Jewels and lace mixed with social change.
That’s the vision behind Kim Smiley’s handmade jewelry and clothing.
Her work was showcased on the world stage when the Trudeaus sported her pieces on their recent trip to India from the Taj Mahal to the presidential palace.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was heavily criticized for his multiple photo ops in traditional Indian garb during the trip. But many of the pieces were handmade in Toronto and Smiley hopes the attention will lead to good, instead of gossip.
“Our mantra is beauty for the public good,” said the self-described social entrepreneur, whose story is much deeper than the glitter on the surface.
“So we’re not into fashion for fashion’s sake, or beauty for beauty’s sake. We’re into beauty with a purpose,” Smiley told Global News from her Toronto studio.
“We’re into slow fashion. We’re into making a difference in elevating women.”
Living wages and employing newcomers
For Smiley, that means hiring a team of six Syrian refugees as seamstresses and paying them a living wage of $18 per hour to craft the intricate lace-based designs — some of which take more than 100 hours to complete. She says the wage makes the difference between helping someone pay for food and electricity, and allowing their children to participate in music or art lessons.
“Every one of the Syrian women that I employ is an artist in her own right,” said Smiley. “What’s so exciting for me about my business is that I’m creating opportunities for other women to flourish. That’s probably the most exciting thing for me.”
“This is a job which I love and do it with love, without stress,” said seamstress Nayiri Kasarian. “Because this is the thing which I dream, to work in Canada.”
Kasarian came from Syria in 2015, and has been working with Smiley for 15 months. She recently introduced her friend and fellow immigrant Sylvie Aknadossian to Smiley. The pair did similar work as a hobby back home in Aleppo.
“She opened her heart and just gave a chance to show who they are, how hard workers they are,” said Aknadossian, saying she has “gratitude” for Smiley and her mission.
“Because of her, we’re here.”
Aknadossian has been in Canada for eight years, emigrating before the civil war. Her firmer command of the English language means she can help with more than the needle and thread.
“Everything is so fastidious. My jewelry takes hours to make, so I want to make sure that we use our materials well. The materials are also very expensive. The lace is from Japan and it’s some of the finest lace in the world,” said Smiley.
“So having Sylvie there to act as my translator, and she also does quality control for me, has become such a resource.”
Fashion on the world stage
Their work has started to get noticed. Smiley sent Sophie Gregoire Trudeau samples through Jessica Mulroney – friend to Smiley, friend and fashion consultant to Gregoire Trudeau.
And last week, Aknadossian saw a familiar sparkle on the news.
“I said please, go to the TV… Sophie is on and wearing our dress,” said Aknadossian.
WATCH BELOW: Syrian seamstresses react to seeing Sophie Gregoire Trudeau wear their work
The dress Gregoire Trudeau was wearing at a visit to an elephant sanctuary features Swarovski crystals and lace embellishments hand-sewn by Smiley’s team in her dining room.
“Oh my God, that was something, I mean unique, I can’t describe the feeling,” said Aknadossian “I was so excited, I was saying, ‘Kim, you did it again!’ Because Kim is someone like, oh my God, she spreads love all over the place.”
Gregoire Trudeau was also spotted wearing a pair of Smiley’s earrings during her visit to the Golden Temple and a breastplate necklace during a speaking engagement in Mumbai.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sported a pocket square embellished with Swarovski crystals when he met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gregoire Trudeau first wore Smiley’s pieces at the Taj Mahal – a pair of long blue earrings which Smiley says are “upcycled” from a vintage 1920s pair from India, with lace and crystals added.
A deep connection to India
It was that Taj Mahal debut that meant the most to Smiley on a personal level.
“Sophie Gregoire Trudeau wearing the earrings in front of the Taj Mahal was so personally meaningful to me … About 30 years ago my family, so my parents and my two brothers and I, sat in the very same spot.”
As a three-year-old, Smiley’s family spent a year driving across Asia in a Volkswagen van. They stopped in India for several months, and Smiley has felt a deep connection with the country ever since.
Later on, her graduate studies were in Asian religion and women’s studies at Harvard University, and she went on to a 13-year career in the non-profit world, before switching gears to launch her “fashion revolution.”
Her connection to India runs so deep, in fact, that she hopes to expand her company there – helping women all over the globe.
“My vision for it is almost like a love letter from India to Toronto. So the women in India are going to create the clothes, and then the love letter will be sent back to Canada, and it’ll be finished by Syrian women here, who are going to hand sew the garment with the metallic lace that I use, which is kind of like my signature, and then the Swarovski crystal.”
Once Smiley sets up shop in India, she has further expansion plans.
“We also want to create the clothing in Israel with Arab and Jewish women working side by side. That’s always been my dream to use fashion as a way to building bridges between people, and create peace and shared society.”
Smiley says she sees clothes as a canvas to showcase the work of different artists around the globe.
“I’m an artist myself and a lot of my friends are artists … I want to use my friends’ artwork and my artwork as the actual backdrop for the clothes so the patterns of clothes will be the art,” she said. “I think fashion can be such a powerful tool to showcase people’s art, so the clothes will be the art, the wearable works of art.”
“I would like people to be more like Kim, so they can give a chance for newcomers,” said Aknadossian.