Linzi Rooney runs Studio Souk . Established in 2014, it showcases products and producers from across Northern Ireland, telling a distinctive story of place. Her newest venture, Born & Bred, puts Studio Souk’s offering in Belfast City Airport from August 1st. In Linzi’s words, “the local, the unique, the authentic, needs to be the story that the city tells the world.”
Linzi trained as a photographer, retrained as a silversmith, and started selling her jewellery at monthly pop-up events. Studio Souk is now Lonely Planet’s top choice for arts and crafts in the city and has featured in the New York Times along the way. Mummy to two young children, Linzi is frank about the impact of losing her mum to breast cancer at the age of 15, leading to her decision to have a double mastectomy in 2017: “I maybe had to grow up quicker than some people. Maybe that left me more driven, but I don’t really think about it”
What is the challenge you’re working to address in Belfast?
Belfast is home and I’m always going to love it. Maybe that’s why the city’s challenges are so personal: we don’t appreciate the real value of the creative industries, which means we risk losing what makes the city unique. And there’s too often a very traditional mindset to how we do things. Belfast needs both local companies and international brands. But it’s our unique businesses that ensure Belfast doesn’t look like every other city. We need to be true to Belfast. That means recognising the value of the creative industries in communicating the city’s distinctiveness and supporting them to do that. It’s really important that the people interacting with tourists tell an authentic Belfast story: I recently had a tourist tell me that the concierge in her major, luxury hotel had never heard of Studio Souk. So, we need to ask ourselves, are tourists being told about what makes the city unique? Or, are things like Game of Thrones driving the conversation and overshadowing the opportunity for us to build experiences that say ‘This is real Belfast’?
How are you thinking and doing differently?
Studio Souk has always been about a community of makers. I was still making my jewellery when I opened it. My studio was at home, but I wanted to be with other people. It’s a big feature of the creative sector, that people work alone, but lots of people want to work together and to do that affordably. Some people, like me, just get more done when they’re in a group; other people are motivators for us. I’ve always been interested in people, going back to my photography. Basically, Studio Souk was the way for me to keep doing what I was doing and get to work alongside other people. The doing differently was about finding an affordable model for creative workspace in Belfast.
The shop is just our front window: it’s a studio space, a gallery space, a retail space. The artists have their own community, what I call the Souk Family. We work hard to make sure that the city is part of that community and that we’re part of the city. We have our impact cards dotted around the shop telling people about our work with young offenders. We host monthly Souk Session music events. And we’re partnering with our neighbours in Bullitt to really tell that story of community. People are always the most important thing about our work. Visitors comment on the inviting welcome in the shop, but that’s because the city’s most authentic thing is its people: we’re friendly and warm and dry and sarcastic, and that’s what you get in Studio Souk. It’s just like coming into somebody’s house.
I’m very relaxed about how we try new things, provided they’re about the local experience. If people want to try something, I’m happy for them to give it a go. Maybe some people just need to be led more by the hand. But if you have confidence in what you’re doing, then you can try anything and learn from it, whatever way it works out.
What will make a Successful Belfast for you?
A city that highlights what makes it unique and that better supports its local experiences. Part of that can be looking at how we incentivise local business. And, I have the mentality to just try things and if they don’t work, then ‘oh well’, but not everyone has that mindset. Think about the amount of money that doesn’t stay in the Belfast economy because people don’t follow their dreams and start something. For me, a creative city is about more than the creative sector. It’s about people expressing themselves, and the positive impact that has on their well-being and mental health. And by supporting businesses and social enterprises operating in the creative industries, you’re supporting people to have their own business. It’s a virtuous cycle.