There’s something to be said for people destined to do good in the world based on their life experiences and mission.
That’s the case for entrepreneur and fashion activist Kim Smiley, the Toronto-based designer whose jewelry collection is not only beautiful, but positively impacts the world as well — thanks to her mission-driven brand.
Kim Smiley’s eponymous handcrafted line of lace and Swarovski crystal-embellished cuffs, earrings, necklaces, and rings are made with love, but her “why” goes beyond high fashion: Smiley’s mission is “Beauty For The Public Good.” Her business is built on three pillars: fine arts, social justice, and poetry.
“Fashion is a wonderful way to spread beauty, not just aesthetic beauty but as a force for social change," Smiley said.
"So, my business weaves together fine art (every piece in the collection is one of a kind and conceived as a wearable work of art); social justice (the jewelry is hand-sewn by newcomers to Canada from war-torn places like Aleppo, Syria); and every piece is named after a poet, either famous or emerging. The website, KimSmiley.com, is a platform to present jewelry and also to promote an appreciation of poetry.”
Smiley’s major coup came earlier this year when Spouse of the Prime Minister Sophie Gregoire Trudeau wore her jewelry and a custom-made dress on the Trudeau family’s trip to India. This moment catapulted Smiley into the national and global spotlight. In other words, Smiley’s jewelry is making major waves.
“I studied at McGill and Harvard and then worked in the nonprofit sector for 13 years. My work focused on empowering marginalized populations,” she said. “I was always very engaged in poverty alleviation and creating programs for meaningful employment. The idea of founding a company that created employment opportunities for a living wage excited me as much as starting a fashion business.”
A Citizen of the World: Smiley’s Globetrotting Beginnings
Smiley is a perfect example of a multi-hyphenated businesswoman: an activist-writer-photographer-fashion designer whose life experiences culminated into the business she manages today.
Smiley was exposed to different cultures at a young age as she traveled to the Middle East and India with her family. And although she was always passionate about fashion — after all, her favorite past-time was playing dress-up with all kinds of jewelry collected from countries like Israel, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran — Smiley pursued degrees in Comparative Religion, Anthropology & Art History at McGill University, followed by a degree in Asian Religion, Philosophy & Women's Studies at Harvard University.
Subsequently, she did a post-graduate fellowship in Japan: It was in Tokyo that Smiley discovered the metallic lace that would be her canvas.
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“I have been a mixed-media artist from a fairly early age and began using lace in my paintings. One day, standing in front of a series of paintings I made with antique and Japanese lace, I had an epiphany: these are too pretty to be on a wall! They should be on a woman’s body,” she explains.
I began experimenting with translating the lace into jewelry, and my company was born.
After soft-launching her brand in 2013, Smiley went full steam ahead and launched her line formally at World MasterCard Fashion Week in 2014 with the support of the Toronto Fashion Incubator.
“I had a full-time job in non-profit at the time and took vacation time in order to participate [in World MasterCard Fashion Week 2014]. It took me another year-and-a-half of doing shows and building my business to work up the gumption to resign from my day job to pursue my jewelry business full time.”
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From Non-Profits to Founding a Social Enterprise
Smiley has supported more than 15 charity organizations with her jewelry line — something that has always come naturally to her.
“I worked in the charitable sector for most of my career. Because I was immersed in the field of philanthropy, I have many causes that are close to my heart," she said. "We give 20% of sales to charity at our trunk shows for a cause, furthering our social mission of advancing ‘Beauty For The Public Good.’”
In addition to giving a portion of sales to different charities, Smiley empowers female newcomers to Canada and providing meaningful employment that pays a living wage of $18 per hour.
“The fashion industry receives a lot of negative press for fast fashion, but the industry has been getting a facelift as consumers become more interested in who made their clothes and jewelry,” Smiley said. “I first learned about the living wage campaign while I was a graduate student: the fact that I integrated this into my business is one of the things that really sets us apart."
Elevating women is intrinsic to the fabric of my business.
"One of the charities I worked with in my previous career was JVS Toronto (Jewish Vocational Services): they have a program for Syrian refugees and connected me with many of the women with whom I work.”
Smiley is also the founder of a non-profit called The Empathy Effect, a social movement she created that encourages people to choose kindness and take part in an act of empathy every day.
In The Public Eye: Accessorizing Sophie Gregoire Trudeau
Karma seems to have stepped in recently to boost Smiley's business: Sophie Gregoire Trudeau took notice of Smiley’s work and designs.
“Sophie first wore my jewelry, a pair of earrings, at the Press Gallery Dinner in 2016. I was on her radar from that point.”
Two years later, the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife wore Smiley’s designs (her jewelry and a handmade dress encrusted with colorful Swarovski crystals) on the Trudeau family’s trip to India in February 2018.
