After returning from Afghanistan with severe PTSD, Kelsi Sheren began crafting jewellery. Now she has a business that is paying it forward.
There’s no dearth of fashion brands that were founded with a sense of purpose, from amplifying local artisanry to supporting myriad charitable endeavours. The industry has become a place where community and globally focused initiatives are able to flourish. But you don’t often see ingenuity in both design and philanthropy springing forth from the depths of extreme despair—and that’s where Canadian accessories brand Brass & Unity finds itself uniquely positioned.
When self-professed fashion outsider Kelsi Sheren launched the label in 2016, she was driven by an intense personal aspiration. At the age of 18, she had applied to join the Canadian Armed Forces after a “serendipitous” encounter with a WWII veteran. “I chose to go into the military because of somebody I met while I was in school in Ottawa,” she recalls. Sheren was studying tourism travel services at Algonquin College to escape from her small-town Ontario life, and shortly after her classes began, she found herself on a bus with an elderly veteran.
“I wanted to know her story, so I started asking her questions,” says Sheren. “Next thing I knew, I was off the bus and walking to the college to quit, and I joined the Army the next day. This woman had a massive impact on the way I looked at the world after our conversation… It wasn’t necessarily what she said that was compelling; it was the way she carried herself. She must have been in her 90s—she had a chest full of medals and a badass attitude. It looked like she had lived a thousand lives, and there was something in her face that was intriguing to me. I never saw her again, but meeting her was a turning point in my life. I was meant to meet her. I strongly believe that.”
Sheren went to Afghanistan shortly after enlisting in late 2007. A year into her tour, she was injured and sent home after being diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. “I couldn’t function any longer,” she says. In addition to the physical and mental trauma (which she still grapples with today), Sheren returned to Canada “with no help and no support” from the military. “I spent six months contemplating suicide on a daily basis and almost following through with it multiple times,” she says.
Treatment for Sheren’s trauma included a cocktail of medications that left her feeling “zonked out,” but she received a more constructive suggestion during a therapy session after she relocated to British Columbia with her husband. “My doctor is a veteran who served in Rwanda during the genocide,” she says. “He knows how to handle people like me.” He recommended that she try art therapy, which “sounded hilarious to me,” she recalls, given that she grew up following more active pursuits, like tae kwon do and motocross.
She decided to give it a try since she was spending most of her days pacing or staying in bed. The light bulb moment came after she awoke from a dream about starting a jewellery business where the proceeds from sales went to charity. Sheren, who says she’d never worn fashion jewellery before starting Brass & Unity, suddenly found herself intently studying the healing properties of crystals and devising ways to craft these elements into something wearable. “My husband went to work one morning at seven and came home at five and I was in the same position—still working,” she says. “And I hadn’t had a flashback all day.”
Her brand has since achieved international renown, and she has patented the use of spent casings and bullets in her jewellery and sunglasses. The eyewear is particularly meaningful to Sheren because it was the one way she could claim a sense of identity during her military service. “When I was in the military, sunglasses were the one thing we could more or less personalize in our uniform,” she says. “They were my only form of individuality.”
Sheren has also set her sights on promoting the upcoming release of her memoir, Brass and Unity. The book gives an open and graphic account of her past and candidly expresses how the aftermath of her military service affected not only her own life but that of so many others. These experiences were the inspiration for Brass & Unity’s corporate mandate of donating 20 per cent of its net profits to veteran charities around the world, and the brand also launched a personal protective equipment program when the COVID-19 crisis made such supplies scarce.
Brass & Unity is nominated for a Canadian Arts & Fashion Award this year in its Fashion Impact Award category, but Sheren points out that her philanthropic drive was more a primary motivator for starting the brand than being part of the fashion industry. “I needed to find a way to help my friends,” she says, adding that she “lost more friends to suicide post-service than [she] lost in Afghanistan.”
Waxing philosophical about where she’s been and where she’s headed, Sheren cuts right to the chase: “If you don’t go through a journey, what are you doing?”