Woman Crush: Six inspirational Canadian creators, artists and designers who are bringing us beauty and joy in challenging times

By Julia McEwen

This piece originally appeared in Issue 757 of HELLO! Canada.

To mark International Women's Day, HELLO! Canada spoke to jewelry designer Jenny Bird, fashion designer and creative director Lesley Hampton, interior designer Nike Onile, singer-songwriter Luna Li, Mala the Brand founder Melody Lim and visual artist and activist Christi Belcourt. We asked them about their incredible successes and how they've been staying creative, active and inspired during lockdown.

The National Treasure

Jenny Bird, Jewelry Designer

Canada is home to myriad exceptional brands that make a name for themselves beyond our borders, and Jenny Bird is no exception. The Toronto-based label started by Jenny, 43, in 2008 has been on a steady upward trajectory.

Photo: © Arden Wray

"The thing about building a brand is you have to have patience. The magical brands are born over time and they're built by consistency and thoughtfulness," she says of her eponymous jewelry line, Jenny Bird, which ships internationally and can be found in more than 500 department stores and boutiques worldwide.

Her pieces marry contemporary elements with creative boldness.

"We're forward-thinking without being trendy," she says of her objects of desire that have caught the attention of some of the world's most stylish celebrities, such as Mindy Kaling, Selena Gomez and Kylie Jenner. Spotting designs of stars is an exciting moment for any founder, but the mom of two is more moved when she sees her creations in the wild.

U-Link Earrings, $110, jenny-bird.ca

"I remember seeing a teacher on the streetcar going to work, and I was so complimented because she spent her own money on that piece and chose to wear it because it makes her feel good. That really means so much more to me," she explains.

Creatively, the past year has been one of ups and downs for the designer.

"I've found two states of being: a total creative block in the first phase of the pandemic and a huge creative opening and flow in the second part," she says.

The burst couldn't have come at a better time because Jenny is feverishly working from home on a holiday collection that leans into sculptural shapes and incorporates recycled glass.

As for the rituals that have kept her grounded in these "uncertain times," Jenny has amassed a toolbox filled with strategies, from making her "life-changing seed loaf" – a recipe she first discovered when's he was postpartum that infuses her with energy – to discovering new Black-owned beauty brands like Armure Beauty: "They have amazing African soaps and a great rosehip oil."

Armure Beauty Body Decadence Oil, $35 for 30 ml, armurebeauty.com

Exercising both her body (with at-home workouts) and her mind (with her Five Minute Journal) has also been integral to her well-being.

"Sometimes," she concludes, "we need to step back and just do whatever feels right."

The Trailblazing Designer

Lesley Hampton, Fashion Designer and Creative Director

When it comes to fashion designers to watch, Lesley Hampton, 26, should sit at the top of that list. In a short amount of time, the talented Indigenous designer (a member of the Temagami First Nation) has become acclaimed for her body array of ethereal and wearable evening gowns that strike a fine balance between elegant and unique.

At the 2020 Golden Globe Awards, eTalk's Lainey Lui swanned onto the red carpet wearing a custom Lesley Hampton creation, and boy, did it ever make a sartorial splash! Lesley's gown appeared on best-dressed lists and won her international attention. And this was just one of many career highlights.

Photo: © George Pimentel/WireImage

"My biggest pinch-me moment was during our showcase at London Fashion Week during the Curated Canadian Collections with the Toronto Fashion Incubator," says the designer, who graduated from high school in London. "To come back to that city as a working professional – in my dream career – was a major moment."

Another major coup came this winter when singer Lizzo wore a top-to-toe Lesley Hampton workout look (she designs athletic gear, too) on IGTV.

"I hysterically screamed and giggled at my phone's screen when I opened my Instagram," recalls Lesley, whose ethos emphasizes body positivity. "Since Lizzo's post, the support has been incredible from the Indigenous and body-positive communities, as well as the Canadian fashion industry."

