At This is Money, we speak to some of Britain’s most successful business leaders, but every so often one stands out – viral Instagram artist Sophie Tea is one of those.
She was one of the pioneers of the ‘glitter boobs’ craze after a photo of herself adorned with gemstones, jewels and glitter at Coachella festival in 2017 went viral.
Since then she has made the traditionally exclusive art world more accessible to a younger crowd and turned her business into an online brand generating millions of pounds and with fans around the world.
Manchester-born Sophie Tea has managed to build her own global brand in just four years
This year, the 27-year-old opened her first UK store on London’s famous Carnaby Street during the global coronavirus pandemic.
And to top it off, she managed it from the other side of the world having been left stranded in Australia during its lockdown earlier this summer.
Originally from Manchester, Sophie set out to disrupt the art industry and build a lucrative art business through her use of social media platforms.
She managed it, in just four years. To find out how, we spoke to her over zoom.
Sophie says she prides herself on taking people’s ‘art virginities’. Pictured: A piece from her ‘Send Nudes’ collection
In 2016, while travelling around India with the intention of returning to a new job as a consultant in London, Sophie found herself painting a mural outside a hostel to make some extra cash.
Painting had always been a hobby but she hadn’t picked up a brush since her days at school. When she finally did, she realised it was what she wanted to do as a career.
She decided to turn down her job offer and, after returning to England, started painting and posting her work on Facebook and Instagram.
‘For the first year and a half, I was only really getting commissions from friends and family,’ she said.
‘It was tough but as I gained followers on social media, my work started to gain more traction.’
When she first started, she approached some galleries but was turned away.
It was then that she decided to represent herself, an approach that has meant the growth of Sophie’s brand has only ever been organic, the thing of which she is most proud.
‘Four years on, I don’t feel the need to work with a gallery as demand is already high,’ she explains.
‘There are some progressive galleries – and I have worked with some – but on the whole, they can be quite an elitist world.
‘Often there are no prices on the wall which can be very intimidating and doesn’t fit with my nature at all.
‘My work is easily accessible and encourages people who may not have bought original art in the past to consider it. I pride myself on taking people’s art virginities.’
Making art accessible
What makes Sophie’s art different is that she sells her work via social media. This has allowed her to target a wider audience, otherwise overlooked by galleries.
‘I have more Instagram followers than a lot of galleries so I can reach more people but it’s also about reaching the right people. The type of people buying art is changing, thanks to the increase of creatives on social media.’
Sophie tells This is Money, she feels lucky she started showcasing her work on Instagram at the right time as it would be harder to stand out if she was to start doing it now.
She said: ‘Platforms like Instagram are great, it’s amazing what you can do from this one app. Now you can order something with one click or set up a business account overnight. But it would be difficult to grow now as the market is so saturated.’
Another unique feature of Sophie’s business model, which has made art more accessible, is offering customers the option to pay for originals in installments.
She introduced the function a year ago and now 90 per cent of her orders are processed this way.
To secure one of the pieces from her latest ‘Send Nudes’ collection, customers need only pay a £250 deposit and then pay the remainder either in full or in monthly instalments over 12 months. Unlike with a buy no, pay later model such as Klarna, no interest is added to the price you pay.
She said: ‘I’m not saying my artwork is cheap but it is definitely more accessible than most. This model means people can pay in smaller amounts over a longer time, but enjoy the art straight away.
‘It does come with risks but everything is based on trust and that’s what makes our relationship with our customers unique. Out of 5,500 orders, only two people have ever defaulted on payment.
‘That is only a testament to the trusting, happy brand we have built. Being trusting, kind, and actually engaging with your customers means you’ll get their respect in return.’
Sophie’s unique business model shows how an artist can succeed in a cut-throat world
Restructure of power
As a result of her distinctive business model, selling her work online and actively engaging with her followers on social media, Sophie is an example of how an artist can succeed in a cut-throat world.
‘I think more people should be artists. It’s still not deemed a “proper career” but you have to be switched on and work well under pressure like any other entrepreneur to succeed.
