People don’t smile enough. Kyle Lawrence was an employee in the hotel and restaurant industry when he made this observation. “Don’t forget to smile” was one of the catchphrases he often shared. Lawrence had already been thinking of designing his own hat for fun when he was on a plane headed back from Mexico one summer. Just before landing, he saw a building with the word “smile” in a circle. He knew this was the design he wanted on his hat. Little did Lawrence know that this one hat would turn into a company, his full-time job, and a meaningful partnership with homeless organizations to help restore the smiles and confidence of homeless youth in Los Angeles.
The designs are very simple, and as with the original hat that started it all, centered around a more positive lifestyle. He sells mainly hat and t-shirts, all of which sport the word “Smile”. Instead of opting for flashy trends, Lawrence’s styles are more casual and classic. “I wanted to be a happy-feel brand, so we use a lot of colors, and a little bit of a vintage timeless feel to it,” says Lawrence. “I’ve always liked the classic look and feel, like classic beach surf culture.” This simple, positive, image caught on fast.
Around the same time that The Smile Life was taking shape, Lawrence also noted that the apparel industry needed more ethnically sounded companies. Lawrence knew from the beginning that he didn’t want his company to be centered solely on making a profit. “I’ve always had the philosophy that the more generous you are, the happier you are,” says Lawrence. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and I knew whatever company I started, I wanted to make sure it was centered around being generous.” So, like everything about The Smile Company, his donation was founded with a smile. The Smile Life would give 10% of its total profits to help grant dental care to homeless youth in Los Angeles to maintain and repair their smiles.
Dental work was a perfect choice. The need for this basic necessity in homeless shelters is high, but often gets overlooked. Lawrence began with donating dental hygiene packs with toothbrushes and toothpaste to local shelters. “They all have different types of needs,” says Lawrence. “Many of them have issues with their teeth and confidence issues with their smile.” Growing up, Lawrence himself had insecurities with his own teeth and jaw. “I saw how much of an impact little problems with people’s smiles can make on their life,” says Lawrence. “I can only imagine the impact it has on someone who doesn’t have the resources to fix that.”
Eventually, after almost a year of searching for the right fit, Lawrence came across an organization to partner with in Venice Beach called Safe Place for Youth (S.P.Y.), a drop-in organization that provides food, clothes, and opportunities to homeless and emancipated youth. “It was amazing, the services they had and how personable they were with me and the youth that came in,” says Lawrence. “They really genuinely cared about the youth and kids that would come in.” Lawrence began to arrange mentor workshops to show how attending youths could empower their own lives, and not just their smiles. Speakers included a dentist to coach on proper mouth care, an indie director to show his film focused on a homeless youth, and even Lawrence himself to speak on opening his own business. This kind of work, the relationships he forms, and the people he gets to help is why Lawrence is so passionate about his project.
This coming year, Lawrence hopes to expand his business profit, so he can contribute even more. He’s coming out with a brand-new spring collection that launches in February. The goal is to start a “Smile fund” from The Smile Life’s profits, where eligible youths can apply to be supported for more major dental work. “We want to be a fund of money where we can give towards repairing a part of their lives,” says Lawrence. “Like giving them a new smile, or repairing a part of their smile that makes them feel insecure, to give them a fresh start.”
Although perhaps not as impactful as giving confident smiles to a homeless youth, Lawrence has also found that The Smile Life has empowered his customers to view the world a bit differently as well. “People like the hats, but they don’t really realize the feedback they’re going to get when they’re out,” Says Lawrence. “People are constantly emailing me and telling me ‘everyone comments on it. It keeps me accountable for having a smile on my face. If I’m not giving off a happy vibe, people will call me out on it.”
This more positive lifestyle and accountability are exactly what The Smile Life is all about. Promote smiles and goodness wherever you go, and give generously. “If you walk down the street or go anywhere in public, people’s head are down, they don’t really see the people around them,” says Lawrence. “I just want to promote the lifestyle of being friendly, being generous with your time and money, and just having a good time, because life is short.”
Written by Elaine Morgan Cutting