The Devil Wears Bata — Sonja Bata 1926-2018

Nineteen years ago today I left the Bata Shoe Museum. The reasons I left came flooding back when I heard that Sonja Bata died two days ago at the age of 91.

Bata Shoe Museum, designed by Moriyama & Teshima, built 1994-1995

In 2006 I saw the movie The Devil Wears Prada – it was astonishingly close to my own experience of working at the Bata Shoe Museum. The movie about a young, energetic, naive assistant to an overbearing control freak was based on Lauren Weisberger’s thinly veiled experience of working for Anna Wintour at Vogue magazine.

Everything in that story was familiar, from the ‘gird your loins’ warning phone call from the front desk upon Sonja’s arrival, to being under the constant threat of disapproval and punishment for failure. She even flung her coat on my desk one morning, although that only happened once after I left it there all day. With the perspective of time, I now see Sonja’s sadistic management style for what it was, but at the time Sonja Bata had me convinced I was the one who was always at fault and needed to fix my shortcomings.

Sonja had been born into a wealthy upper middle-class Swiss family with strict, traditional values. She always told interviewers that she was studying architecture when she met her future husband. The truth was that she had just started her undergrad when she met Thomas Bata. In a soft moment she once told me her mother took her out of university and enrolled her in a cooking school so she would make a better wife. This was Sonja’s Achilles heel – she was in awe of academics, jealous of their accomplishments because their success was her unfulfilled dream.

Sonja in front of her Annigoni portrait from c. 1960

In 1946, at the age of 19, Sonja married Thomas Bata. The Bata Shoe Company had been founded in 1894 in the town of Zlin (in what is today the Czech Republic), by Thomas Bata’s father Tomáš. The company was at the height of success in 1932 when Tomáš died in a plane crash, leaving Thomas and Tomáš’ brother Jan in a legal battle over control of the company. Anticipating the coming war, Thomas built manufacturing plants in the United States and Canada in 1939. After the war, all the Eastern European manufacturing plants and stores disappeared behind the descending iron curtain. The company’s HQ was relocated first to England, and later Canada.

During this post war period Bata aimed at international expansion in Asia, Africa, and South America where huge opportunities awaited. Bata excelled at locating in countries where locals were employed to manufacture simple styles of footwear for their own markets. Bata was not a high fashion label. In the Western World, Bata was known for producing everyday ‘back to school’ sneakers and shoes for children, working women’s low heeled pumps, and wardrobe essentials such as slippers and galoshes. Sonja often joked that when she was learning the business she worked in a shoe store in the East End of London trying to sell high heeled shoes in ‘sunset pink’ and ‘avocado green’, but in working class postwar London, black and brown were the only colours that sold.

While travelling the world in the 1950s and 1960s, Sonja collected various historical and indigenous types of footwear from the countries she and Thomas visited. She had accumulated close to a thousand examples when in 1979 she created a foundation that would someday fund a museum for footwear. She hired a conservator and a collections manager to care for and document the collection, and engaged anthropology hobbyist Alika Podlinsky Webber to acquire examples of Native American footwear for the collection. Webber’s antiquated methods of categorizing material culture by construction methods eventually resulted in the museum’s first publication, a near-useless typology of “Indian and Eskimo” footwear.

I had been keenly following the museum’s progress since I first heard about Sonja Bata’s collection in 1981. I wrote letters to her annually, asking for the opportunity to work with the collection in a curatorial capacity. Then, one day in November, 1987, I received a phone call from her secretary, Margaret Leask, asking if I could come in for an interview. A position was available to catalogue and care for the collection in the basement of the shoe company’s Don Mills headquarters.

The now-demolished Bata HQ in Don Mills, designed by John B. Parkin, built 1964-65

I was 26 and already had a decade’s worth of museum experience, as well as visible enthusiasm, but I was incredibly nervous during my interview because I really wanted the job. The interview went well, even though I could see she was disappointed when I told her I could only read French, and that I had an incomplete Masters. I had been paying for my university education by working part-time during the school year and full time during the summer, but after five years student fatigue had set in and I called it quits half way through my Masters. I did notice during the interview that she looked at my hands a lot. Years later she said her mother always told her to look at the nails of prospective servants because those with short nails worked harder.

