Bags of Style

Bridget Scanlan set up her own fashion bag business after being diagnosed with diabetes. Rose Miller met the young “dia-preneur” to find out more.

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There was no history of diabetes in Bridget Scanlan’s family, so her diagnosis seven years ago came out of the blue. She knew nothing about type 1 diabetes, or how her life was going to change.

It was a steep learning curve but now, at the age of 27, Bridget has come into her stride and has been inspired by her experience to start an exciting new business.

I met up with Bridget in central Wellington to talk about her diabetes journey and how it has led to a new venture making fashion bags that discreetly carry a diabetes-testing “kit” so young women can enjoy a night out without embarrassment.

At the time Bridget was diagnosed with T1D at the age of 20, she was studying for a business degree at Massey University. She and her friends were starting to celebrate their 21st birthdays, and getting “glammed up” for parties meant wearing great dresses and fabulous accessories.

Bridget tells me she had to go to parties carrying the functional “cube” her diabetes team had supplied to hold her blood testing equipment.

“We’d go to these parties and bars, and when we were dancing, we’d throw our bags into the middle of our circle and there was my big ugly cube among everyone else’s fashionable bags,” she explains.

It was during these late-night parties that a seed was planted that has now grown into the bag-making business that she has just launched.

By 2015, Bridget was studying at NZ Fashion Tech in Wellington. Having looked around for bag options and finding nothing she wanted to carry, Bridget decided to design something for herself.

“The bags available for sale at the time were too clinical, too cumbersome, and didn’t look the part for a fashion-conscious young woman. I wanted a bag that married fashion and function,” she says.

Bridget got working on some designs, came up with her first bag and soon realised her idea had business potential.

In 2017, Bridget was accepted into Project Fashion Wellington, an initiative where she had access to a fully equipped studio and business mentors. Here she had the chance to develop her bags and take them to the catwalk. She named her range KYT (Keeping You Together).

Bridget was accepted into a business incubator programme and showed her bags to the diabetes community for feedback and refinement as part of the product development process.

During focus groups, young T1D women shared their stories of going out socialising.

“Some of them said they’d just go out without a diabetes kit at all because it wouldn’t fit into their handbags, or their blood testing equipment would just be swimming around loose in the bottom of their bags,” remembers Bridget. “I realised then what a difference my bags could make to their lives.”

Bridget showed me two beautifully soft handbag prototypes, crafted from quality leather. Her design is simple but clever: two pouches snap together – one for gear such as keys, lipstick and phone, while the other is designed with pockets for everything a person with T1D would need to carry. It zips completely flat for easy access to everything in the kit and there’s a special space for sharps. A detachable leather strap completes the bag, which can also be carried as a clutch.

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Bridget says she is lucky to have had some incredible mentors whose advice has enabled her to move her initial idea through to production phase. This included a connection she made with Mike, a fourth-generation leather craftsman whose work was seen in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. “Mike shared so much knowledge with me – I’m so grateful for his time,” she says.

Bridget also partnered with another New Zealand company, Duffle & Co, to produce her diabetes bags through a family-run workroom in Bali, which has a focus on sustainable and ethical practices.

The first bags will be made from soft black leather, with new colours and materials planned in the future, including canvas and vegan leather. She’s also looking at expanding her range to include options for T1D men – possibly a messenger-style bag.

Bridget has gone from a scared newly diagnosed twenty-year-old to a confident young businesswoman and she hopes she can help other young people. “My KYT range comes from a real need that I’ve experienced personally. I hope it’s a way to empower others living with diabetes as well,” she says.

People have expressed interest in buying Bridget’s bags from the USA, Australia, the UK, Canada and Japan, and KYT is now her full-time project. At the time of writing, she was taking pre-orders at www.kytbags.com.

Bridget shares her story in the Autumn issue of Diabetes Wellness magazine.

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Jo Chapman