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The City Sisters: An Interview With Karen Alweil, Barbara Bestor, & Sara Stein of SoLA

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“You’re looking at shipping,” Karen Alweil says as she pulls up a stool to a long, metal table covered in cups, newspaper catalogues, candles, towels, and totes poking their colorful arms and legs out of various boxes. She has a quiet cool to her that oversees a very busy, pre-holiday hectic showroom of products. Her partners—acclaimed architect and designer Barbara Bestor and marketing and publicity maven Sara Stein—share this feeling as they join her, pulling up stools to the busy work table. The three make up the Sisters Of Los Angeles, an LA based and very buzzed about souvenir line that rethinks city pride through good design.

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These women are a trinity of committed Angelenos and each brings a different expertise to the enterprise. First there is Karen, the native who brings a grounded insight into Los Angeles past, present, and future in addition to a retail genius invaluable to a new business. “I’m from Los Angeles, born in Hollywood,” she says. “I’ve sort of been involved in the wholesale and retail arena for most of my life. I started a clothing company when I was about twelve years old and I sort of stayed in that world. I own a showroom that represents about forty or so different manufacturers that we sell all over the world.”

She smiles, looking over to Barbara and Sara. “When these two lovely ladies came to me to work on this cool new project, it sounded like a great thing to do. It’s been a year that we’ve had SoLA and we just see it growing and growing. We are so thrilled that we get to celebrate our city and, at the same time, start to celebrate others and see how much people love their city.”

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The three nod in agreement. Barbara is the Sisters’ visionary, the person who visually articulates their communal love for the city. She has created a visual vocabulary for the brand that reflects a laid back and cool, sunny and contemporary disposition: the SoLA products have a resonating sunshine to them. “I came to LA to be an architect because back East I had heard this was a much better place to be a architect than staying on the East coast, which was true,” she explains. “I personally am really inspired by the architectural culture of LA from the twentieth century that came from persons like Schindler, Eames, Gehry, and others in that crowd.”

“Things were reinvented in very simple ways, using banal materials. They added color to places and extended their practice to surfboard and chair making. That was really inspiring. I jumped at the chance to design a non-architecture something within design culture: souvenirs. It seemed like a really populist opportunity. With architecture you have clients and budgets and the scale is different: you don’t get to make something and see if someone wants to buy it. This is a different way of getting to work.”

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Sara is the brand’s communicator, the person who shares the Sisters’ mission. She’s technically the brains behind the operation as creating the brand was an idea she had for some time. “I’m originally from Baltimore and came to Los Angeles in 1987, right after I finished school,” she says. “I came here to get into the advertising world but ended up—through entertainment and ultimately fashion—finding myself in public relations. I worked in-house for a manufacturing company, I worked for a few boutique agencies, and eventually opened up my own public relations firm specializing in fashion and lifestyle. We mostly represented Los Angeles based designers and represented them on a national and international level, which was exciting to help people launch and build their careers.”

“In doing that for as long as I did, I discovered how valuable it was to help people define how to own a piece of the market and how they can build within that market place, to really establish that for themselves in that regard. After doing this for so many other people, I thought it would be fun to do that for ourselves! I looked at the marketplace to see what was happening in regards to the gift industry, specifically looking at Los Angeles as a brand. There was a huge opportunity!”

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Sara cultivated the idea and eventually started to ask other people their opinion on the concept. “Barbara and I had talked about this quite some time ago,” she says.

“I think she even made me sign an NDA or something,” Barbara says.

The three laugh. Sara explains how the three of them connected before working together as Sisters. “Barbara and I had been friends and she actually designed my old offices. I am a huge, huge fan of her work, too. Karen and I had become friends purely because of children and bumping into each other in parking lots after meetings.”

“After I had gone to Barbara with the idea, I went to Karen, showed her the idea, and asked her what she thought. We then talked to Barbara about it because she embraces and epitomizes all that is Los Angeles design from the aesthetic to the materials. We all met and drank lots of iced tea and decided that we would explore this.”

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“We agreed to explore Los Angeles from the beaches to the canyons to the freeways to the neighborhoods, “ Sara says. “We really wanted to look at LA for more than what had been part of the souvenir industry. It is an area that is very predictable since it is all Hollywood. We have that in our line as well—but were looking at it differently. These are things that we would want ourselves and that we’d want to give as gifts.”

“It all ended up happening very quickly too,” Karen says. “We met in January or February of 2012 and we started making products in March and selling them to wholesalers in June.”

Sara adds: “We had products shipped out by September!”

“It was freaky,” Barbara comments.

“It was freaky fast!” Karen replies. The three laugh.

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With an obvious bond between them, you have to wonder where the three drew the brand’s name from. Where did it come from? “I think we got the name because we were in a meeting and realized we didn’t have a name for this,” Barbara says. “We were calling it LA something or other but we thought that ‘So LA’ looked the best.”

Karen chimes in, recalling a specific moment where the phrase “So LA” became their thing. “I was watching Barbara scribble while we were in a meeting and she did one of these really blasé scribbles…and that was it!”

“We had So LA…but what did that stand for?” Sara asks.

“It was one of those a-ha moments,” Karen says. “The words transformed from being just ‘So LA’ to ‘Sisters Of Los Angeles.’”

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The name is fitting for them and says so much about their brand. It is reverent, it is communal, it is relatable, and it’s even a little bit funny. Karen sees the brand’s existence and their relationship to be the special ingredient for their success: they’re tapping into a common, current LA mindset. “For me being a native Angeleno, it’s super fantastic to see two people who are not from Los Angeles appreciating LA as much as I do. I think that most people don’t think that anyone is from Los Angeles. The people that are transplants all have the issues of people from where their hometowns not liking Los Angeles or having an issue with the city. This makes it much more fun for me and makes me appreciate that I am from here much more.”

