Luxury handbags usually bear labels from places like Paris or Milan. But Bangladesh? The manufacturing country is more known for its fast-fashion sweatshops than ethical craftsmanship. But among a group of international handbags, one Bangladeshi designer's bags has reached cult-status. Hanne Fugl Eskjaer, a senior Foreign Affairs official from Denmark, was at a climate change conference when she spotted a familiar tote embroidered with a native Bangladesh cow on a fellow diplomat.
“We saw each other, and we had the same bag,” Eskjaer says. “We were north of the Arctic Circle, and very proudly using a bag made in Bangladesh.”
The bag is a Ronni tote by Lidia May, an artisan luxury brand headquartered and proudly crafted in Bangladesh. Founded in 2015 by Chinese-American May Yang, this small brand and its colorful embroidered totes and purses has become a status symbol for aid workers, diplomats, and foreign officials, who know that what you wear and carry is its own diplomatic morse code.
“I like quite simple, practical and classic fashion. And that I like to combine that with scarves and bags full of color and memories of places I’ve been and people I’ve met,” says Eskjaer. To her, a Lidia May tote symbolizes warm friendship among people of different backgrounds who were brought together by a shared goal of figuring out the world’s most pressing problems.
“I have collected many wardrobe items from my travels, but what I really love about May's work is that her pieces feel classic. I don't have to worry if they will 'work' in a particular place or culture, because they are so refined,” says Jess MacArthur-Wellstein, an aid worker who lived in Bangladesh for five years. “Fashion and Bangladesh can conjure up images of garments factories, fast fashion and all that it is disposable. But May's work offers a completely different narrative and one that I wish people knew about Bangladesh. ”
It turns out that Bangladesh is a great place to market a conscious, luxury brand. The Southeast Asian nation still qualifies as “least developed,” receives a high level of foreign aid, and is the center of a thriving social scene of upper-class Bangladeshis, aid workers, and foreign government representatives who are expected to dress intentionally for the circuit of intimate dinner parties and official events in the capital of Dhaka.
“There’s a lot of socializing. It’s a networking environment,” says Lidia May founder May Yang of Dhaka, Bangladesh. “Potentially you’re talking business with people, you’re talking about policy changes. That segment of society in Bangladesh is very old school, with handwritten invitations delivered to my office. When you’re moving in those circles, it’s nice to dress up for those occasions.” And Lidia May bags, which range in price from $155 for a pouch to $785 for a classic leather purse finished with an intricate floral design on the closure, are the perfect conversation starter.
“People always comment on the bags and they can't keep their hands off the embroidery,” says Catherine Cecil, an aid worker who now lives in Cambodia. “They always notice the quality.”
She owns three Lidia May bags and has given four as gifts to friends living everywhere from Delhi to Minnesota. The former Mexican ambassador bought 15 Lidia May bags as gifts. Two years ago, the deputy representative to the U.N. from Australia hosted a Lidia May trunk show in New York City, inviting female ambassadors from various countries to attend.
May Yang, age 31, moves among cultures herself. Born in China and raised in Los Angeles, she’s worked in New York and Hong Kong as a paralegal. In 2013, when Asia was suffering from a series of devastating natural disasters, she was drawn to the field of humanitarian aid. A director of a philanthropic foundation pointed her to an organization called Friendship that could put someone with her skillset to work. The organization works with remote communities in Bangladesh, a country about which Yang knew little. When she moved there and began working for the nonprofit in the field and then in the main Dhaka office, she discovered a local fashion scene where everyone regardless of their background wears bespoke embroidered sarees and salwar kameez.
“One of my favourite parts of living in Dhaka is the opportunity to design your own clothes,” says MacArthur-Wellstein. “From selecting the fabrics, discussing with excellent tailors, to the pride of wearing something that is distinctly you. It is something that I genuinely miss about Bangladesh. This scene supports a desire for quality and for unique products that celebrate life.”
One month after Yang moved to Bangladesh in April of 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory complex in Dhaka collapsed, killing 1,134 garment workers. “I was like, oh my God, I’m in a country where fashion could do so much good, but terrible things are happening in the name of fast fashion. I started thinking: How can I be involved in this industry and show what Bangladesh is capable of, the beautiful heritage and refined aspects of its culture?”
Yang understood that craft — historic skill and tradition applied by hand — was what made European design houses luxury. Chanel had even acquired couture maisons in order to keep their standards up. And Bangladeshi tailors and designers, who create embroidered wedding sarees that cost thousands of dollars, have that in spades. “At the highest end of the fashion spectrum, they were investing in craft. Eurocentric craft, certainly, but those were the things that made it luxury. There’s an abundance of that in Bangladesh,” Yang says. “I wondered why more of it wasn’t being introduced to a fashion audience globally.”
She started volunteering for the non-profit organization Lidia Hope Centre, which provides education to children and works to support over 400 families in Dhaka’s urban slums. Yang founded Lidia May in 2015 with the idea of providing a steady, respectable income to the mothers in the program so they could afford to keep their kids in school.
She designed a training program to teach women embroidery skills, so they could move into the skilled labor market. So far, they’ve trained over 300 women, and provide regular work to 30. Lidia May pays according to the skill of the embroiderer, but even the novice is paid more than what she would earn in a garment factory, and can work out of her home and set her own hours. Yang herself still works out of a small office in Dhaka.
“One artisan named Shefali, was living hand to mouth every month with her family, with no savings and no work,” Lidia May co-founder Rasheed Khan told me over email. “Over the course of one year she earned enough not just to live but to put aside a little every month. When unfortunately her two children fell sick and needed surgeries, she was able to pay for them in full right away.” Another artisan was able to move her family into an apartment with running water, he said.
The leather is sourced from Europe or Korea, then dyed and vegetable-tanned in a responsible tannery in Dhaka. Yang apprenticed with a leather craftsman in New York and then shared what she learned with Bangladeshi leather craftsmen to help elevate their work to the luxury level.
Up until now, Lidia May used conventional synthetically dyed threads — that’s what was readily available — but in October the first purses embroidered using real plant-dyed silk threads from a Bangladeshi local social entrepreneur, Nawshin Khair of Aranya (pronounced AH-ron-no), will be available.
Even more exciting, she’s secured permission from the family of the late artist Surayia Rahman to use her designs. Rahman, who was immortalized in the 2015 award-winning documentary Threads, revived the Bengal art form of Kantha (quilt) embroidery, teaching it impoverished Bangladeshi mothers and eventually formalizing her workshop into a nonprofit and seeing her art make it into museum collections around the world. “There’s a lot of village women’s dreams and hopes in the motifs,” Yang says.
How poetic that the founder of Lidia May represents a much-needed Yang — light, positivity, warmth — to Bangladesh’s Yin of struggle and frequent floods. “If the water level will be increasing as they say, people in Bangladesh will be in trouble,” says the Danish foreign official Eskjaer says of seeing the flash of colorful embroidery at a meeting dedicated to protecting a rapidly melting Arctic. So that connection was there.”
“I’m not a typical luxury consumer. But I do believe in fashion that has a purpose,” says Moushumi Khan (no relation to Lidia May cofounder Rasheed), a Bangladeshi-American lawyer who collects traditional Bangladeshi art and antiques in her Dhaka home. “When I heard her talk about her craftswomen and the whole process, I found that so inspiring and a way to honor my own culture. She’s making this really high-end thing that people really don’t associate with Bangladesh.”