A week later Sonja called to say she would like to hire me and could I come in for orientation and to discuss salary. I gave notice at my other job and bought myself a brand new pair of expensive Florsheim shoes for good luck. At our second meeting she proceeded to tell me that she had thought it over, but the tone and hesitancy in her voice suggested she had changed her mind – my stomach flipped. She hadn’t, but then she explained that I would be replacing the previous collections manager who had a PHD and spoke three languages. I realize now her tone and hesitancy was a ploy to lower my salary expectations in light of my shortcomings in languages and education – a point brought up annually prior to any discussion about a salary increase. I later found out that my predecessor, Lena Fattah, had resigned abruptly after telling Sonja to “Fuck Off”. She later became a Buddhist monk.

The position was assistant curator. There was no curator, so it was a pay scale thing with opportunity for promotion. I undersold myself by settling for the first offer at 24,000 per year to start, which in 1987 was okay for an assistant curator’s starting salary. Little did I know that all future salary increases would never exceed 4%, and be indexed to the cost of living and tied to annual reviews. However, at the time I was grateful for the opportunity. I had dreamed of working in a museum devoted to clothing or textiles, and few opportunities existed in Canada.

Bata Shoe Museum exhibition opening at the Colonnade (a temporary exhibition space before the permanent museum opened in 1995), 1992

Things were fine for the first few months while I was in a learning curve. My first real negative experience occurred when I was about to take my first week of holiday (which was never allowed to exceed two weeks per year during my 11 year tenure). I was completing an annual inventory of the entire collection, which by 1988 numbered over 6,000 artifacts. Two days before I was to leave, I submitted the report with a total of nineteen missing objects, all of which had been reported missing in previous inventories. My report was rejected for being incomplete. I was told I would have to cancel my holidays until everything was found. After wasting two days frantically looking for the missing items I went on holiday anyway – anticipating throughout my entire vacation that I would be fired upon my return (not exactly relaxing). However, nothing further was said, although her secretary Margaret told me that in future to always leave the phone number of my hotel where I would be staying in case I needed to be contacted (Sonja didn’t understand that on $24,000 per year, holidays were spent in motels, not hotels, and that holidays were for decompressing, not to be on call.) This was also the first of many projects that were never signed off as completed – every project remained an open file so that nothing was ever accomplished. Ironically, years later when Sonja was clearing out her attic at home, thirteen of the missing items showed up. (I only ever found one of the other missing artifacts – a shoe token that someone had wrapped in paper and put inside a leather shoe-shaped box.)

Similar instances began to happen more regularly. I could excuse some of her criticisms for being a perfectionist with high standards and I was missing her mark, but I was never given direction so everything was a set-up for failure. I was frequently asked to mount small exhibitions at locations like malls and even the Ontario legislature, but no budget was allocated to do these displays and I had to make do with what supplies and display aids I could find. I was inevitably criticized because something didn’t look as good as it could – only then would money be spent, or someone else brought in, to ‘fix’ my work.

The annual salary review became an opportunity for her to shame me for everything from my messy handwriting to my failure to always wear crisply starched shirts, and re-bring up months-old issues that had been dealt with at the time they occurred. Meanwhile, anything I was good at doing and relevant to my job, like research, writing, and public speaking, was only allowed to be done as an extra-curricular activity. I was actually not allowed to read a book or visit a library to do research about the artifacts on museum time, even though I was expected to know as much as possible about everything I was handling, which included artifacts from three thousand years of various cultures around the world. I frequently spoke to groups around Toronto, all of which were done on my own time in evenings or on weekends. I was not even allowed to leave the premises during work hours, other than for lunch.

For someone who admired academia, Sonja disliked investing in knowledge. I was never permitted to attend shoe or museum-related conferences. Even buying books for the library was a struggle when they weren’t at her suggestion. When William Rossi, author of several books including The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, and The Complete Footwear Dictionary, donated his massive library of shoe and foot related books (including complete runs of rare shoe trade journals) to the museum in the early 1990s, Sonja refused to have the shipment brought to the museum for accessioning. Her excuse was that we didn’t have the time to devote to it because something else was always more important. She must not have paid the storage fees because after a couple of years, the shipment was disposed of by the shipping company. When the 90 year old William Rossi called to ask me what happened to his library I lied to save his feelings and told him I hadn’t had the chance to accession it yet. He was disappointed with that news – he would have been devastated if he found out his library was gone.

