Canadian Fashion Gives Back

The Globe and Mail/June 2014


Seeking accessories as ethical as they are ethereal? Lauren Chan profiles three lines that merge passion with a sense of purpose.

OUT OF AFRICA

Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based Aurora James launched Brother Vellies in January 2013. Formerly a curator for Gen Art, a non-profit organization to help support emerging artists, James fell in love with the idea of tradition African shoes and saw a North American market for them.

“I knew that [African] people—especially in Southern Africa—weren’t really wearing them anymore. In place of them, they were wearing Nikes and Pumas, so [the people who made the traditional shoes] were losing their jobs. That gave me the idea to start the company.”

Ever the philanthropist, the designer is constantly tweaking the company for the better. For instance, Brother Vellies’ sandal production was recently moved from South Africa to Kenya because, “The [employees] in South Africa have been making desert boots for multiple generations and sandals aren’t intuitively South African, so it wasn’t second nature to them. It felt more natural to move the sandal production to Kenya where they wear and make a lot of sandals. It’s also important for the brand as we grow to hopefully create jobs in different countries.”

As far as sustainability goes, James says, “We use vegetable dyed leather from a kudu, which is an over populated animal. Due to the South African government’s mandated calling, it’s actually considered an animal by-product. It’s also about hiring local. Everyone who works at our workshop lives within a kilometer.”

In addition to supporting and creating jobs in Africa, you can look (literally) outstanding in a pair of Brother Vellies. The designer recommends, “The Tyre Sandals. They’re a great [eco-friendly] alternative to a Birkenstock. It still has a leather insole and it’s a bit wider, which makes it comfortable. Especially the denim one, because who doesn’t love denim?”

POETIC JUSTICE

Kim Smiley’s Sappho collection is equal parts gorgeous and generous. The jewelry collection, born from the designer’s love of poetry and experimentation with mixed media painting, also aids marginalized populations in Toronto.

While that may seem like a lot of work to take on, Smiley remembers, “I thought, ‘I can’t just start a jewelry business, I need to enrich it with deeper meaning,’ so I decided to integrate my passions into the business model, which are poetry and social justice.” Sappho now sells a full range of jewelry made from lace, gemstones, and unique trinkets while providing work at a living wage for women in turmoil.

Smiley’s background and day job in the charitable sector lend enough knowledge to properly impose economic self-sufficiency on her employees. What’s more? “The women say it’s almost meditative to create my jewelry,” which infuses a positive energy into the modern relics.

People are also reading poetry because of Sappho, which the designer considers a way to improve and enrich the fashion world—especially in an era of 140 characters. As a way to culturally enrich the wearer, very piece from the collection comes with a fragment of a Sappho poem.

What should you buy now? Smiley suggests, “My earrings. [They] are wonderful for summer, because part of the allure of Sappho is that they’re incredibly light. [The] lace is ideal for summer.”

EASTERN PROMISES

As the one-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh and the first Fashion Revolution Day approached, Laura Siegel was preparing for the release of PROJECT ELEVEN27. For the charitable project, the designer created 1,127 scarves as an ode to the 1,127 lives lost in the factory collapse.

“It’s a concept that came about after I saw images of the [aftermath]—it really hit me hard. My ultimate goal is to raise awareness and help the families that were affected by the tragedy. I don’t want people to see this and then forget about it. I want people to start thinking about where their clothing is coming from and how they can make a difference,” explains Siegel.

The limited edition pieces are hand-woven with silk, cotton, and recycled sarees collected from women in rural villages around Kutch, India. Their proceeds, to be given to the Sreepur Village Organization, will be put towards providing social workers and caretakers for the affected families. Siegel also says they’re bringing new knowledge to the families by, “Making sure their kids are staying in school. If their focus isn’t on education they can end up working in a factory, unfortunately like one of their family members did. They also teach the families how to manage money.”

What should you wear with your PROJECT ELEVEN27 scarf? The designer says, “I love the scarves with anything white. It brings something out of the scarf that’s really nice!”

 

Printed nationally in the June 21, 2014 Style Section of the Globe and Mail.

—Lauren Chan