The face of Bata whose museum of shoes told a story
Sonja Bata obituary: born November 8th, 1926; died February 20th, 2018
Canadian Czech-born Sonja Bata with her husband, businessman Tomas Bata – the owner of the Bata global shoe empire – celebrating his 90th birthday in 2004. Photograph: Jan Karasek/AFP/Getty Images
Two weeks before her death, on February 20th at the age of 91, Sonja Bata added one last pair of 18th-century heels to her collection of more than 13,000 shoes – a trove, spanning 4,500 years of history, that is on permanent display at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
It also chronicles a personal history – of a life spent travelling the world with her husband, Thomas Bata, who led his family’s Czech shoe manufacturing and retail business, the Bata Shoe Company, on to an international stage.
Bata was born Sonja Ingrid Wettstein on November 8th, 1926, in Zurich to the former Cleopatra Sutter and George Wettstein. Her father was from a line of distinguished lawyers with international clients. Her mother was known as a perfectionist homemaker who frequently entertained international guests. By the time Sonja was born, her father was blind, and from a young age she would read letters and legal documents to him.
Career in design
Sonja eschewed the family profession to pursue a career in design, though her time in school was short-lived. She was only a semester into her architecture programme at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich when she became acquainted with Thomas Bata, the heir to the Bata Shoe Company, during a ski weekend in St Moritz.
Sonja and Thomas had met as children – Wettstein was the company’s lawyer – but had remembered little of each other as they grew up. A romance blossomed, and on an airplane that Bata, an amateur pilot, was flying from Basel to Zurich, she received a sky-high proposal to marry him. They wed in 1946.
The company’s operations had moved from Zlín, in eastern Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), to southern Ontario in 1938 as the rumblings of imminent war in Europe grew louder.
After they married, Sonja Bata, long accustomed to the sophistication and convenience of Zurich, moved with her husband to the village of Frankford, near Lake Ontario midway between Toronto and Ottawa. Just south of their home, Thomas Bata had developed 1,600 acres into a planned community called Batawa, a hybridisation of the shoe manufacturer’s name and the Canadian capital.
The couple spent much of their time travelling for business, to Africa, Asia and South America. The trips gave Sonja Bata opportunities to express her love of architecture by commissioning factories and retail locations as a business partner with no formal title.
The time spent abroad also bolstered her growing shoe collection, which in the course of a few decades had grown to 1,500 pairs. There were towering chopines from the Italian Renaissance and three-inch-long women’s shoes from China.
In 1979, after three decades of touring the world, Bata asked an ethnologist friend in Toronto, Alika Webber, to examine her collection, which also includes clothes, shoemaking tools and other artefacts. Webber noted that the items, many of which were handmade, reflected methods of shoe production that were in danger of being forgotten; she deemed them artefacts worthy of a museum.
Later that year, Bata established the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, which funded research projects and housed her collection until the museum in Toronto opened its doors in 1995. Bata had commissioned the architect Raymond Moriyama to design the building, a modern interpretation of a shoe box clad in limestone tiles.
Bata had a profound interest in the history of indigenous peoples, fuelled by her far-flung travels, and dedicated funds to preserving their shoemaking processes. Through the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, she supported footwear research in the Arctic and throughout Europe and Asia, which yielded exhibitions of furry Inuit boots and books on how the making of traditional Siberian garments reflects religious beliefs.
Perhaps unintentionally, Bata became the face of the company in Canada, in part through her involvement with Girl Guides, World Wildlife Fund Canada, the National Design Council and other organisations.
Her husband died in 2008. Besides Christine Schmidt, who confirmed the death, Bata is survived by two other daughters, Monica Pignal and Rosemarie Bata; a son, Thomas; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. She lived in Toronto and died at Toronto Western Hospital.