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Hope couture: Dressing a bear an inspiring challenge for Toronto designer

By Tali Folkins on May, 12 2017
Shafiq Beig, assistant production manager at Toronto-based Harcourts, Ltd., says making a surplice, mitre and vest for Hope Bear was one of the most challenging fashion design projects he ever undertook. Photo: Tali Folkins

At the office of Harcourts, Ltd., a Toronto robe-making and tailoring company, a grinning assistant production manager Shafiq Beig is showing me one of his favourite tricks.

“Whenever I find somebody with a grumpy face walking around, I say, ‘Come here!’” he says, holding up his cell phone.

On the screen is a photo of a light-brown teddy bear wearing a strikingly realistic-looking surplice and clerical collar. The bear seems unperturbed by the responsibilities one might associate with its priestly garb, and gazes nonchalantly out of his sewed-on black cloth eyes, as if to say, “What did you expect?”

“A smile is guaranteed. I couldn’t find a single person who did not smile when they saw it,” Beig says. “Actually, it brings them back to their childhood. They become a child, and they smile.”

The vestmented stuffy is no ordinary teddy bear, but Hope Bear, mascot of the Anglican Foundation of Canada’s Kids Helping Kids Fund since it was established in 2011. The Foundation sends Hope Bear to anyone making a donation of $20 or more to the fund.

Originally, Hope Bear came with just a bowtie. Over the years, however, the Foundation has been developing outfits for the cherished teddy, including a crocheted baptismal dress, pyjamas (blue or pink), a rainbow scarf, and a military uniform. Two or three years ago, the Foundation started receiving requests for bears decked out in clerical garb, as gifts for the newly ordained.

Foundation executive director Canon Judy Rois knew where to go. She’d had all her clerical vestments made by Harcourts (or a company later acquired by it), many of them by Beig himself, and she knew his passion and drive for perfection.

“There was nobody else, really, that I wanted to do these, because I knew of his craftsmanship, which [is] outstanding,” she says. “You know that when you get a piece by Shafiq, it’s going to be of the highest quality.”

For Beig, making clothing is, or should be, an art form. He laments what he sees as a worldwide trend toward completely manufactured, off-the-rack apparel. “It is made just for commerce, not for passion and the finest art. That is dying.”

Beig began to learn tailoring at age nine, in his father’s shop in Mathura, India, and eventually went on to study fashion design in London, U.K. He has worked at Harcourts since 1989, continuing to learn the craft and rising up the ranks from a minimum-wage, entry-level position.

But the Hope Bear project would turn out to be among his biggest challenges. “It was, trust me, a very difficult task,” he says. “I have dressed up the finest models in fashion houses...but when I started to dress up this Hope Bear, it was difficult.” It was not simply a matter of scaling down; a teddy bear has proportions very different from a human being’s. At the same time, the surplice had to have the same look and drape as one made for a person—and it had to be sewn together on machines not made for miniature garments. Sometimes the surplice would disappear entirely inside the machine while being worked on, he says. Sometimes, too, the sewing process would stretch the tiny piece of material, distorting the garment’s shape, and the process would have to be started over.

Beig had to make a few versions of the surplice before Rois was satisfied. Rois, he says, knew exactly what she wanted—and, precisely for that reason, she was a highly motivating customer. Beig says her appreciation for the art fired him with extra zeal for the project. “Very few people have an eye for the finest art in this industry...She knows how a garment should fit exactly.”

Happy with the surplice, Rois once again called on Beig last year, when she began receiving requests for a mitre to put on Hope Bear’s head. The mitre presented an additional challenge—creating a hat that, while retaining the look and details of the original, sits naturally on a teddy bear’s fuzzy cranium, without having to be fastened down.

More recently came what Beig says was the toughest task of them all. Rois contacted him to make a black vest for Hope Bear to wear to celebrate the Foundation’s 60th anniversary this year. The lined vest features two pockets, barely large enough to admit a little finger—meaning very fine stitching work for a garment small enough to disappear from the sewer’s view.

“The gown we make for chancellors at the University of Toronto—this is one of the most expensive items we sell, almost $10,000. I don’t work that hard to get that gown done,” Beig says with a laugh.

All together, Beig estimates he’s made close to 250 Hope Bear surplices, 30 or 40 mitres, and 100 vests. He says he feels honoured and privileged to be contributing in his own way to the work of the Foundation, whose work he admires. Beig also writes poetry, and learning about the Foundation inspired him to compose a poem about Hope Bear, called “Bearing Hope.”

The conversation moves seamlessly from sewing to spirituality. Beig says he believes people need faith to experience real peace and hope. “Hope without divinity is impossible,” he says. He also believes in the coexistence of religions—he says he loves Christianity as much as his own religion, Islam—and in the importance of love for people’s common humanity. “Humanity came first, before religion. We are human first,” he says. “You can dress up the way you want, I can eat whatever food I want, but still we can love each other.”

He pauses for a moment. “How simple it is.”

Perhaps even as simple as sharing a smile over a teddy bear in a surplice. 

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By Tali Folkins| May, 12 2017
Categories:  News|National News

About the Author

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins

Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.  His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer

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