Toronto designer worn by Trudeaus stitches together fashion with social justice

With empathy as her work ethic, Kim Smiley hires immigrant and refugee women to make her intricate metallic lace and dazzling crystal jewelry

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Designer Kim Smiley wearing some of her creations, Toronto, March 2018. (Gilbert Benamou)
Designer Kim Smiley wearing some of her creations, Toronto, March 2018. (Gilbert Benamou)

In February, Toronto fashion designer Kim Smiley experienced the kind of career-boosting endorsement of which dreams are made.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau was spotted on a well publicized trip to India wearing some of Smiley’s handmade jewelry pieces and clothing. Justin Trudeau himself wore one of her colorful pocket squares at a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Hits to my website went up something like 10,000 percent,” Smiley said in a recent phone interview with The Times of Israel.

The thrill comes not so much from the fact that this could be life-changing for Smiley, but rather for her employees, who are all immigrant and refugee women.

Close-up of seamstress Sylvie Aknadossian’s hands as she works on a Kim Smiley lace heel with a Swarovski eye, part of a collaboration with Tanya Heath Paris Canada. Kim Smiley’s one-of-kind pocket-squares, hand-sewn with silk, lace and Swarovski are displayed in background. (Kim Smiley, Inc.)

Smiley has built her company as a social enterprise. She exclusively employs female newcomers to Canada, and pays them a living wage of $18 per hour as part of her agenda to empower women. Smiley also gives a portion of all sales to a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish charities through The Empathy Effect, a nonprofit she founded.

Despite the recent national and international media attention, Smiley is far from an overnight success. She started making her signature metallic lace and Swarovski crystal jewelry in 2012. In 2013, she hired expert seamstresses to help her, and in 2014 she launched Kim Smiley, Inc.

Some of the designer’s more elaborate pieces take more than 100 hours to complete. The bracelets, necklaces, earrings and breastplates run from $50 up to $5,000.

Grégoire Trudeau took an interest in Smiley’s wearable art early on, and purchased a pair of earrings which she wore to the annual Press Gallery Dinner in 2016. (When asked, Canada’s Prime Minister’s Office declined to provide comment from Grégoire Trudeau on her affinity for Smiley’s designs and her choice to include some of them in her India trip wardrobe.)

A close-up of the Kim Smiley dress Sophie Gregoire Trudeau wore in India. The dress, inspired by the chakras, incorporates Smiley’s higher education in Asian Religion and Philosophy. The lace and Swarovski detail was hand-sewn in Smiley’s Toronto studio. (Kim Smiley, Inc.)

Canada’s first family caught flack for their sartorial choices during their  India trip. Critics labeled their many over-the-top traditional Indian outfits a fashion faux-pas. Indian and Canadian media alike accused the Trudeaus of trying to out-Bollywood Bollywood.

Smiley declined to take a position on the controversy. She said she had focused on the 20 items Grégoire Trudeau selected from her collections and had waited anxiously to see if the Trudeaus would actually wear any of them.

Smiley was not disappointed. She and her staff were elated to see photos and videos of the prime minister’s wife wearing dangling Kim Smiley earrings on visits to Agra’s famed Taj Mahal and Darbar Sahib (The Golden Temple) in Amritsar, Punjab. Grégoire Trudeau wore one of Smiley’s elaborate breastplate necklaces at a speaking engagement in Mumbai, and was spotted in one of her dresses at an elephant conservation and care center in Mathura.

An eclectic group of worldly seamstresses

“I was actually the one who first spotted Sophie wearing our dress on TV. I immediately told Kim to look. It was so exciting, an awesome feeling. It was really promising and a sign of good luck for the future,” said employee Sylvie Aknadossian, an Armenian Christian immigrant from Aleppo, Syria.

The dress, inspired by the Chakras, is a prototype for a clothing line Smiley hopes to launch later this year. She plans to have the garments manufactured by women in other countries and finished with pricey Japanese lace and dazzling crystals by the seamstresses she employs in Toronto. Smiley currently has six Syrians working for her and is in the process of hiring more women.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, their sons Hadrien and Xavier, daughter Ella-Grace, second right, in front of Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, February 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

“There is misinformation out there that I only employ Syrians. That is not at all true. I initially hired Armenian women from Syria because I was partnering with a JVS Toronto program, and these were the people they were helping to find employment. I would be happy to have newcomers to Canada of all backgrounds work with me,” Smiley said.

Aknadossian, who has been in Canada longer than the other women, helps translate between English and Armenian. Good English is not a requirement, as Smiley looks for women with expert sewing and handcraft skills and generally manages to communicate by demonstrating what she wants done.

Close-up of hands of a Syrian refugee working with lace, gems, fine metals and Swarovski to create Kim Smiley’s designs. (Kim Smiley, Inc.)

Nayiri Kasarian, who learned to embroider and make lace by hand from her mother, has worked for Smiley for the last 16 months. She escaped Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War with her husband and younger son. After some time in a refugee camp in Lebanon, they arrived in 2016 to Toronto, where an older son was already living.

Kasarian refused to talk about her traumatic experiences during the war, emphasizing instead how much she enjoys her work with Smiley.

“This job is challenging. I am learning new skills and ideas from Kim,” she said with some translation help from Aknadossian.

Smiley’s creations are highly influenced by her academic background in Asian religions and philosophy, and women’s studies. There are also nods to the extended trips to Asia she took with her family as she grew up in Montreal.

“I had an unconventional upbringing. My parents had the travel bug. There was one trip when I was three and my brothers were five and seven, when we spent an entire year on the road in a VW van. We started in Israel and moved on to Turkey, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Iran, Iraq, and a bunch of other countries,” Smiley said.

Her parents collected tribal jewelry along the way, which became her playthings.

Kim Smiley presenting her Amulet Collection at Toronto Fashion Week, 2018. The collection is inspired by the idea that women and girls are superheroes, but many in disguise. (Gilbert Benamou)

Smiley views her fashion venture as a means of bringing together her lifelong passions for art and social justice. Before launching her jewelry line, she worked at nonprofit organizations and UJA-Federation in the areas of affordable housing and services for the vulnerable.

The designer is investigating possible international locations for the production of her clothing line. India is a possibility, but so is Israel, where she has close ties. This summer, she plans to make a trip there to investigate the possibility of Israeli and Palestinian women working together for her.

Smiley’s interest in a model based on shared society between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis stems from her professional involvement with The Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society, which was launched by the Jewish Federations of North America in 2007. The fund aims to strengthen and coordinate the North American Jewish community’s efforts to address the unmet needs of Israel’s Arab citizens, with a particular focus on Arab women’s empowerment and capacity building.

Smiley has also been inspired by SodaStream, the Israeli carbonated beverage machines company that employs Israelis and Palestinians of all backgrounds. SodaStream, which closed a plant over the Green Line east of Jerusalem, has been a target of the BDS movement.

“SodaStream has been a huge source of inspiration, inventiveness and courage. I applaud and admire the company’s fortitude, heart and courage,” Smiley said.

Expanding her operations to Israel feels natural to the designer.

“I am manufacturing in the countries I want to spend time in, am inspired by, and wish to support economically. A big piece of my heart is in Israel,” she said.

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