For the Bata Shoe Company’s 100th anniversary, I was asked by Thomas Bata to work on a book while he and ‘Sunny’ were in Czechoslovakia most of the summer. With a project coordinator, I picked the shoes, provided all the research, wrote much of the text, worked with a photographer to take over 200 photographs, sourced most of the props, even suggested the name for the book and the cover designs. The book was nearly finished when Thomas and Sonja returned. Sonja hit the roof when she found out I had ‘wasted’ my time on this book and was screaming at me until Thomas came out of his office to explain he had asked me to do this. Nothing more was ever said, however I was removed from the remaining production meetings. I heard later that she didn’t want my name in the book at all, but the rest of the team protested, and in the end my name appeared second from last in the credits as ‘museum co-ordinator’.

I ignored or worked around what I could because the work was still my first love – it was everything I wanted to do, but in a toxic workplace. The constant barrage of small instances continued: I was once coerced to skip an uncle’s funeral when I was asked if it was really important for me to attend, in a tone that suggested she felt it wasn’t. I was also requested to return to work one afternoon after lunch when my cat was in labour – I returned home to find two healthy kittens, and one dead kitten suffocated by its caul.

Sonja ruined what should have been one of the happiest days of my life – moving into my first house (in the furthest environs of Toronto because that was all I could afford.) She had decided the date of a shoe museum symposium she was hosting over a weekend, without my input, to occur the very day I had booked for the closing and move. I was asked to reschedule my moving date, which I refused to do – even after a scene in front of the staff that lead to me breaking out in tears. I paid for that defiance for weeks which kept everyone in the office on edge. The symposium went ahead, with everyone attending wondering why I was absent.

The Fashion Staircase in All About Shoes

Despite these instances, she was relying on me more, even though she never once said in the entire 11 years ‘good job’, or ‘thank-you’. In 1994, with the new museum building nearing completion she decided that with the founding of the museum I needed to become the official curator. At the time I was making about $33,000 per year. She offered a $7,000 increase, but after I showed her that comparable starting salaries for curatorial positions in Toronto ranged between $50,000 – $60,000 she agreed to $45,000, split in two, 7K immediately, and 5K mid-year. June came and went, then July – in August I asked when the rest of my raise would kick in. The new director, Edward Maeder, checked but came back to ask if I had our agreement in writing. I was absolutely crushed. Sonja had lied to me and used the new director, who didn’t stand up for me, as a shield. So when the new Bata Shoe Museum opened with great fanfare to the public in May 1995, I was making less than half of what the director was making, and only a few thousand more per annum than the newly hired janitor, and I didn’t even have a key that opened all the doors. Instead, I had a key that opened a door in the basement where a lock box was located where I retrieved the various keys I needed for the day, signing them out and back in. Nothing was ever made to ease performance.

While it felt at times like she focussed on making my life miserable, I was not the only employee to experience her moods. After the museum opened, the entire staff and even some of the contractors, gathered for what is called nowadays a ‘kiki’ party to blow off steam. Everyone shared their Sonja horror stories and experiences, and there were many. There was even a souvenir program put together with some of the stories called ‘Tongues-a-Wagging’ of which I have kept my copy but will not reprint since it names names…

Although everyone felt her wrath at times, Sonja didn’t focus on real issues, often turning a blind eye to employees who were actively stealing from her. A now-retired part-time conservator did very little real work – she would come into the museum once a week mostly to talk to her friends on the phone all day because they were long distance from where she lived. Even worse, the janitor would take props and stock from storage and sell it at flea markets on the weekend. Years after I left, I found a shoemaker’s bench in an antique store that I knew came into the museum while I was there…

The other employee she tormented to the same extent as me was Susana Petti, a smart and eager marketing person hired at the time the new museum opened in 1995. Susana worked hard and had great ideas, but she was constantly met with resistance by Sonja. Susana had brought in the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mathers to donate their services to create an advertising campaign shortly after the museum opened. For some reason Sonja actively undermined any progression in creating the campaign until they walked away in search of a company who would be grateful for their gift.

