Designing for prosperity

Handbags hold hope for Kenyan women, families

Designing for prosperity

By Bonnie Blankinship

Dr. Diane Frey never thought she would visit East Africa, much less become involved in educational partnerships with Kenyan schools for girls and women with HIV-AIDS. But a Christmas visit to her sister in Nairobi, Kenya, several years ago led first to a personal passion and now professional engagement with support organizations, plus mutually beneficial relationships between Kenyan and BGSU students.

For the past two years, students in BGSU’s Apparel Merchandising and Product Design (AMPD) Program have been partnering with students and residents of two nongovernmental organizations in Nairobi. The goal is to help Kenyan women become successful in micro-enterprise businesses through producing textile products that will be marketable in the U.S., Canada and Kenya and provide a sustainable income for them and their families.

The vehicle for this is the “Authentic Kenyan” handbag collection.

“I love this project,” said senior Jaclyn Wiederman, an AMPD major from Swanton, whose class has recently begun work on it. “It gives me a sense of inspiration, and I love doing something that has meaning behind it and deals with s a real-world situation.”

The Kenyan women are working through the Beacon of Hope and Seed of Hope organizations, which have stepped in to provide training, education and, in the case of Beacon of Hope, residences for women with HIV-AIDS and their families in poor communities.  

“It’s a dire situation for many of them,” said Frey, AMPD chair, explaining that people with HIV-AIDS in many parts of Africa are often rejected by their families and communities. “It’s a huge stigma, and women have limited opportunities to earn a living and break the cycle of poverty.”

Frey has long had an interest in textiles and women’s economic empowerment, and saw an opportunity for Kenyan and U.S. educators and students to work together. Kenyan women have great skill in producing handcrafted items and outstanding beadwork. Among the products the women produce are fabric handbags, apparel and hand-woven rugs, using Kenya’s colorful textiles. However, the styles of the handbags are generally not appealing to Western teens or young adults, Frey said, a view confirmed by her AMPD students who analyzed them for quality and desirability.

Since the Kenyan students do not have resources to inspire new designs or access to Western fashion trends, the BGSU students in the Computers for Apparel Photoshop course are redesigning some of the existing styles and offering new designs. In the process, the BGSU students are learning about Kenya, its spectacular landscapes and wildlife and rich cultural heritage.

“Usually Photoshop is a technical skill that doesn’t have a lot of meaning behind it, but this class not only is beneficial to my skill, it also gives us a chance to use it to help them,” said senior Megan Schmidt, an AMPD major from Cincinnati.

The students apply the product development process, and employ premier global trend-forecasting online resources to research what is up and coming.

“For example, for a long time, the trend has been to animal-skin patterns like leopard or big-cat spots or snake/reptile skins,” Frey said. “But now we’re seeing prints with silhouettes of the wild animals themselves coming up for 2015-16. New colors, fabrics, styles and features are also considered.”

BGSU students choose from among Kenya’s safari game parks for inspiration and write a research paper to create a marketing statement about their choice, identifying their target customers. For example, one AMPD student wrote, “The people of the Maasai Mara wear exceptionally vibrant clothing that stands out against the khaki color of the plains. The Maasai Mara bag will represent these vibrant colors and the landscape they are home to.”

It goes on to identify women in the U.S. between the ages of 18-60 who will be inspired by the story behind the bags and want to help empower Kenyan women.

The students develop a color palette and keywords that capture the essence of their product line. Using Adobe Photoshop software, they create a fabric motif and then develop a product line of handbag styles popular in the U.S., such as the messenger bag, tote and modified backpack.

Wiederman has chosen Aberdare National Park. “It’s very lush, with lots of wonderful trails you can hike on, and it’s known for having more than 250 species of birds,” she said. “I chose ‘When Nature Calls’ for my theme, to encourage people to fly and take a chance in life.”

Schmidt found inspiration in the Maasai Mara and the hot air balloon rides popular in the parks, using their colors to create an elephant motif for her fabric.

“This project put all my skills to the test,” she said.

Along the way, the class engages in group critiques to help one another hone their designs, an important step in the process.

“The students are enthusiastically engaged in this project,” Frey said. “They are very charitable and empathetic and have loved being able to offer new ideas for developing handbag products that actually help Kenyan women’s micro-enterprises and empower them to live.”

The AMPD students’ concern echoes Frey’s. Before she connected BGSU with the Nairobi organizations, she had made a personal commitment to helping Kenyan women market their wares after seeing their street market stalls, where goods are often displayed on the ground or draped over racks — a form of “micro-enterprise” they can conduct to support their families. Over the course of four trips to visit her sister, a health psychology consultant in a Kenyan hospital, Frey brought back loads of scarves, bags and even clothing and sold them at local craft fairs, sending the proceeds back to Nairobi.

Wanting to have a bigger impact, she used her sister’s contacts with the Beacon of Hope and Seed of Hope, where she met with the directors to discuss how she could help. Frey, Seed of Hope’s field director Deborah Kimathi, and Beacon of Hope’s founder Jane Wathone collaborated on plans to further the economic empowerment of the Kenyan women while sharing knowledge and information among them and BGSU classes.

Projects like this are one of the reasons, Wiederman said, “I love my major. Not only can we help others, we come out with pieces for our portfolio we can bring to show employers our hard work and what we’re capable of.”

It’s the hope of all the participants that the project will be as successful for the Kenyan partners, Frey said.