Living for more than two decades in the Principality of Monaco, the sister of former Northern Irish Formula One racing driver Eddie Irvine, Sonia Irvine created her own legacy as the visionary and hard-working woman behind Amber Lounge.
The Amber Lounge Fashion Show is the world-renowned annual event which brings together the world of Fashion and Motorsport to raise funds for charities. F1 drivers and the Ladies of F1 take to the catwalk under the watchful eye of the world’s international media. This highly anticipated event was envisioned by the long-term Monaco resident Sonia Irvine.
One would assume that Eddie Irvine, who finished runner-up in the 1999 World Drivers’ Championship paved the way for her, but Sonia actually built her own brand and gained respect in Monaco and the international community by her own right.
Being the sister of a former Scuderia Ferrari race driver did you compete a lot with Eddie as a child?
“We competed in a lot of different sports growing up. My mother would enroll us in anything and everything she had access to… Edmund and I where both competitive in nature,” – continues Sonia – “we didn’t really compete against each other, in fact in most cases it was quite the opposite. I took on the role of a big sister, organising all his sports gear, just to minimise the stress at home and get us to competitions on time. We were always very supportive of each other and continue to be so.”
Co-ordinating the daily life of a Formula One driver can be a huge task. Do you also have the passion for cars and speed or is your heart somewhere else?
“I don’t have a big passion for cars and speed,” – laughs Sonia – “although I thoroughly enjoyed being at racetracks with my family. It was part of my childhood and it was just a coincidence that we all ended up working together in the world of Formula 1.”
Do your prefer practicality over driving a speedy red Ferrari?
“I have more of the approach that a car or scooter is to get me from one place to another, I don’t mind what it looks like or how fast I get there! I love my little Twizzy in Monaco, so easy to park and you don’t need to stop for fuel!”
What is your first memory of the Principality of Monaco?
“The beauty of the Principality at night. I first arrived in Monaco late at night for my first Monaco GP with the Ferrari team; I was stunned by its beauty and the energy of the place. When I came to the paddock by tender, the sight of Monaco from the sea was breath taking, I still get goosebumps when I think about it.”
Sonia grew up in a small town called Conlig, at the heart of the Northern Irish countryside. She moved to the Principality of Monaco by choice since the tiny, environment and overall the way of life reminds her of her roots.
When did you move to Monaco?
“I moved to Monaco nearly 20 years ago now, wow… time flies! I’ve raised my two daughters in the Principality. In fact, my youngest was born here. It’s been my home for such a long time, it holds a special place in my heart.”
What do you admire the most in the Principality?
“I love the climate, the opportunities it holds, the different types of people you meet and I feel safe here, it’s like a small village, when you go somewhere you always meet someone you know, I like this feeling. I’m not a big city person.”
Sonia finished her studies and graduated in physiotherapy. After gaining valuable practical experiences working in hospitals in Newcastle and London, she decided to open her own sports clinic.
“It was a real challenge to help people who had suffered a stroke, trying to give them their mobility back. It was a very satisfying profession to make such a massive difference in their lives.”
Later on, Sonia joined her brother Eddie in Formula One as his physiotherapist.
You started your career as a physiotherapist, yet at some point you decided to transform your life. How did the idea come to launch Amber Lounge?
“When I was working with my brother at Ferrari, we often ended the race season wondering where to celebrate at the end of a long, hard year. We were in Brazil, quite a few of us, drivers included. We were all just driving around trying to find somewhere to celebrate together but there just wasn’t anywhere…
This is when the idea of Amber Lounge came to life, a place for the Formula 1 community to come together, have fun in a safe and private environment.
I ran my first Amber Lounge event in Monaco, in 2003. The Formula 1 community was so supportive, and it went from there, from strength-to-strength, expanding the brand across different continents, whilst at the same time developing new concepts. To this day, I feel extremely grateful to have experienced such amazing support from everyone during all these years.”
Who was the most memorable guest during the years, and why?
“There have honestly been so many guests who have attended Amber Lounge over the years, from performers, to super models, footballers, athletes, actors and actresses… I could go on and on, but we would be here all night! For me, my pride is the support HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco has shown me and Amber Lounge since I first started in 2003. In my first year of running it, he arrived at the Grimaldi Forum by driving over the footbridge (I didn’t think this was possible!) with an enormous entourage following him. He came in, enjoyed the night with friends and has since then continued to support us, this for me means everything.”
What’s the secret to develop a high-end event brand?
“I am not sure if there is a magic formula or secret but, first and foremost, it does involve a lot of hard work. I suppose it all starts by having a unique idea, believing in it, having the support of those around you, then building a skilled, passionate team. It’s important to keep believing in your dream and to maintain your working principles, the attention to detail, passion, and delivering what was promised.”
Is it hard to be a woman entrepreneur – especially in the hospitality field – in Monaco?
“Most of my working life has been in male dominated industries, though I’ve never let that get in the way of what I wanted to achieve. I feel very comfortable holding my own position and generally connect better on a business level with men. Life is about turning negatives into positives, and this is what I have done.”
Your upbringing has helped you a lot to develop this mentality, right?
“To teach us the value of hard work was always important for our parents,” – remembers Sonia. – “We were not given our pocket money, we had to earn it and we learned very early on that no task was ever too menial to do.”
What does success mean to you?
“I don’t really stop to think about success. I just do what I do to the best of my abilities and if I have made people happy in the process, then I have achieved what I set out to achieve.