“My jewelry is very inspired by India, a country I visited as a child. Many people think the lace is evocative of ‘henna’ (a form of body art)," Smiley says.
"When I was contacted by Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s team to send jewelry for her trip to India, I also saw it as an opportunity to send samples from my clothing line. That moment of spotting her in my jewelry at the Taj Mahal took my breath away, and the boost to my business was meteoric, with traffic to my website rising exponentially. When one of my seamstresses spotted her in one of our dresses, we were honestly over the moon. Sophie wearing my designs on the world stage gave us international exposure, and brought a lot of positive press to the merits of social enterprise.”
Whatever our wildest dreams, they only scratch the surface of what is possible. ✨The Kim Smiley Sophie Caftan (named after the illustrious @sophiegregoiretrudeau) is the perfect canvas to pair with our signature metallic lace and Swarovski jewellery, handmade for a living wage in Toronto. - - - - 📸 by Pedro Oliver @pj242 🙏. Shot on location in the Bahamas, March 2018. - - - - - #shabbatshalom #canadian #canadiandesigner #madelocal @houseofsophiegregoiretrudeau #fashiondesigner #empathypledge #theempathyeffect #slowfashion #socialenterprise #influencer #canadianfashionblogger #tznius #modestfashion #modestmovement #canadianfashionlove #instagood
The dress that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau wore on the family’s India trip had significant meaning as well.
“Our inspiration for the clothing line is the poem, ‘Woman of Valour’ from Proverbs 31 in the Bible. We are inspired by the woman who elevates looking beautiful as much as being beautiful, in terms of enriching the world. The line is ‘one size fits most’, feminine, flowing, and regal.”
And the timing was perfect, as apparel is the next product category in the Kim Smiley collection, which will include “The Sophie” dress (which was originally called “The Empathy Effect Dress”).
Connecting With Customers: Being A “Girlfriend-To-Girlfriend” Brand
While traffic to Smiley’s website saw a major boost thanks to “the Sophie effect,” Smiley has also taken her jewelry collection to pop-up shops around Canada, including an activation at Indigo Books and Music as well as boutiques in Toronto and Montreal.
When it comes to in-person selling while in her showroom or at a pop-up activation, Smiley leverages a marketing tactic that has become a larger business trend today: being a “girlfriend-to-girlfriend” brand:
“Our brand can be classified as a ‘girlfriend-to-girlfriend brand.’ We are all about relationships with our clients. Over the years, we’ve built deep, meaningful relationships with the women who wear my designs. We reach out to clients one-on-one and harness social media for the trunk shows in our showroom. When we do charity trunk shows, we work with nonprofits to engage their constituents as well.”
The notion of a “girlfriend-to-girlfriend” brand is a newer marketing term that was featured in a 2018 J. Walter Thompson Intelligence Trend Report called The Future 100, which describes direct-to-consumer brands such as Glossier and Reformation that have cultivated a community that goes beyond retail. According to the report, “Fans of female-founded empires are not just buying into the product; they are supporting the story of the CEO, female entrepreneurship, and the journey.”
Another interesting point to note about “girlfriend-to-girlfriend” marketing, quoted in the JWT Trend Report: “Entrepreneurs are the new celebrities: and women are the fastest-growing group. According to a 2016 report by the Kauffman Foundation, 40.6% of all new businesses are started by women.”
Smiley explains how her brand is a direct reflection of her and strives to make it authentic.
“My company is a confluence of all my passions. I think my different skills allowed me to develop the marketing and branding alongside the product from the beginning. This is critical because the story behind my company, the philosophical and business principles we embrace, is so foundational to why we exist.”
Lessons For New Entrepreneurs: When Social Consciousness Meets Social Media
As for social media, Smiley uses Instagram with three different goals in mind: education, promotion, and community engagement.
“One of the ways we built our following was by profiling our clients in my designs in social media. We don’t use professional models because we believe our clients capture the essence of our aesthetic. We are also about promoting beauty in every size and shape under the sun.”
Another important component of Kim Smiley’s brand is the timelessness of each design:
“Our philosophy is that true beauty is when the inside is as beautiful as the outside. Our target demographic appreciates the physical beauty of the designs, but the most consistent message we get from clients is that the jewelry is like wearing a badge of honor. Our target demographic is socially conscious, appreciates the timelessness of our designs, and ranges from women in their 20s to women in their 80s. One of the trends we love is that we have families where the grandmothers, mothers, and daughters all wear my designs. We like to say that our designs are like heirlooms to be passed down to the next generation.”
As for aspiring entrepreneurs, who are just getting started on their side hustle? Smiley suggests that they “do work you care passionately about. It will feel like less of a job and more of a calling.”