Whitby's Cadet satchel. The lining of each bag features a custom fabric lining created from the drawings by the young girls who benefit from its purchase. Photo: Joe Murray
Words: Katherine Michalak | Photos: Mary Kelly Clary, Joe Murray
Five years ago, Georgia-born designer and humanitarian Brittni Adams graduated from college ready to pursue a career in PR, not purses. Then a church presentation on slavery changed everything.
Human trafficking, bonded labor, the international sex trade, child marriage — terms Brittni Adams knew from various news reports but never fully understood. She didn’t know the breadth or depth of its impact until a church presentation on modern slavery stopped her in her tracks nearly four years ago. She was burdened by what she learned, but had no clue how to take meaningful action.
“That's when I dove into research mode,” Brittni said, “if I was going to do anything, no matter how small, I needed to know everything I could about the problem — it's causes, it's impact on communities, and it's victims… [learning that] little girls were among the victims of all kinds of slavery was something I just couldn't get over.”
Brittni began to read about related issues and pored over information related to current relief efforts. She sought out local initiatives championing the fight. She learned about the problems facing the nonprofits trying to intercede. Fully committed, in 2014, she received her Masters of Public Affairs in nonprofit management and quite literally hit the streets. She initially traveled to India, meeting with groups addressing the plight of generational prostitution, gathering insight from their experiences. In February 2015, Brittni visited Haiti and immediately recognized the opportunities available to establish her first project. Gaining support from a partnership with the Georgia-based 410 Bridge organization, [what is it] Brittni prepared to answer the cries that had rallied her.
Determined to develop methods to intervene through empowerment, Brittni explained that she “focused on using education to prevent [girls] from being sold, exploited, or trafficked into injustice in the first place.”
One of the many commonalities she found between the groups most impacted was the sense of hopelessness resulting from the cycle of poverty and repression that kept the threat of slavery present in their lives. She searched for a means to increase awareness while also establishing viable resources to produce sustainable funding within the affected communities, and began to close in on the idea of a product line that would generate proceeds to impact her cause.
She knew she wanted to fight business with business, give families an income alternative to selling their child and educate the next generation of girls, specifically improving their overall literacy. Ideally, she hoped it would eventually remove vulnerable girls from the streets, reduce child marriage, and decrease the fatality rates of girls who give birth before age 15.
Brittni wanted to break the cycle.
But how? What would she merchandise? Brittni considered items that held a universal appeal to women… and kept coming back to the handbag. She noticed throughout her travels, across all cultures and socioeconomic levels, women tote a basket or bundle or pouch or purse; she felt an incredible relevance in using that very familiar item to ultimately build a stronger future for countless people. She also recognized the potential influence of the luxury fashion industry in spreading this message, as well as the inherent beauty of a truly well-crafted purse.
Product in-hand, naming the company became a bit of a riddle. Brittni couldn’t seem to find the right word or phrase to fit the concept, and then she discovered that some early contenders had already been licensed. A breath-taking view in northern England inspired that final piece to the branding puzzle— entranced by the mystical beauty of Whitby Abbey, Brittni read of it’s founding abbess, St. Hilda, known for her passion for education. Whitby™ Handbags earned it’s label from the gracious legacy of a 1st century lady, heralded for her wisdom, her kindness and her strong faith.
The bags are made in the United States from the same high-quality sumptuous leather used by such design houses as Gucci. The lining of each bag features a custom fabric created from the drawings of girls benefitting from the purchase. Each bag arrives containing pictures and a biography of the girl the purchase supports thereby connecting women — the student and the consumer — across international boundaries and cultural barriers. By indulging in a meticulously-made, classically-styled luxury handbag, women can carry part of the load for other women. A purse with a purpose… the epitome of socially-conscious style.