Sonia Brit isn’t one to back away from a challenge.
“People who know me know that I make decisions with my heart and not my head,” she laughs.
A good thing too. Sonia’s store, bob boutique, is full of heart. Sonia opened the store back in 2006, after six years of wholesaling her handmade creations. The little haven she created in Williamson Street, under the historic Shamrock Hotel, is perfectly captioned as ‘a cute shop for grown-ups’. When Sonia opened the store, it wasn’t cool to buy handmade things and it especially wasn’t cool to buy local handmade things! Sonia persevered and, sure enough, people started to appreciate that local art, design and manufacturing was actually pretty great.
In 2012, Sonia was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She was running the store, making the products, dealing with the artists and for a time she was worried that all her hard work would be undone.
“I soon realised what wonderful support I had in my life,” Sonia says. “My customers were amazing and my mum (local artist, Gail Tavener) was just incredible.
“I didn’t really want to tell many people (about the illness) but I realised that experiencing that doesn’t have to make me a victim. Everyone has adversity in their life. It’s not about the adversity though; it’s what happens next that matters.”
What happened next was a new project – one that Sonia didn’t really plan for. “Mum and I do all the sewing here. The dresses, the homewares, the toys. It’s a lot of work, so about 10 years ago we outsourced our best sellers – the tote bags and the cushions – to Radius. We also used Sanctuary Textiles for some of our trickier stuff. It was lovely to know that quality work was being done and we were also helping the local community. The people there really were a part of Bob, and when I was sick, it was their work that allowed me – and Mum – to recover.”
Radius and Sanctuary Textiles were both non-profit disability organisations that created work opportunities for local people who were part of the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme). In October 2016, it was announced that Radius would be closing its doors. Two months later, Sanctuary Textiles received the same news.
Judy, who was head sewer at Sanctuary Textiles and an integral part of the Bob workspace was at a loss. “She had 30 years experience as a sewer and all this talent and nowhere to go,” Sonia explains.
“A lot of people said that it wasn’t my responsibility to worry about it – that I had enough to worry about and I should just get my bags made interstate or in China. I know they were coming from a place of concern, but I could never do that. It’s not just a bag, or just a cushion. It’s made with love.”
Sonia sat on it for a while, but as things began to close down, she knew she couldn’t let it go. “I knew if I didn’t do something, I would be worse off.
“I spoke to Judy and she just wanted to keep the job she had. So we spoke to Sanctuary Textiles. They were really supportive, and we brokered a deal to take on their industrial sewing machines and their huge cutting table. Then we thought, ‘What are we going to do with this?’
“We got this little space and we call it The Bat Cave. We’ve got all our beautiful fabrics in there and the whole operation is all set up. All Judy’s clients were so rapt to have the business continue, so we’ve got a league of really lovely loyal customers.
“It dawned on me then that I had this really brilliant team around me and I am so lucky to have them. My mum, of course. Jamie, who works in the shop, is also a graphic designer and so is my brother, Jason. We work with all these other studios and artists locally, so I thought, ‘Why don’t we just pool everyone?’ All the screen printers, fabric designers, draftspeople, pattern makers – and make it a one-stop-shop for local people, businesses or groups who want quality-made products.”
This new business – Made For You – is all about thinking big and shopping small. “It’s so important to keep things local and community-based,” Sonia says. “If you’re a café and you want aprons with your logo on it, come to us. If you’re an artist and you want a range of bags with your work on it, come to us. We can do anything. It’s great for people to know they can buy something and it’s not just made well, it’s also ethically produced, zero kilometres; not made using toxic dyes or fabrics and we don’t have people working in a sweat shop 18 hours a day.
“The thing a lot of people don’t realise is that just purchasing a few products locally can make a huge difference. Shopping elsewhere, or just buying a bargain, can result in people shopping themselves out of a community. When something is made with love, it’s so much more.”
Learn more about Made For You by visiting www.soniabritdesign.com.au