Soüf Shop


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Magic in El Salvador’s Coffee Trees

After studying at Parsons School of Design, followed by jobs with major fashion labels, Sofia Avila found her way back to her native El Salvador, and created her own luxury accessories line five years ago. Her signature product is a unique miniaudiere made from recycled/reclaimed wood and nontoxic varnish. It’s a magical piece to keep for ages, when properly cared for. Sofia shares how she built this artisan made brand with us.

What is the inspiration behind Souf Shop?

Sofia: So many things inspire me and shape my designs in my everyday life, but mostly they are embodied in my heritage, cherished childhood memories and teachings, sprinkled with a love for design that started developing at a very young age through travels and my studies.

It was in my Accessories Design class, while at Parsons in New York City, that I designed the first SOÜF handbag. The reclaimed and recycled wood we now use to bring our accessories to life were inspired by my father, and the generation before him, who shared a love of farming coffee in El Salvador. I lost my father when I was 19, I often seek inspiration in my favorite memories with him, and I always remember him at his happiest, in nature surrounded by coffee trees. So with this in mind, for that very first design at Parsons, I thought of the coffee tree, the hardworking Salvadorans who tend to the land and take care of the trees for their entire lifecycles, until the coffee plants grow old, and are replaced with young plants that ensure continued production. And so I was left with the coffee wood, which could be recycled and seemed like the perfect material to give my collection the repurposed life it needed. Currently, we use mostly 100-year-old reclaimed cedar wood but are always sourcing more types of wood for future designs, including our beloved coffee wood.

The crystals and stones we use to adorn our handles and jewelry come from my mother’s side of the family. My maternal grandmother and aunt lived in Italy when I was growing up, and my mother and I would often go visit them during my summer breaks from school. This is where I became acquainted with some of the world’s most revered art, the museums that house them, and where I first discovered my love for vintage. The ladies in my life always had a deep appreciation for European flea markets and antique shops. I didn’t quite understand it at first, why we were buying old accessories, clothes and furniture that had already belonged to someone else, but as soon as I began finding my own small treasures, I got hooked as well! My grandmother was a mystic and spiritual soul; she started taking courses in energy healing in the early 90’s while still living in Italy. She used crystals (semi-precious stones) during her healing sessions, because she believed in their energy and healing powers, a belief she passed on to me, which I hope to pass on to our SOÜF community.

Zine: How have you managed a supply chain that runs locally in El Salvador and ships worldwide?

Sofia: It was a difficult journey filled with ups and downs, but we’ve finally managed a steady flow. It took a while to find the right people to work with, who also enjoyed working the wood at a more detailed (and delicate) level. Most artisans are used to large-scale furniture and don’t want to spend the time and energy adapting to what our designs require. Building the right team of people to work with is integral to things running smoothly, and I am all about working with people who feel inspired, happy, and empowered to be working on a shared vision together.

I work with two different workshops. The first is with artisans, led under the expertise of Amadeo Medrano in his family-owned wood workshop, who handcraft our accessories. Amadeo has been making furniture for my parents and for everyone in my family since I was a little girl. The other workshop is run by my close friend, and incredibly talented jeweler, Carlos Rauda, who makes our hardware and jewelry in his 4th generation family-owned jewelry workshop, with the help of his talented team of artisans there. They work in ways that preserve artisanal techniques which seem almost magical. They make the handles we use on our bags, by laying pieces of brass tube out on bricks that have been hand-carved to a pattern and then hand soldered individually. I love thinking of the process, the many hands that worked on each piece, that gave them life. There’s always going to be a difference between one bag and the next. With each piece of wood, there’s a different grain and personality coming through.

Sourcing the material itself was hard. While shopping for vintage furniture with my mother and grandmother, I came across a man who buys up material from early 1900’s houses that are being torn down for new development – including all the vintage belongings inside the homes, as well as the parts that serve as baseboards for construction (such as columns, pillars, balconies, etc.). He now works with me to source the reclaimed wood used to make our accessories. From houses like these, I purchase columns and pillars that are damaged, and can’t be used, then turn them into SOÜF bags.

Building Relationships

Zine: What challenges have you experienced as a woman founder?

