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Inspired by travel

Designer Sofia Mendez Schenone draws on European influences

Three hundred years ago, Europe's young elite would embark upon a Grand Tour of cultural gems in faraway places as a rite of passage and self-discovery.

You could say Chilean-raised, Victoria-based designer Sofia Mendez Schenone had a similar experience. The 27-year-old credits much of her fashion inspiration to her teenage years spent studying art in her mother's native Italy and touring Europe and South America.

"I would sit with a coffee in Paris and just stare at everything," she says at Hemingway boutique on Johnson Street, where her new line Sofia is sold and where she has worked for several years. Sofia can also be found at Not Just Pretty boutique on Fort Street and Hum in Vancouver.

"So much of my inspiration comes from travelling and watching women. They can be so different, yet so much the same in every place."

She observed that French women love to dress up regardless of occasion. Italian women were similar but with a sexual edge. Much of her art education was spent drawing the human form and clothes to fit perfectly.

"When I design, I will try to think of a woman's body and how to flatter it," she says, holding up one of her Sofia pieces -- a fitted silk cocktail dress called Kate, after supermodel Kate Moss. She names her designs after the women and names that inspire her: Mia, Ali, Alana, Ella.

Schenone's persona is clearly embodied in her work: Soft, ethereal, classic designs in natural fabrics with a feminine and modern appeal.

Last month, Schenone won Vancouver's 2010 Generation Next contest for up-and-coming Western Canadian designers. The winner, chosen by a panel of fashion industry judges, receives $10,000 worth of mentorship and services to promote their business -- including professional photography and public relations. The annual event is hosted by the Honey Mustard fashion and media services.

Since 2006, the competition has brought together young designers, industry insiders and stylistas with a finalist fashion show and launch for the winning line. Schenone says the feedback she received about her line was "cohesive, wearable and well-constructed."

"What really sold us on Sofia was the strength of her business plan," Carlie Smith tells me from Vancouver. She is one of the judges and mentors for Generation Next and the founder of the popular indie design fair Portobello West.

"She also had the benefit of having a well-crafted line that is appealing to a lot of people, but still has very unique designs," Smith says.

Previous winners have gone on to do well in the fashion industry, including Nicole Bridger, Su-Hui Chu's Ella Peru, Laura Presber and Margarita Angelatos's Red Jade. Victoria's Marcy Ross has also been a finalist, with her line Morena.

"The prize is a nice jumpstart to young designers, who tend to be a little neglected in the West," Smith says.

Schenone's business plan included a three-year goal to have her line in a store in every major Canadian city. Sales representatives are already working on it.

She credits much of her business savvy to working in fashion boutiques, namely Hemingway and sister store Suasion, for the past several years.

"Watching Sofia's work evolve has been great for us. She's always been a part of what we've done and her work is beautiful," says Tiffiny Dobson, co-owner of the boutiques.

Other developments in Schenone's life have played their part. Her appreciation of the female body grew as she studied at the Victoria College of Art and Design soon after moving here in 2002 to follow a love relationship. In 2006, she learned to sew professionally and develop her look at Pacific Design Academy. Since then, she has been working on Sofia. She saved up to be able to manufacture a Fall 2010 line with some help from her parents -- doctors in Santiago. Her Spring 2011 line is already on the go as she works to design for next fall.

Schenone has a clear vision for Sofia: Classic, figure-flattering, feminine looks in high-quality natural fabrics like silk, wool and cotton. Her clothes fill the gap between high-end synthetic wares and the popular eco-trend in independent designs.

"I want to create the kind of special pieces you'd find in your grandmother's closet. Made to last and to save," Schenone says. She's wearing her favourite design, a purple billowy silk mini-dress with a low waist and pockets. "It's perfect for when you might not feel your best but want to still look good and be comfortable."

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