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  • Writer's pictureStacey Chiew

Hospitality Management Graduate Turned Bag Designer

Whether in running a business or as a person in general, we must have integrity. - Shirley Ong Yee Yi
Shirley with Tun Dr Siti Hasmah

If fashion is about making a statement, the eye-catching bags hand-made by Shirley Ong Yee Yi would make the perfect addition to any fashionistas’ wardrobe. Her stunning colourful premium obi silk handbags and clutches scream sophistication, they are sure to make heads turn.


Before Shirley dived into the creative world of bag design, she was actively pursuing a career in hospitality industry. However, her priorities shifted after the birth of her daughter. Climbing the corporate ladder was no longer her ultimate goal.


Being a first-time mom was a life-changing experience. The need to be more present for her family has become her top priority. So she walked away from the high-flying job and chose to be a stay-at-home mom to raise her only daughter. Little did Shirley know that her decision of becoming a full-time mom would prepare her for a home-based business and become a “mumpreneur”.


Shirley fell in love with vintage purses and handbags when she first saw them in her grandmother’s wardrobe. Her grandmother’s bag collection inspired her to start her own handbag line as she felt the need to contribute to her family financially. Juggling between her handbag business and raising her daughter, Shirley believes what she does make her a better role model for her 4-year-old daughter.


"My willingness to learn, explore and create surpasses my fear. Today, I feel strong and more confident as an individual. All of my past challenges have helped me experience greater growth in my business. I am able to think critically and make better decisions these days.” Says Shirley.


On the 6th of November this year, Shirley was invited by the Patron ASEAN Ladies Circle Malaysia, an event hosted by Tun Dr Siti Hasmah to showcase her bags at Istana Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Her bags were well received by the event attendees. Tun Dr Siti Hasmah hopes that Shirley can create more bags that reflects the culture of Malaysia.


1. Please tell me about yourself? What inspired you to create vintage-style purses and bags?


I am a very simple person by nature. To me, happiness is appreciating the simple pleasures in life. One thing I am certain of is I have always wanted a family of my own and be a mother. For some reasons, my husband and I waited for ten years to finally welcome our precious baby girl. I was prepared to give everything and be the best mother for her. Naturally, it was not a difficult decision to quit my corporate job and be a stay-at-home mom for a while.


In reality, to survive on one single income, my family and I had to make some adjustments and adapt to the “new normal”. I wanted to contribute to my family financially. I was attracted to the idea of working from home, as I have always been a crafty person. I especially love vintage purses because they are classy, versatile and timeless. But most of all, they remind me of my late grandmother’s coin purses. My grandmother was a very special person in my life. She was the main reason behind all my creation. So I started making vintage kiss lock purses. I sold them to friends online. One thing led to another, it was a hit. That was the year 2016 and I have not stopped creating bags since then. And of course, my business is named after my daughter, Sophia.


Photo courtesy: Dreamic

2. What did you do to grow your business?


It started with purses that evolved to handbags because my clients wanted me to make them. I do not stop, I believe there is always more to learn and grow. I am blessed that my clients are there to give me constructive feedback, to help me grow and come out with higher quality bags. This is how I establish my brand identity. I don’t compare myself with other famous brands, I stay true to myself and my work. All my bags are hand-sewn in a range of colourful vintage obi silk or Japanese cotton fabric. No two bags are alike.


3. What were your previous occupations before you decided to become a bag designer?


On paper, I am a graduate from Scotland with a degree in hospitality management. However, I was only employed in a hotel for one year. After that, I worked in different fields. All that I have done made me the person I am today. The experience and knowledge gained were priceless.


4. Popular handbag brands flood the retail and resale market in Malaysia, how do you find the niche market to target your bags to the right consumers?


The customers that appreciate locally made high-quality handcrafted bags are my clients. I don’t settle for less. Each of my bags varies in its own unique beauty. I dedicate a good amount of time to making a new handbag. From fabric selection to the finishing process, two things have to be involved: only high-quality fabric is used and precise workmanship.


For the price I charge, it's definitely a keeper. There is a market for ladies who particularly prefer high-end European brands, and that is fine. Fashion industry has something to offer for everyone. I focus on what I am good at and I am pleased with each piece made. When I see beautiful ladies carrying my bags, it warms my heart!


A bag fits for red carpet events.

5. Why vintage oriental style bags? Where do you sell your handbags?


I am drawn to vintage style because it's always in style. If made beautifully, it's easy to pair it with any modern-day outfit, even with jeans! My bags will take you from day to night. Currently, I sell my bags at local bazaars in shopping malls, hotel gift stores and boutiques in popular malls. I am still handling everything on my own, there is a limit to the number of bags I can produce. I sell online too. You can view my bags on my Facebook, Sophia by Shirley and sophiabyshirley.com.


6. Of all your bags, what are your best selling items? What are your future goals?

I have two best seller styles. One is my vintage obi silk handbags that brings out the oriental look for modern-day ladies. Second is my envelope clutches. The Japanese obi fabric is decorated with symbols. Each has its own origins and reflects a blend of Japanese traditional and modern culture.


I hope in the near future, I am able to showcase my collection at more retail stores in Malaysia and perhaps getting some help for my humble business as I am currently doing everything on my own.


7. If you could share one piece of advice, what would it be?


Integrity. Whether in running a business or as a person in general, we must have integrity. I believe in being honest and being kind. That's how I am as a person and that's how I run my business. Clients that come to know me have turned into friends. My bag business has brought me many new amazing friendships, I am grateful for my clients. Their feedback and support have helped me lead to better sales.


Published in Dreamic educational magazine 2019.


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