Sofia: As I mentioned before, it took a while to find the right people to work with. Initially, I tried to start SOÜF while I was still working in New York at Elie Tahari. To develop the first prototypes, I was flying back and forth to El Salvador in the hopes of building a relationship with my potential team of woodcrafters, all male, who weren’t accustomed to working for a woman, and who had a hard time keeping deadlines, or even taking the idea of my wood handbags seriously. Let’s just say I felt a little misunderstood by most of them. The level of detail required, for making our accessories, wasn’t something most artisans had the patience for. I was lucky to have found the right people, mentors, and advisors to work with along the way, and thankfully, once I decided to move back to El Salvador and make SOÜF a full-time thing, everything started coming together. That being said, I would absolutely love to have more women join our team!

Evolving Forward

Zine: Where do you plan to expand with SOÜF Shop?

Sofia: Just a week ago, I started renovating the 1960’s home where my mother’s family grew up. I’ve always wanted to have a small wood workshop where I can have more flexibility to develop new prototypes and designs. I would love to work one-on-one with an artisan and learn from each other as we make new products. As I said, I have yet to find a lady woodcrafter in my country, so why not start by learning myself? With a workshop in my new home, this will be possible. However, I will still rely on outsourcing my production to Amadeo and his team, and Carlos will still be in complete control of our hardware and jewelry, and from there we will grow. The thought of growing SOÜF makes me happy, because it’s how we can actually make a difference in more people’s lives, by empowering them through their craft, adding to our family of craftsmen, and making sure they take home enough for their families too.

Because of COVID, we have decided to focus on our direct-to-consumer relationships and giving our web shop a new look and feel. We’ll be launching the new site in September. It will have all the new jewelry and some new home line products we’ve been working on. All products will continue to be made-to-order, keeping with our sustainable practices.

Zine: When you say “home line”, what do you have in mind?

Sofia: This house is the one I plan on making my future home, as well as SOÜF’s future home. So, I think it’s only fitting that I start a home line, inspired by all the things I love that made quarantine at home more tolerable. The line will have a coffee table box for all your treasured trinkets, a backgammon set to keep your mind challenged, some beautifully adorned trays for keeping your favorite things organized – I’ll leave some surprises for the future, but I can say I’m really looking forward to our new “home” segment of the business.

Pandemic Hardship

We’ve been in lockdown since March 20. It’s really tough to drive around even going down a street, people have white flags everywhere. These are being used in most Latin American countries as a sign now – it means people don’t have food for themselves and their families, and this is how they ask for help. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a big blow to El Salvador, and on top of a strictly enforced lockdown, we had tropical storm Amanda hit us even harder. Right now, our top priorities are figuring out how we can help more locally and making sure that the people who work with us are taken care of. In the weeks following Amanda we started donating 25% of our online sales to local relief efforts, and we are working on a project so we can continue to help the many lives that have been affected here in El Salvador. All sales currently go to keeping our artisans and their families afloat. The wood workshop has not been operating due to our restrictions, but thankfully, some artisans set up workspaces in their own homes to work on our jewelry – also giving them something to stay busy and entertained with. Everything starts opening and slowly shifting towards our “new normal” on August 24, so we are looking forward to a steadier flow of traffic, taking all the safety measures needed to keep everyone healthy.

Help from Friends

Zine: In terms of region, where do you have the most sales and who were your biggest supporters during this journey?

Sofia: A lot of my sales come from New York. That’s also where most of my supporters, who were with me since day one, are. My dearest friend in New York, art curator and most impressive hostess, Afrodet Zuri, hosted my first trunk show (which was not the last), with close friends and family. Through that one experience things started flowing. You may recognize the name Afrodet from our best-selling bag. That’s where the names for the bags come from – my friends and muses, who I feel the utmost gratitude for. Each of our bags is named after an incredible woman who inspired it – the Estefania bag, named after Estefania Lacayo, co-founder of the Latin American Fashion Summit, whom I met my first year of college in Boston through a mutual close friend. She has a SOÜF bag from that very first New York trunk show and has been a mentor to me since that moment. The Camila bag – named after Camila Straschnoy, another friend and mentor, who organically became my brand consultant, and works harder than anyone I know, in Miami, where she and her business partner, Andy Faerman, are based. I wish I could tell you the stories behind all of the bags, because their namesakes are my biggest supporters – women I admire and am grateful for. Women who lift each other up and gently rock our world.

Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.

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