Stripe Hoodie, $140, lesleyhampton.com

The brand saw a meaningful bump in sales from the post, which was a relief because the pandemic had eroded demand for her signature sellers: evening gowns. Lesley tells us she has used the past 12 months to step back and find balance in her entrepreneurial life.

"I've been inspired to share what I've learned with other budding designers – and also to continue to learn how to be successful professional while thriving personally as well."

The Spatial Artist

Nike Onile, Interior Designer and Founder of ODE

Following a lifelong passion for all things artistic, Nike Onile, 37, knew she'd eventually end up working in design; it just took her some time to get there.

Photo: © Ashley Klassh

Her first career path, heavily influenced by her Nigerian-Canadian family, landed her a job in biotechnology. But after a few years working in Pharma, she realized she was deeply unfulfilled.

"I remember it so clearly. I looked at myself in the mirror on my way to work and said, 'This can't be my ever after,'" she recalls.

Soon after her epiphany, Nike started a design blog documenting her ongoing home renovations, which quickly amassed a following of fans who wanted to incorporate her design sense into their own homes – and the rest is history.

Marisa Burl Wood Desk, $1,299, cb2.ca

"I think people seek me out because I'm not a designer, I'm an artist," she says. "I approach spaces with my clients as my muse. Essentially, I'm creating a physical representation of that person in 3D."

When Nike isn't re-envisioning spaces for homes and businesses, she can be seen on TV as a design expert on CityLine. As for what she's been up to during the pandemic: lots!

"My creativity has catapulted," says the self-proclaimed introvert.

Nike has spent the past year rebranding her studio (now called ODE) and is busy working on her own house.

"I'm always steeped in other people's homes, so I need my space to give me clarity," she says of her Toronto abode, which holds a mixture of mid-century modern furniture and well-loved pieces. "I want to be surrounded by things that have a bit of history to them."

Yolie 12 Rug, $2,915 for 9' x 12', eltemkt.com

Noting that our domestic surroundings have become more important than ever, Nike has some thoughts on how to make our spaces more functional.

"Homes are our everything right now, so designating spaces for different activities is so important," she says. "Create a work space that's not just for work; otherwise it's very difficult to turn off."

And the things that have brought her comfort and joy over the past 12 months? Good bed sheets, she says, and "extending my living space outdoors with a fire pit!"

The Moon Fairy Musician

Luna Li, Singer-Songwriter

Poised for stardom, Hannah Bussiere – the 24-year-old behind her onstage persona, Luna Li – has been raising spirits with her mini-album releases and livestream performances. Her music has been described as evoking feelings of being suspended in a dreamlike state or dancing through slight tipsiness, due in large part to the intermingling of strings and her melodious voices.

"My parents run a music school [Classical Music Conservatory in Toronto], so my first instrument was piano and I've been pretty much immersed in the musical community ever since," says Hannah, who is also proficient in bass, violin, drums and electric guitar, which she plays on most of her recordings. She is also learning the harp.

The mixed-Asian-heritage artist credits her mom with being the catalyst for her career.

"She's always been passionate and exposed me to music. Without her influence, who knows what I'd be doing?"

While the effects of the pandemic have infiltrated most professions, live performers have been especially hard hit.

"I miss playing with my band, seeing people react to my music in person and getting energy from the crowd," says Hannah, who until last year was playing shows regularly.

Not one to be stifled creatively, she has adapted and continues to share her music through digital platforms. Her breakthrough came in May 2020, when she performed on Asia Rising, a four-hour livestream that featured an all-Asian lineup from 11 different countries. That exposure helped take her sound global and expand her community.

When the multi-instrumentalist isn't doing livestreams or practising with her bandmates over Zoom, you might find her buying plants for her west-end Toronto home or curating playlists on Spotify.

Spider Plant, from $10, plantcollective.co

Some of the artists she's had on repeat are Solange, Hope Tala and Raveena Aurora – but if you're in need of a mood boost, listen to any of Luna Li's songs, notably "Afterglow" and "Baby Shred."

