Mila Mulroney was Canada’s first lady of fashion. She was likened to Diana, princess of Wales, and Jacqueline Onassis for her style, made headlines with her large shoe collection and catapulted her Ottawa hairdresser to fame.
Since leaving the public spotlight, Mulroney has found another outlet for her passion for design and fashion: jewellery-making.
Mulroney began designing necklaces after her husband left office. “When time allows itself to enter your life, you can start reading more, watching movies, making necklaces,” she said during a rare interview with Maclean’s. “I really just did it for myself and, soon enough, I produced a necklace that somebody else liked and I gave it away.”
She has made dozens of bold and colourful necklaces with pieces she collected over the past 25 years, including during official government trips and holidays to France, China, Italy, India, Africa and South America, with her husband, former prime minister Brian Mulroney. “I found some really lovely pieces in Italy with corals, and it sort of grew on its own. I like art and colour and shapes and I have always been interested in [jewellery],” she said.
Her daughter and three daughters-in-law each have about a dozen of her pieces. Her jewellery is also being worn by some well-known friends whose names she wants to keep private. She has been encouraged to sell her work but declined. “A friend wanted me to sell some of my pieces, but I am not good at that.”
She laughs when asked if her husband would ever wear a piece of jewellery designed by her. “I think he’s too old-school for that.”
She has refashioned some jewellery she received on official trips that did not fit her. “In Africa, a wife would give me a beautiful wooden bracelet and sometimes I would translate that later on into a necklace. I have quite a few carved African wooden pieces.”
She was inspired by the museums, art galleries and churches seen along her travels and often collected beads at flea markets. She learned jewellery-making from a beading book and took ideas from her days at Montreal’s Concordia University, where she studied engineering and fine art. (She married at 19 and never graduated.)
Mulroney has also taken up art. She painted the Everglades in Florida and likes abstract pieces. “I have pieces in my house and my kids have some pieces. For me, it’s the juxtaposition of light and colour and shape. I learn with each one and it brings back memories of studies I did in college and it’s kind of fun.” She has not painted a piece for her husband but might one day, she said. She is also busy with her tenth grandchild (a third child for her son Ben).
The Mulroneys’ daughter, Caroline, who works part-time for a venture fund and co-founded the Shoebox Project (an organization that fills boxes of necessities and luxuries for women’s shelters), said she learned about her mom’s necklace-making by accident while looking through her jewellery box. “It’s not something she ever told me about. I happened upon this piece. I said, ‘This is amazing. Where did you find it?’ And she said, ‘Well, I made it.’
“My mom is a very creative person. She is really good with colour and she is very good with fashion. Whenever I am at her house, I am usually going through her closet to see what she’s got and what I think she doesn’t really need and I need more! When I travel, I don’t have to pack any accessories because I know I am going to want to borrow her necklaces. She makes very unique, dramatic pieces and I love them. She’s made them for some friends in Montreal and the States. I wear them all the time.”
Her favourite piece is a long necklace made with big metal pieces and wood that fits inside a second necklace. Her mom also made her eight strands of blue beads for her birthday.
She said this phase of her mom’s life allows her to express her style in new ways. “She was 30 when we got to 24 [Sussex]. She was young and very busy with four kids and my dad’s political life. I think a lot of this is coming out later in her life.”