Sonya Lee: This Canadian Designer on Moisturizing Your Leather Bag

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Photography by Briggs Ogloff

Stephanie Sonya Ibbitson of Sonya Lee shares her go-to tips for preserving leather, the importance of using sustainable materials and finding inspiration from the women around her.

By Annika Lautens

Date March 25, 2022

Without sounding too much like a cliché, Stephanie Sonya Ibbitson’s whole life has been leading to the creation of her accessories brand Sonya Lee. “I’ve been gathering my skill set since childhood, and it’s all culminated into this,” the designer says over video chat. “I was really crafty when I was a kid, and I have Dyslexia, so I struggled in school. I felt like the only way that I could succeed was by creating something with my hands.” Her obsession with her mom’s handbags and clothing encouraged Ibbitson to add sewing to her other creative pursuits. When she decided to pursue industrial design at OCAD in Toronto, the rest was history.

Sonya Lee Photography by Briggs Ogloff

Launched in 2014, Sonya Lee has now come to define modern minimalism. Easy-to-wear styles and contemporary classics with a twist have become pillars of the brand and have led to its steady rise in the Canadian public’s consciousness. And while it obviously looks good, Sonya Lee also does good. Each piece is made in Vancouver and uses leather remnants from the food industry to create less waste. “It’s important that we use everything that we’re consuming because if we’re not using this leather, it’s just gonna go in the garbage,” shares Ibbitson. “That’s why all my bags have a lifetime warranty. I want each one to last forever because that’s the best way to handle consumerism.”

But when it comes to the actual design process, the Toronto-born, now Vancouver-based talent finds inspiration from the women around her. “I don’t design based on their physical form or personal aesthetic. It’s more about what energy they exude and who they are as a woman.” Ibbitson lists one of her new bags, ‘Sujatha,’ as an example. “It’s based on one of my moms. She has such a calm spirit, but she also has incredible depth and intelligence. Keeping that in mind [I created a bag where] the silhouette seems really simple, but it was the most complex pattern I’ve ever made. It took me a long time to figure out how to make all these different pieces come together to look like it’s all one seamless bag.”

Sonya Lee Photography courtesy of Sonya Lee

FASHION spoke with Ibbitson about her most-worn handbag, her tips for taking care of leather and five products bringing her joy right now.

How would you describe the style of your brand in three words?

Elevated, refined and powerful.

What is something about your brand that would surprise people?

I make all the pieces by hand.

What’s your most-worn handbag?

Sonya Lee Photography by Briggs Ogloff

The ‘Half Annie’ [from Sonya Lee]. It’s a small, versatile bag, so I’m inspired to carry less when I go out, which is nice. For an evening look, I wear it as a shoulder bag, and then during the day, I attach the cross-body strap and wear it to do grocery shopping.

What’s one piece from your new collection that is especially meaningful to you?

The ‘Esther’ bag! I designed this piece for myself. Because of the uncertainty that all of us have been through, I think the one lesson that I’ve learned is I want to design like today is my last day on the planet and to just completely go for it and not care what other people might think. And ‘Esther’ really reflects that.

How would you describe Vancouver’s style?

Outdoorsy, relaxed and weather dependent.

What’s your top tip for taking care of leather?

Sonya Lee Photography by Briggs Ogloff

My number one tip for preserving leather is to keep it out of really dry and wet places. And then my other advice is just don’t over-complicate it. You don’t need many products to take care of your leather piece. Think of it like you think about your skincare; you can give it a cleanse with warm water and a little bit of dish soap, and then once that’s dry, I apply CeraVe unscented moisturizer or olive oil. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Favourite and least favourite trend?

Favourite: Silver jewellery and hardware.

Least favourite: Low-rise pants.

What are you watching or reading right now?

After two years, I finally finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. I’m a big fan of his; it’s just taken me a ridiculously long time to read books lately because my eyes are so tired at the end of the day. And then, embarrassingly, I’ve been watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills from season one. It’s so unlike me, but my friend got me into it.

What are five items that are bringing you joy right now?

“This piece adds so much fun to our household. Our dog loves to sleep under it and poke her head through one of the links – so cute!”

Buy Now

“[Designer Jamie Dawes] uses deadstock and recycled fabrics to make her beautiful designs. The fabric used on mine was a deadstock fabric with illustrations from dutch artist Lejla Vala Verheus.”

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“I love how it elevates any outfit but is practical enough for every day.”

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“I’ve never felt a jewellery piece reflected my aesthetic and personality as much as this.”

Buy Now

Fresh Face Mask

Lotus Youth Preserve Rescue Mask

($68, Fresh)

“The beauty product I’m currently obsessed with is my Fresh face mask.”

Buy Now

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