The Mood Booster

Melody Lim, Founder of Mala The Brand

Our homes are multitasking right now as our offices, our gyms and, above all, our sanctuaries. So it should come as no surprise that scented products like diffusers, incense and candles have seen an uptick in sales worldwide during lockdown. This has been good news for Melody Lim, 24, and her eco-friendly candle business, Mala the Brand.

Her inspiration came while she was studying abroad: she met a candle artisan in Milos, Greece, and learned the craft from him.

"It's there that I fell in love with the whole process."

Launching the line in 2019, Melody had a simple mission.

"I wanted to replace toxic candles on the market without compromising quality or the environment," she tells us from her hometown of Vancouver, where her soy-based candles are hand-crafted. She attributes the success of her fledgling business to her unique scent offerings and clean-burning soy candles, which use safe ingredients and recyclable packaging.

She also gives credit to her mom, who immigrated to Canada as a teenager.

"She's supported me since the brand's inception and continues to help me with production every day. Mala is just as much her baby as it is mine!"

For Melody, fragrance serves different functions throughout the day, month and year. Simply lighting a candle in the morning can set the mood for the day ahead, says the entrepreneur, who recommends the brand's bestseller, Cereal.

Mala the Brand Cereal Candle, $35, malathebrand.com

"With notes of lemon, berries and citrus, it's the perfect wake-me-up scent to get you up and running for the day."

For the evening, she recommends Silk, a smooth blend of velvety tonka bean, coconut and jasmine, to soften the mood and help you wind down.

The Spiritual Creator

Christi Belcourt, Visual Artist, Activist and Beadworker

To take in the beauty and cope of one of Christi Belcourt's meticulous acrylic dots (a technique inspired by traditional beadwork which she creates using the end of a knitting needle), is like a spiritual awakening. The self-taught Métis artist, 54, has been honing her craft for more than three decades, yet she continuously finds new media and ways to touch people with her passion.

"I can't not create art. Everything that drives me as a human, drives my art," she tells HELLO!.

But what is it about beads that speak to her?

"When I see beadwork it helps me feel connected to my ancestors. The Métis people were known as floral beadwork's, so when I look at it, it feels like home," explains Christi, whose pieces can be found within the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Centre Block of Parliament and the Art Gallery of Ontario, to name a few.

ela x Christi Belcourt Limited Edition Editor's Pouch, $50, holtrenfrew.com

Along with hanging the impressionists at the AGO, Christi has worked on a number of creative collaborations with fashion brands, both international (Valentino) and Canadian. Most recently, she worked with Ela Handbags and Holt Renfrew's H Project. Each sale of their vegan leather pouch (above) adorned with her artwork will donate $10 to Oceana Canada.

As striking as Christi's paintings are, her work holds commentary.

"The plants within my paintings have become metaphors to parallel humanity," she says. "The roots are exposed to signify that all life needs nurturing from the earth to survive, and represent the idea that there is more to life than what is seen on the surface."

Since the pandemic hit, Christi has been working away in her studio in northern Ontario, sustained by a steady diet of CBC Radio and toggling between podcasts and music.

"I really need to be alone to paint, so I've been doing a lot of that!

Chrisi Belcourt's gorgeous "Reverence for Life"

She expresses gratitude that her work allows her to be safe at home, but she feels a heaviness for all the front-line workers and marginalized people who have felt the greatest toll in the last 12 months.

"It's been affecting the most vulnerable people the hardest and that's been really painful."

Christi isn't the kind of person who seeks escape when times are tough, but she says she's taken solace in supporting fellow artists by treating herself to the occasional purchase of locally crafted art and beaded jewelry.

"With the advancement in technology, I think we're on the cusp of an explosion of Indigenous design, because now these small brands have a pathway to sell their products and get it out into the world."

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