‘But the power is coming into the artist’s hands now more than ever. People are becoming increasingly aware of the high tax galleries put on artists’ work.
‘I worked with Maddox Gallery as part of the ‘HerStory’ exhibition in March, this year. Unlike many others, Maddox is a progressive gallery that represents a small number of artists and really looks after them.’
Another issue for artists, especially those going alone, is scaling. Sophie said it is ‘uncharted territory’ for an artist to grow organically, as they have to essentially build their own business without the help of a gallery.
She added: ‘It’s a different kettle of fish to go from 100 customers to 1,000. We worked with small business suppliers at first but as that has grown, we’ve needed bigger companies for bigger orders.’
This has led Sophie to put on exhibitions and live shows. If someone cannot afford her art, she wants them to at least be able to enjoy it – all tickets to all of her shows are free.
‘We put on exhibitions as if we were a band. We are a brand,’ she said.
Living and learning in lockdown
Despite her online and digital success, Sophie is committed to showcasing her work and meeting her fans and followers in person. Having put on 12 shows across five countries in 2019, cancelling the bulk of them this year has been difficult.
‘However, lockdown has also allowed me to refocus,’ she said. ‘I have never produced such good quality art as there have been no distractions and I’ve discovered new ways of painting.
‘Canvasses were always selling out out so I started painting on perspex. When there is constraint, creativity comes out eventually.’
‘I have never sold so much. We had our best month for sales on record in March and that doubled in April. People are working from home and looking at their empty walls.’
The boost in creativity and increase in sales are not Sophie’s biggest achievement during lockdown, she says.
She opened her first UK store this summer – all the while being stuck on the other side of the world.
Shaftesbury, which invests in real estate across London’s West End, got in touch to say a venue had become available on one of London’s most sought after Soho locations, Carnaby Street.
‘It all happened very quickly,’ Sophie said. ‘Shaftesbury messaged me during lockdown and I was due to come back but I wouldn’t be able to come back to Australia if I left.
Sophie was one of the pioneers behind the ‘glitter boobs’ craze, often worn at festivals
‘I mentioned using a hologram as a joke in an online meeting with my team, who are still based in the UK, and next thing I knew, I was standing in front of a green screen and everything I said was decoded and played back during the store’s opening weekend.
‘I was so gutted I couldn’t make it but it was such a success. I am so grateful to my excellent team who managed to pull it off perfectly.’
Of course, as with any brand, and in a world where everything is instant, Sophie knows she has to keep up with changing attitudes and trends.
She was one of the pioneers of the ‘glitter boobs’ craze which has seen thousands of party and festival-goers decorate their bodies with glitter and stick-on gems ever since a picture of her wearing the same get-up at Coachella in 2017 went viral.
That move catapulted the British artist’s paintings into the spotlight, earning her $1.7million in 2019 alone. But Sophie knows she has to remain fresh and exciting.
Her most recent collection, ‘Send Nudes’, has been close to her heart as it celebrates female empowerment, body confidence and diversity, a topic that has been widely discussed in recent years.
She said: ‘I never had the best relationship with my body growing up, so I always wanted to do a project on the female form.
‘Last year I asked my followers if they wanted to be my muses, if they wanted to be a part of my campaign, and if so, to send nudes. Overnight we had over 1,000 images sent to our Instagram.
‘All shapes and sizes and different races. People with scars, mastectomies, anything and everything. Every picture came with it’s own unique story.’
The collection has been a huge success as have the shows associated with it, which have seen different women take part in her nude catwalk. The Carnaby Street gallery launch came with its own unique ‘Send Nudes’ show.
Sophie’s Carnaby Street gallery launch came with its own unique ‘Send Nudes’ show
Sophie is on a constant journey of growth, as an entrepreneur, a business, a brand and also personally and creatively.
She added: ‘My art will always evolve. Everything is limited and people know I am going to change or introduce a new collection at any time, I think this is why the work sells out. If you miss out, then you miss out.’