50 Shades of Designer Bags

My children could tell you just how nerdy I am since they have experienced my crazy obsession with their school projects (“Oh, no, not foam core again, Mommy!”) and my over-preparedness for classes I have taken (at least half the text book read and HIGHLIGHTED before the semester started).  My  friends, fortunately for me, welcomed me back after I had spent months in the cocoon of writing my MPH thesis. My reading material tends to be the daily New York Times, The New Yorker and the American Journal of Public Health. (I actually have a once a week date night with The New Yorker; I have found it some mornings stuck to my face.)  I have been known (or hopefully unknown) to steal copies of Journal of the American Medical Association from my doctor’s office.  The most recent book I read is Classified Woman by Sibel Edmunds.  Although I do have to confess to having read……no actually I am going to take the 5th on the 50 Shades books.   When I fly I do totally indulge in something like Vogue or Glamour, but that is in response to my suppressed fear of flying and is for purely medicinal purposes.  So when 4 times a year The New York Times has a fashion supplement I feel completely justified in wallowing through those pages of luscious, colorful, crazy expensive designer clothes and accessories because after all, it’s The New York Times.  The Fall 2012 issue arrived last weekend.  I continue to wallow.

It seems that darling little designer clutch bags are very much in style for the Fall.  There’s a page of them in yummy colors and another section called Grab Bags:  Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, with no apparent apologies to Kenny Rogers.   Somehow I did not fashion forecast well when I bought that big red Prada knock off in Hong Kong for $15.  These little bags are of course very pricey.  They are designed by Celine ($2,100,) Phillip Lim ($625,) Victoria Beckham ($650,) Marc Jacobs ($550,) and Coach (only $148,) among others.  My guess is they are just big enough for a credit card, a lipstick, a cell phone and a couple of condoms…maybe a box of Tic Tacs.   Just the basics for survival at some soignée soirée.

Of course I know what little bags can carry and the impact on health outcomes they can have because I spent about two years of my life studying the contents of little bags about 6” by 4”.  These darling little bags, not so pricey, not so pretty, carry things like a razor blade, string, a piece of soap, a sheet of black plastic: not really contents for a fun evening out, but pretty useful if you are going to have a baby at home in a rural region of Nepal or India or Uganda or Ghana or Rwanda or Afghanistan. At least 350,000 women a year die in childbirth internationally.   One of the leading causes of death is infection which can result from unsanitary delivery conditions.  So these little bags of useful items, called birthing kits, have been developed by several organizations including Zonta International, the World Health Organization and UNICEF. More than a million of these kits are distributed annually, especially in developing countries where maternal deaths are the highest in the world.

The kits have been designed by medical providers and organizations.   They are standardized and able to be mass produced, inexpensive and extremely compact.  Dr. Joy O’Hazy who works with Doctors Without Borders and Zonta told me that, “While quantifiable data is difficult to acquire what we have received is a large amount of anecdotal evidence from our partners about reduced infections and deaths in places like Kenya and Afghanistan.”  (Joy by the way is an amazing person and I have been fortunate to be able to stay in touch with her since completing my thesis.  “Hello, Joy!!!!”)

So here’s the thing I just can’t stop wondering about.  We know that birthing kits save lives, but to save lives they not only have to be available, they have to be used.  If rather than having a pretty little clutch bag, the only thing you could carry your evening supplies for a party in was a plain plastic baggie would want to do that or would you just leave your stuff home? Do you want someone to pick out that plastic bag for you or would you want to shop for something you like or you feel expresses who you are?  Do these seem like silly questions in relation to clean birthing supplies?  I don’t think so.

Social design is based on the understanding that for products to be effective they must include user end participation in the design, i.e., if you are going to design something ask the people who are going to use it to be involved with the design of that product.  How do I know this? I have a brilliant neighbor named Dan Formosa, Ph.D., who is one of the founders of Smart Design, and he told me about social design and he helped me with my thesis.  So I know this is true.  For birthing kits to be truly effective in saving the lives of women and babies, the design of the kits has to include the women who will use them.  They need to be social designer bags.  Not mass produced but in at least 50 shades.   The bags that women use in Uganda need to be Ugandan.  The bags that women use in Afghanistan need to be Afghan.  The bags that women use in Nepal need to be Nepali.  Not only is this social design, it is beautiful design.  All of these countries have wonderful traditional designs, colorful crafts, amazing creativity.

So here’s the challenge for designers.  Design beautiful, inexpensive, small birthing kits that can be distributed and used and can save lives.  You can include women from their countries, you can use some of the proceeds from your $600 pouches, you can engage the design community in saving women’s lives.  You can make preventing maternal mortality sexy and cool.  That’s what designers do.

Here are some direct challenges:

Hey, Prabal Gurung, do it for Nepalese women.

Mimi Plange, for women in Ghana.

Georgio Armani, Louis Vuitton, Channel, Estee Lauder, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Hermes, Prada, Marc Jacobs, Tod’s, Salvatore Ferragamo,  Celine, MaxMara, Michael Kors, Balenciaga, Missioni, Chloe………pick a country and get to know the women there.  And design with them.

And Kenneth Cole, how about some really cool compelling billboards.  You are so very clever.

Perhaps Tyler Brule, the editor of the hip international travel, design, political magazine Monocle would take on the coordination.

So I guess it is just my inherent nerdiness that got me from those darling little clutch bags to preventing maternal deaths.  Or maybe it was the women I met in Nepal and India and Brazil and my friend David in Uganda and Joy O’Hazy , who constantly inspire me and make me think, actually believe, that “it only seems impossible until it is done.”

PS…Hey, Prada, so sorry about buying the knock off.  I promise never to do it again.

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