Opening day at the  Museum, 1995 The shoes were an 11, I wear a 12…

As curator, I became the liaison between Sonja and many of the guest curators and designers. At the museum’s official opening in May 1995, Laurent Carrier of Design+Communications of Montreal, who had designed the flagship exhibition All About Shoes, came up to me and said “I won’t say it was a pleasure working with you…” his words surprised me because that exhibition was the least plagued by problems – I realized then that I was becoming used to the drama. Despite his angst, Laurent returned to produce other exhibitions for the museum. This was a pattern typical of many of the guest curators and designers. They all recognized how difficult it was to work with Sonja but they also knew it would only be for a few months, and at the end there would be an inflated pay cheque (everyone surcharged for the ‘sturm und drang’ of working with Sonja.) An American guest curator/project manager billed the museum in Canadian funds for his services but was mistakenly paid in U.S. funds when the American dollar was trading at around $1.40. He cashed the cheque and said nothing.

Another guest curator, Dr. Jill Oakes, had been commissioned on several occasions to collect items for the museum from Canada’s North, as well as curate several exhibitions and write accompanying books for the museum. Her expertise in northern cultures was eventually expanded to create a storyline for an exhibition about American Southwest Native footwear – an exhibition I was unaware she had been contracted to curate when Sonja asked me to also write a proposal and outline for the same show (on my own time, of course.) Sonja showed my proposal to Dr. Oakes telling her she liked mine better. Although Oakes professed the incident was nothing to worry about, it created an embarrassing situation.

Fortunately, I knew that most people could see what I was dealing with via knowing smiles and rolled eyes – even her own children. At the opening ceremonies, where my name was never uttered and I was never thanked, even though I had curated two of the four opening exhibitions, I wore a black jacket upon which I had painted white foot prints. Christine Schmidt quipped “Is mom stepping all over you?” I assured her she was.

At one point after the museum was open for about a year, Sonja realized there was a morale problem with the staff and hired a business consultant (Hugh… I have forgotten his last name) to assess what could be done. After extensive interviews and research, his report concluded that Sonja was the problem, not the staff. I never saw him again – the staff joked that he was probably buried in the basement.

Guiding Haakon on a tour, with Sonja in pink nervously fingering her necklace, ready to pounce…

Although I often was not introduced to special guests that came to the museum (Liona Boyd, Andre Pfister, Maureen Forrester…) I was brought in to give a ‘royal tour’ to Norway’s Prince Haakon. Judging by his reactions, I could see the 22 year old Prince was interested in fashion and celebrity shoes. He was admiring a pair of platforms worn by Madonna, when Sonja decided I wasn’t giving the right tour and stepped in to take over saying “Perhaps his highness would like to examine our Lapp collection?” This made me cringe since Lapp is the politically incorrect term for the Sami (the indigenous population of Northern Scandinavia). As well, our Sami collection was poor – hardly something worth showing the Crown Prince of Norway. Haakon politely followed Sonja as she completed the tour. I faded to the back of the entourage, embarrassed and emasculated. However, as he was leaving, Haakon sought me out to thank me for showing him the “most interesting shoes”. I thought he worded that well.

Until my promotion as curator, the staff consisted of myself, the full time conservator Ada Hopkins, and a part time conservator (the one on the phone all the time.) Prior to the opening of the new museum, more staff were hired including education coordinator Sheila Knox, and director Edward Maeder. I warned the egocentric Maeder that Sonja was not easy to work with but he assured me he knew how to handle women like her – he fled halfway through his five year contract.

The next director to come along was Sharon MacDonald who was the exact opposite of Edward Maeder in every aspect. She came from the police museum and was a bureaucratic rule follower. Within a couple of months she admitted to me Sonja appeared sadistic at times, especially towards me.

