We Love: Soler
Soler is a jewel box of a shop near Portobello Market in London, where racks are brimming with clothes that are flirty and feminine, bohemian and distinctive. Bold colours jostle alongside delicate prints, hand-painted materials and soft, voluminous fabrics - everything made with a touch of whimsy. Nestled in amongst it all is another gem, namely Alex Al-Bader, Soler’s charming owner and designer. Work your way to the back of the shop and you’ll find Frida, the seamstress, at her sewing machine - because this is not just a shop, this is an atelier. The pieces here are all handmade and can be stitched to order.
Soler is Alex’s second career. She worked as a successful model for years, touring the world, before eventually settling in London. She transitioned into being a designer, and her pieces have found their way onto the frames of the Duchess of Cambridge and the Countess of Wessex, Heidi Klum and Salma Hayek, among others. She’s even had Courtney Cox knocking on the shop door in the rain.
When I meet Alex (who models her own creations on her website) she is wearing slippers and socks and an oversized floral smock, looking every inch the Mediterranean dressmaker. She’s both effervescent and laid back, the heart and soul of the business. In her thick Spanish accent – she comes from Barcelona – she tells Storytellhers how Soler came to be, and how its rays are now reaching across the globe.
When I started living in London, I’d walk around vintage markets and source fabrics to make into simple dresses. I found a seamstress and had a sale at home for friends – it was all very organic. Soon, my living room had two permanent rails and the house had become a shop. Understandably, my husband encouraged me to open a proper atelier. That was 10 years ago and I was 37. It’s never too late to start something!
It was a risk to take it to the next level, but I felt strongly about it. I knew I just had to do it. My seamstress Frida arrived in the shop, and we started making made-to-order designs for clients.
I took my mother’s maiden name as the name of the business. I’m close to her, and the word says both ‘soul’ and ‘bright/sun’. I love colour – even in the winter. All the prints used at Soler are now mine – not from markets as in the early days – and 80% of them are solid prints.
Soler clothes are unique and feminine. You feel feminine when you wear them, and women – especially celebrities – seem to like something personal and exclusive. I love working with clients helping them choose their style and fabrics to make a one-off piece. People love the feeling of the atelier. There’s always something new because we make everything by hand.
Through word of mouth, I started doing trunk shows – being invited to showcase the work in people’s homes. I’ve now been to Paris, Hamburg, Oslo, Munich, Los Angeles, New York and Santa Barbara with something of the season and fabric samples so we can allow clients to buy off the rail or have bespoke pieces.
My sister Monica Subide is an artist, and one day we had the idea of painting on fabric. We had to be at a stage at which we were ready to do that. The pieces are more expensive than others – they are one of a kind – and we now have the demand to satisfy the minimum orders. I’ve also begun designing wallpaper. Monica sent me some prints and I was in bed when I looked at them. I instantly thought they’d make a beautiful wallpaper, so I’ve used it at home and have started selling it in the atelier.
Amanda Ross (ex-Harper’s Bazaar fashion director) and I have a collaboration that we sell exclusively to Net a Porter – ARossGirl X Soler. She particularly admired the handpainted pieces when she visited the atelier from New York, and we became good friends. One day she came to the atelier with a very interesting idea to do a clothing collaboration between ARossGirl and Soler, for which we would both design the collection. It’s been 6 seasons now, of dresses, tops and skirts. Net a Porter sold out of the first Amanda dress – a georgette maxi dress with a high neck and long sleeves - which we then created bespoke for clients. The Duchess of Cambridge wore it in teal in October 2019 and it was on the cover of Hello.
Aerin Lauder loves the brand – we sell a selection of Soler pieces in her shops in Palm Beach, South Hampton and East Hampton in the States. She wears Soler so well and is an amazing ambassador for the brand.
The first time Salma Hayek came to the shop she wasn't sure if the dresses would fit her small frame. She took them home to try on and was surprised - and so happy - that they did. She's a good friend and she's been a fantastic supporter of my brand.
I found Courtney Cox knocking on the atelier door when it was raining. I was on my own here, and she came in to look around. She sent her boyfriend away and tried on a few things before buying them. We’ve since sold to her many times, and she once wore a Soler dress on her birthday.
Christy Turlington tried on some of the clothes at the San Francisco trunk show. It’s amazing to see her in them online – she’s one of my idols.
Madonna also owns Soler dresses. She had Botteco Egnazio - the boutique of the Italian hotel Borgo Egnazio where she was staying - closed for her, and they stock Soler. She bought two of my dresses and wore them while she was there.
I do all my own social media. Soler is my soul. I can’t have anyone else do it. And I often model my own clothes too.
There have been times when I felt I wasn’t being a good enough mum. I would go home and not have enough energy for my two children, Mishari, fifteen, and Eliana, twelve. I don’t like myself when that happens, so then the next week I make more time for them. Since I recently went to Bhutan with my husband and our yoga group, I’ve been trying to do things more slowly and think about what’s really important.
My advice if you’re starting your own business is that you have to have boundaries. Managing people is hard. We are a little team – I’m sensitive, and I want to make sure that’s everyone’s happy. But you have to make your own decisions - it’s better for everybody. There are times when it’s been so tough I’ve thought: “Why am I doing this?” But there has to be a bigger force to keep you going.
The Soler atelier is at 88 Bevington Road – and 88 is a lucky number. We’re quite hidden – you wouldn’t expect a clothes shop there – but people still come through the door!
Soler is stocked in handpicked boutiques around the world: in all of Aerin Lauder’s stores in the US, in Bottega Egnazia in the Borgo Egnazia hotel in Puglia, Italy (where Madonna first found Soler) and in March 2020, Soler will be sold in Cutter Brooks, Amanda Brooks' shop in the Cotswolds, UK. Do visit the London atelier to get the full experience – and something bespoke - if you can…