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The Heart Behind - The-Extra Smile

The Heart Behind - The-Extra Smile
THE HEART BEHIND is a series where we get to know the founders and the heart behind what they do.

We hear from the founders of The-Extra Smile, an ethical kids fashion label hoping to put an extra smile on your face. Samantha and Heleen are mothers who have travelled and lived in multiple cities. They tell us more about why they're passionate about what they do at The-Extra Smile.




How did the two of you meet and what sparked the idea for The-Extra Smile?  

Sam: Heleen and I met in Bangkok in 2016. We were both working and our daughters were friends in school. Late 2017, Heleen had a wake up call and started to think about creating her own brand. A brand that had a purpose, a meaning. She came up with a children’s clothes concept and asked me to join her in her adventure! It was brilliant and I wanted
to be part of it right away.

Heleen: Our daughters were friends at kindergarten, so we met through birthday parties and parent events. One day, I was reviewing Samantha’s CV and I saw her rich and diverse professional experience: from launching fashion brands in Europe to supervising the inauguration of a mall in Africa. That’s when I advised her to start her own business, but she was hesitant. I saw that she needed an extra push to go for it, which was the same for me - I needed a partner to take the decision (to start The-Extra Smile), and I am so happy that we found each other.

 

 

Running a fashion label is not easy, especially when you two do not live in the same city/timezone. How do you manage that?

Sam: I live in Bangkok and Heleen moved to Chile mid 2018. At that time, we just created the company in Singapore and we knew that being apart was going to be challenging! But we were motivated and for nearly 2 years now, we have been working this way. We have calls every week and we chat everyday through emails and WhatsApp. It is sometimes not obvious, but we have found a great routine that allows us to be efficient!

Heleen: When our family came back to Chile in May 2018 for personal affairs, we didn’t have clarity on how long we were going to stay here. It was supposed to be a temporary move for six months or so. The distance and the time difference are actually not that much of a challenge as one might think: technology in combination with clear communication eliminates the difficulties of not sharing the same office.

 

What keeps you going despite the uncertainties and challenges?

Sam: The love of our concept, our beautiful collection, the interest of companies like Ethical Merchants, Boijoux (our co-creation jewelry partner) and our retailers in Belgium, the enthusiasm of our customers, and the creative and positive mind of my beautiful and smart partner!

Heleen: What keeps me going? The same thing that made me start the adventure: the desire to make a difference in the lives of garment workers and to the planet.


 

Covid-19 has been a major disruptor this year. How has the pandemic affected your business?

Sam: It has affected us in many ways. We had planned to launch our collection in several shops in Belgium by March 2020 but because of this pandemic everything was delayed to June.

So our workshop came up with a brilliant idea: use our leftover fabrics to produce kid’s masks. The demand was growing and it was a great way to maintain the work and salary of the employees of our workshops. But advertising on those masks quickly became complicated. Facebook and Instagram were putting barriers to advertising around Covid-19 and face masks. For a new brand like us, advertising is essential!

Being on lockdown was of course a joy killer and we both had to deal with our daughter’s home schooling (like millions of parents!). It took me time to adapt my schedule! March and April were hard as sales were down, but we are confident in the future. And with all our new designs, I am convinced that 2020 is our year!

Heleen: The pandemic has affected us, and will continue to affect us until the virus is under control. Luckily, our workshops in Cambodia have been able to keep their workers safe and employed. None of their employees have lost their jobs or income. We are proud of this, and it proves that our model puts people before profit.

Our projected sales have taken a hit, but we are confident that the strength of our purpose, and the increased awareness of consumers for the need of more sustainable products, will eventually help us grow as a social enterprise and create more sustainable jobs.

 


"Why should unfortunate children in emerging countries make toys or clothing for kids in richer societies to enjoy?"

 

Social and environmental impact is a big part of your brand. Why is that important to you?

Sam: From the beginning, Heleen had in mind an eco-friendly brand. It was THE condition to be part of this adventure with her. The planet and the way we treat the people who make our clothes is a sensitive matter for Heleen. She is and always has been concerned about making things right.

I, on the other hand, was a sales and marketing person. I saw the potential of a new fashionable children’s brand in a market that was still young. I concentrated on the style and designs of our first collection, spent months talking to our designers and making sure that our clothes were fun, young, elegant and modern!


In September 2018, I started sourcing the fabrics and this was when I realised the impact of fashion on our planet. It opened my eyes to a frightening world… In October that year, because I was visiting our workshops for the first time in Cambodia, I had to prepare for our meeting and ask the right questions. Analysing the industry, I came across different articles and reports and realised, once again, just how bad the conditions of workers in the textile industry were. So Heleen and I made sure that our workshops offered decent salaries and a safe environment. We also made sure that all the fabrics used in our collection were GOTS certified and all the trimmings were natural. We believe that fashion can be a force for good. That it can be kind to our planet and fair to people.




Heleen: I grew up in Belgium, where everyone has got free access to healthcare and education. The state provides allowances for families, people with disabilities and anyone who cannot earn money for some reason or another. This means that everyone has got access to fairly equal opportunities and that social mobility is possible. Although there is room for improvement in how poverty is addressed in Europe, I felt comfortable that I was part of a society that takes care of people who have been less fortunate than me.

As an adult, I lived in Latin America and in Asia. And I saw what I had learnt in school, from books and from the media: not everyone is as lucky as I am, and the family in which you are born in is a big determinant of the quality of your life as an infant, a child and an adult. As the income and opportunity gap continues to grow, I want to be an active player in reversing this huge injustice.

"Why should unfortunate children in emerging countries make toys or clothing for kids in richer societies to enjoy?" This is a thought that breaks my heart, and one that keeps me up at night. Through our work with The Extra Smile, we are contributing to turning this reality around.

 

 

I’m sure children are a big part of your lives. Do you also share with them about social and environmental issues even though they are young? 

Sam: Of course! We, parents, need to teach values to our kids and it starts when they are young! We actually wrote an article giving tips on how to talk to your kids about ethical fashion and the impact of fast fashion on our/their planet!

Heleen: Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders. We can see that they are very sensitive to ethical and environmental issues. We can help them care for the planet by offering sustainable kids fashion. The clothes we - and our children - wear says so much about ourselves. They express our personality, the way we see ourselves, as well as our values.

 


Do you hope for your children to be entrepreneurs like yourselves too?

Sam: I have one simple wish: that my daughter be fulfilled and happy, that she makes her own choices. 

Heleen: I come from a family of entrepreneurs, but they always warned me for the lack of security and strongly advised me to look for a job as an employee. I’ve followed their advice for 20 years, until I found the courage - and Samantha - to take the plunge.

My dream for my daughter is to offer her the option to continue to grow The Extra Smile and the values it stands for. Of course, she will decide to choose this option or to take a different route.



What do you hope to see in the fashion industry?

Sam: More ethical fashion, more alternatives to fast fashion! I hope that people around the world realise that buying cheap means that someone else is paying. I hope for an industry that becomes fair to people and kinder to our planet!

Heleen: That consumers understand the consequences of their purchases. That they choose to buy less and better, and to take better care of their clothes. That way, the fashion industry will have to respond to the demand of customers - to offer clothing that are made in dignity and with care for the planet, and that will last a couple of years.

 

What are your dreams for The Extra Smile?

Sam: My dream is that The Extra Smile becomes the leader in ethical kids fashion!

Heleen: My dream is that we can continue to grow, and to create decent jobs in the textile industry. That we can contribute to the extended lifetime of kids clothing, and that we become 100% zero-waste and 100% plastic-free.

 

The-Extra Smile is currently having a pre-order sale! Click Here to see more!

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