Shoe designer Beth Levine at the Bata Shoe museum 1996

The final straw came when my credibility was threatened on my 38th birthday, on February 23, 1999. Prophetically, my horoscope that day had said ‘don’t take up issues with your boss today, you will lose.’ Two events occurred that day that made it impossible for me to remain with the museum. The first happened when I came across the recently submitted tax receipts on the secretary’s desk. Looking through them I found one for $46,000 to Rick Riewe for photographs. Imagine my surprise when I saw the forged signature of the name of the person who had done the evaluation – Jonathan Walford. Rick Riewe was Jill Oakes husband, and had taken hundreds of photographs documenting the process of making traditional clothing in Siberia where Oakes had conducted a field collection the previous summer. Even if I agreed with the amount, I hadn’t done the evaluation, and certainly would not permit my name to appear for that huge an amount without documentation to prove fair market value, and/or an arm’s length third party assessment.

While I was contemplating what to do about this situation, the catalogues for the Japanese exhibition, which was opening that night, arrived from the printer. At the final production meeting two weeks earlier, I noticed my name was spelled correctly in the credits as both the exhibition curator and author of the catalogue. A few days after that meeting Sonja had told me she had called them to make a couple of minor changes, but it didn’t occur to me that it would be to remove any trace of my name from the catalogue. Knowing how Sonja’s mind works, she wanted it to look like the exhibition and the catalogue had been done in cooperation with the Japanese community by having only Japanese names in the credit list. Although the designer had a Japanese name, I did not.

My name was being added to things I hadn’t done and being removed from things I had done…I went ballistic.

I contemplated wiping out the entire catalogueing system (something I actually could have done – I knew how) However, I calmed down, got a box, filled it with my personal possessions and any damning evidence, and left the building. I went back a week later for a de-briefing, but instead of discussing the real issues, Sonja had pulled out some of my recent catalogueing sheets and pointed to insufficiently notated references. She then said she thought I must be entering a mid-life crisis… I stopped her there, stood up, held out my hand, thanked her for the opportunity of working with the collection but that I couldn’t work with her anymore. I still recall the look of complete shock on her face.  I was told later by the director, Sharon, who was in the meeting with us, that Sonja immediately said after I left that she realized she had not handled that well.

I had no option but to report the tax receipt to Revenue Canada – an action that resulted in a three year audit for the museum. Leslie Tenenbaum, one of the company’s lawyers, was brought in to mediate my departure in a heavy-handed manner. He tried to mitigate any possibility of my suing for constructive dismissal or fraud, and explained how I didn’t deserve an exit package because I left of my own accord. I just wanted out – all I could think of was the Tina Turner movie where she says all she wants is her name. I didn’t care what it took to get away from Sonja’s clutches and the frequent phone calls from her minion lawyer.

Sonja could be charming, but her motivation was power. She was not a great leader – she was an iron-fisted bully, and because she was at the top of the food chain, there was no managerial accountability. You know there is a problem when the only days you look forward to at work are the ones when the boss is out of town. There was an ongoing sardonic joke I had with Robert Barron, the education assistant – I would walk into the office in the morning and say “Is she dead yet?”, and he would retort “Maybe today!”

I am actually saddened by Sonja’s death, because of what could have been. She spent a fortune on artifacts that are a gift to the world through her architecturally important museum. She had a great eye for design and hired many good people over the years, but most of them left because she had problems trusting, respecting, supporting, appreciating, or allowing anyone to grow and learn. Eventually, her micromanagement and lack of integrity drove most everyone away. However, even a bad example is a model to learn from, and I learned amazing things while at Bata. I wouldn’t have started the Fashion History Museum without the experience I gained as the Bata Shoe Museum’s founding curator.

I had hoped my departure might change things for the better, but it made little difference. Sarah Beam, now an ex-employee of the museum, told me a few years ago how Sonja had bought a playhouse for her great grandson – Graydon, the son of Galen and Alexandra Weston. Sonja said she thought it would be amusing to watch Galen try to put it together on Christmas day – to which Sarah pointed out “That’s not very Christmasy – is it?”

28 thoughts on “The Devil Wears Bata — Sonja Bata 1926-2018

  1. This very interesting article, honest but not disrespectful in my opinion, sounds like you still felt the need to free yourself from that time a bit. I hope this finally worked for you.
    And: Happy Birthday and all the best!

  2. You really stuck it out, I had not realized you had put in quite so many years there, Jonathan. I don’t think I could have lasted as long under these conditions. It’s sad that someone you worked for in this capacity could treat you this badly. Certainly was not an easy thing to go through, but it certainly made you a stronger person!