If I think about it, success is bringing up my two girls, encouraging them to be independent, to believe in themselves, that they can do anything they want if they want it enough and work hard at it, but to always be kind, respectful, and genuine. If I achieve this with them, I have had all the success I could ever desire.”
What makes Sonia truly special is that despite all her success and recognition, she remained humble to her roots.
Sonia is a very human-oriented person, thanks to her mother who used to help and take care of the elderly in the community. She even cooked meals that Sonia delivered to them.
Even nowadays, during the Amber Lounge events, she always incorporated a moment of charity to give back to those who need the most. Amber Lounge’s charity auctions held during the Fashion Show, has raised more than USD 6.5 million for charitable organisations, including Sir Jackie Stewart’s ‘Race Against Dementia’, the Elton John Aids Foundation, Special Olympics, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and Make a Wish Singapore and Abu Dhabi.
Due to the pandemic, this important fashion show was canceled in 2020. However in 2021, Sonia decided to continue to raise attention for selected charitable causes and to adapt her goal to the new situation.
“A lot of our suppliers and partners who come from abroad were unable to make it to the event, so we had to be agile and forge new relationships with local partners. Again, you can take a sit back and let it all happen approach and give up, or think, OK we can’t run in the normal way, but we can do it slightly differently!”
She was driven by her positive mindset and announced their new Charity for 2021, Caudwell Children with the mission to change the futures of all disabled children providing access to services, equipment, therapies and treatments they need.
“It’s extremely important we support charities that are close to my heart and resonate with me, and hopefully also with the F1 community who so graciously give their time to the fashion show, as well as guests attending who bid on the auction items. Creating the Amber Lounge Fashion show was one of my proudest moments, we used our platform to make a real difference in people’s lives, it is Amber Lounge’s way of giving back.”
Amber Lounge has become an essential household name in the Principality of Monaco and across the motorsport world. No wonder people were surprised when Sonia announced her departure from Amber Lounge.
Why did you decide to sell your brand?
“There are several different reasons, but the main one is that I want to spend more time with my family. Sadly I lost my mum last year and it made me realize that time is precious. I’ve worked hard to establish and maintain the Amber Lounge brand, it’s now time to smell the roses and enjoy a “little” downtime.
My mum gave me a little figure many years ago with roses in his hand. I asked her what it was, and she replied, “It’s time to smell the roses, something you need to do.” Sadly, it’s taken me more years than she would have wanted to do this but my realisation finally came. I don’t know how good I am at down time, it’s a skill I have to learn as it’s not in my nature, but I’m determined to try! I am also sure there will be a new adventure waiting for me.”
In the recent years, your youngest daughter, Katie has always been part of the shows. Recently, with no element of shyness, she incorporated a few flips or her latest gymnastic moves into the show, which made the audience smile.
“Haha, yes absolutely! My youngest daughter Katie gets so excited every year to walk the catwalk. In 2019, she wanted to flip into the water to splash Prince Albert but was talked out of it by her nanny!” – laughs Sonia.
Will she miss the catwalks?
“Absolutely, it was the highlight of her year, she loved the attention. I am sure if she has anything to do with it, she will try and be part of it in some way in the future.”
If you could go back to the beginning, would there be anything you would do differently?
“I always look forward not dwell on the past, so not really. Everything happens for a reason and I’ve learned from all those experiences.”
Will you miss the travels with F1?
“I won’t miss the travel as such, I love being at home for my kids. I will miss the client interaction, as I’ve created some life-long friendships. They respected my decision to leave, but I never expected so many of them to email me back when I wrote telling them of my departure. It was very humbling.”
Once you said you love Thailand. Now that you have sold Amber Lounge, are you thinking of having a second home there?
“My Dad spends a lot of time in Thailand, he has a small apartment there. I would like to visit him and learn to play golf with him when time allows. Thailand is his happy place and he has a great community of friends there. My happy plac is skiing, the simplicity of Kenya and Monaco life.”
What’s your favourite place in Monaco?
“I love Fontvieille, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in Monaco. Being so close to the water, my favourite restaurants, its family-orientated, quiet environment and the gardens make me feel at peace.”
You are a mother of two. Did you learn also from Megan and Katie?
“I’m always learning from my girls; my eldest daughter Megan is studying Law in the UK, we speak daily about the things she’s studying, which I find super interesting. She is very well read and challenges me to keep up. Katie is at the International School in Monaco, she’s a little ADHD child (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). She is a ray of sunshine but challenges me daily on the best way to parent. I push myself to learn more about ADHD, how to teach her things that would come more naturally to others. I read articles, lots of books on the topic to educate myself and learn how best to support her as the support structure here is sadly not as developed as in a UK school. Overseeing homework is as good for my brain as it is for hers! From my two girls, I’ve learned individuality and acceptance of their strengths.”
We all know how a perfect Amber Lounge event looks like. But what does a perfect weekend look like in your home?
“That’s a good question, I really enjoy hosting people for dinner at the apartment, a vegetarian meal with good company and perhaps a nice glass of champagne. Weekends are my opportunity to relax and spend time with my girls, some training, bike riding and walks along the water.”
Tell us about the three things that make you happy in life?
“My family and friends, first and foremost. Seeing my girls mature and grow into young women is so rewarding, while being around close friends. Time is so precious, having time to enjoy the beauty of life. The freedom to have more time.”
What is next for you?
“Who knows what is around the corner and how exciting is that!”