Queen Street?
How have your leather bags been received by other markets outside of Toronto?
Well! We participate in NYC fashion market week every season and it’s so nice to get the opportunity to meet buyers in person and hear their reaction to our latest collection. I think buyers and their clients appreciate our handmade work, North American hides, and the moody industrial aesthetic of the brand. We really try to go above and beyond for our customers as well - making sure you are happy with what you are receiving is top priority for us.
Do you have a favourite piece that you like to work on?
I think the Yuliana series I enjoy making the most.
Are there any works of art or architecture that have influenced your collection?
For artists there is Rachel Whiteread and Katie Pretti. Raymond Loewy as a designer and pretty much any demonstrative piece of architecture.
If you weren’t making leather bags right now, what would you be doing?
A homicide detective.
Why did you feel like ZANE on West Queen West was the right fit for SONYA LEE in Toronto?
Zane has a great aesthetic and is an industry leader when it comes to the accessories game. I feel like the vibe and aesthetic of the store fits well with Sonya Lee and what we are trying to create. Zane picked up our brand in its infancy and we wouldn't be where we are today without him and the store’s support.
What are other like-minded Canadian brands that inspire you?
Beaufile, Oneself clothing, Corey Moranis, Eliza Faulkner, Mary Young, Wolf Circus, Namesake.
There are so many more I’m probably missing here - I think Canada has so much to offer the fashion world.
If you had to collaborate with an artist on a piece, who would it be?
Shoot for the moon right? De Wain Valentine.. holler
How do you use style to express your individuality and self-confidence?
When I put something on in the morning it is a part of me for that day and often it exudes how I'm feeling mentally and creatively at that moment. Over the years I have collected a lot of vintage pieces and I’m really trying to purchase only Canadian/North American made and designed clothing and accessories as much as possible for my closet. When I purchase these items, I select them because I want to feel and look sexy, authoritarian, smart, strong and utilitarian. I’m heavy on black, leather, plaid and silk. No synthetics - ever...