  3. thank you from an ex-ROM curator. sharing your experiences of very serious museum mismanagement must have been painful. I admire your courage.

  4. Your essay deserves a writing award. Incredibly impressive precision and controlled anger and, amazingly, dry humour.

  5. WOW —– shocking where our hopes and dreams attempt to grow , but hey –Look where you are now! Always enjoy hearing peoples life experiences —Please share how your clothing collection began and grew to become a museum. Thanks for sharing !!

  6. The Devil wears Bata, indeed! My heart breaks reading what you went through. I have also survived a toxic workplace. Thankfully you and I have gotten through it and not only survived but thrived! As I tell my kids, there is no greater teacher than a bad boss (of what not to do to people).

    Thank you for sharing this Jonathan. Hope your birthday was great, and hope to see you soon.


  7. I’m delighted that you have finally had a chance to tell your side of the story. Living well is the best revenge, cheri.

  8. I knew vaguely that your experience at Bata was… mixed, but had no idea the reason was a pathologically cruel/controlling boss… Thank goodness you survived the experience, and managed to transform your hard-won experience there into the jewel that is the FHM!

  9. My first job in Canada was with Bata Shoe company in the new building at don Mills. I started to work there in the accounting department (second floor) in 1968. Just at that time, the bank reconciliation work (my primary job) was doubled on Bata’s request that the store managers in Canada deposit money twice a week, instead of once a week. Well, I was young and efficient and manage to handle the increased workload. My weekly salary was $80, before taxes. It was hard to live on. I have M.A. from Economic University, but this was my first job in a new country, and I was hoping for an increase. The increase never came, just excuses, although I was repeatedly asked to show on weekends. I left the Bata HQ after 13 months of hard work and started to look for a real job with a pay. Luckily, I found it.
    Yes, I learnt few things working in the sweatshop for 13 months, mostly about exploitation. T. Bata liked to show case his visits around the globe. On the show days, the employees had to work after hours to make up for the time lost.
    Since I had left, I learnt about the Bata fortunes and struggles from his published books. Well, it is not easy to be a boss, but T. Bata fought on every front, had difficulty to compromise. His most bitter fight was against the proposed workers union. He passed in 2008. As it happened I had seen him that year with his wife Sonja, at a social function.
    Four years later I attended Mrs. Bata presentation in Toronto where she talked about “capitalism with the human face”. Really. I am not sure who invented that phrase, but this would not be my description of Bata’s company dealing with his/her employees.
    Thank you for your description of working experience in the Bata Shoe museum.

    • Thanks for your interesting insight. I could share many more stories… and I never talked about Thomas – although I didn’t work directly for him, I saw a lot of things he did to other people, including his own son. At least with Thomas he was predictable – you knew you had to ask him something in the elevator about a recent trip, or something, before he asked you to do some impossible task and have the answer on his desk that afternoon. I learned that after not thinking fast enough once. He asked me to measure the sample shoes that had just come into his office from India. I measured them (inches and centimetres) and put the list on his desk – then he yelled at me because he wanted the commercial shoe sizes, not the actual measurements. I asked if he wanted them in American standard or Paris Point… he yelled at me again…

  10. A very interesting read. I interacted only a few times with SB while I worked in the Don Mills head office as well as the European office. We were always wary about how and what we spoke about to SB. On more than one occasion, I watched as her biting/withering verbal attacks could melt middle aged men. Like you, I learned much but also thought about the wasted human potential that rotated out the Bata doors…

  11. I found your review of working in the Bata Shoes museum much interesting and felt to comment on it. I could have described much more details, but needed to tell at least a short story after all these years. More so after the very last meeting with SB when she spoke of the “capitalism with human face”. That was bit too much.
    Thank you for your response; the note was just a draft and my apologies for any typos.

  12. Jonathan,
    Your comment about the elevator made me laugh. It was an open secret that many employees at the head office took the side stairs rather than take the elevator! 😉 If Mr.Bata got a hold of you, he’d ask ‘How many pairs of shoes have you sold today?’. This of course was a set up question as he knew full well that our jobs were to support the stores in achieving actual sales.

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