“I remember things much differently than other people here, too. I was born in the scientology building!” Karen says, laughing. “This was before it was the Scientology building: it was Cedars of Lebanon. And now it’s just a big blue building.”

Who knew?

“Karen knew!” Sara says.

“Things like that are wild!” Karen says. “The Beverly Center used to be an amusement park. It was called Kiddie Land. It’s fun to see these changes. They’re crazy.”

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The city’s changing landscape and forward thinking attitude has had a great effect on the Sisters. Both in their individual professions and the enterprise they’ve taken on together, the city’s influence has been present. “We started with patterns and colors and letters,” Barbara says. “LA is a center of visual production for the world. Everyone works in some sort of creative media! In a way, the exaggerated sense of topography from hills to ocean and flatland in betweens have been an ongoing thing in architecture, movie production, recreational sports, all kinds of things. The physical space of LA—the sunshine, the weathers indoor/outdoor living—is so important.”

“Los Angeles is the natural home of Modernism. It’s always funny when you go see a glass house in Czechoslovakia and you think about how they must be freezing nine, ten months out of the year—but they really wanted that glass house. Here we have that temperateness that allows for it. Being able to be outdoors does affect your level of happiness. Celebrating the naturalness of the city was always at the root of our project. It’s not so much about car culture or being Autopia: it’s the sunny side of things.”

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“I’m not from here but I find Los Angeles to be an aspirational city,” Sara says. “Anything is possible here. Sister of Los Angeles is possible here! You have three people from three different worlds who have come together to be able to build and create something together that we are really proud of for a city that we love. To me, that’s as much of a part of it.”

“Anything is possible here. You can invent yourself and reinvent yourself over and over and over again. It’s the land of possibilities. People love Los Angeles, too. There was a time when people fought it and they were afraid to admit it but we ship to customers all over the world. People in Australia love us, people in New York love us (They might not tell very one that though…), people in Chicago love Los Angels, and there’s a lot of transplants in this city and out of this city too. I think when people leave Los Angeles they want to take a piece of it with them.”

“It’s such an amazing city,” she says.

“I think the bad wrap is going away,” Karen adds.

“I do too,” Sara says.

“I think it’s seen as the new cultural capital of the US!” Barbara comments.

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Both Karen and Sara agree, nodding in unison. “Art wise it is definitely the capital,” Barbara continues. “New York has kind of sold out, lets be honest. It’s more of a financial center now. I actually think weirdly alternative spirituality and 1970s kookiness is coming back, which is kind of freeing since we are in such a conservative universe. If you were a white witch, you’d want to live in Los Angeles over Boston.”

Karen piggy backs off of the magic idea. “My dad moved here in 1957 and would always tell the story about him arriving here and going to someone’s backyard barbecue and seeing lemon trees. He freaked out! He decided to never leave because you could have lemon trees in your backyard. I love that.”

“You can also work year round here,” Sara says. “You aren’t spent locked in your house for X number of months out of the year. There’s a freedom here in December, January, and February that you might not have somewhere else in the US. People live here because they want to live here. They’re not forced to because of business.”

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Karen jumps in: “…and you can get business done here.”

Barbara agrees: “It’s a great place to start a business! I have a few clients who started with four people and now have hundreds in a two year period.”

It’s funny that Barbara mentions this because their three woman operation is growing so quickly and, at the two year point for them, their team could very easily grow to a pack. If anything, their inventory of cities certainly has expanded: they now have LA, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, The Hamptons, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and DC represented. They’ll surely be adding more, too.

The three are always trying to think up new ideas for LA bent items, too. Barbara is constantly considering new entries in this world, too. “I was thinking we should do a noir line,” she says. “So much of what we do is about sunshine so it would be good to see the dark. That’s trickier though because it’s a different crowd. Los Angeles is always oscillating between the two, light and dark. That’s what gives us energy.”

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She continues on with other ideas: “One thing I’ve been trying to figure out, maybe with some movie or prop maker, is how to make little miniatures of LA landmarks. They’d need to be a family of landmarks because we don’t have an Eiffel Tower. It would be like a mini mart and a donut stand and a taco truck: that kind of stuff. They’d be a little group. There’s just the problem of prototyping, intellectual property, etc. but that’s high on my list of things to make. Personally, the mini mall would last for a while in irony but also because it’d be a cute souvenir. They’ll all also disappear eventually because of the redevelopment happening and the city getting denser.”

“That kind of stuff,” she says, pulling herself out of a creative spell. “It’s a different type of production. It’s exciting.”

Karen agrees with the excitement: “To extend our concept to other parts of the country and world, to look at how we can make our things accessible yet really special still, is exciting. They resonate with people. That’s really nice to see.”

She uses an example of something that happened in her showroom. “I had a lady walk in and tell me she’s lived in every place we have a product for. That made her so happy.”

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“That’s what we are hearing from people, be it a retailer or a customer,” Sara says. “There is such a great reaction and we are getting reorders from everywhere that we sell to whether its The Getty, MOCA, the Hammer: SoLA works on so many different levels. We’re getting a great reaction.”

“As we continue to grow and tell our story, there are so many opportunities to celebrate the way our city and other cities are special and relatable. It’s great that people love the glasses or really love the candles. They feel like its personal, for them.”

“It seems like we’ve grown really fast—and we have,” Sara says. “There are just a lot more stories to tell and so many opportunities to tell them.”

For more on the Sisters of Los Angeles, be sure to check out their website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also purchase their goods here. Learn about Karen’s studio here, learn more about Barbara here and follow her on Twitter, and follow Sara on Pinterest.

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