While talking with 20-year-old Yali Derman, I wondered how it was possible that someone so full of life has had to fight so hard to survive.
A two-time cancer survivor, Yali spoke with poise, elegance and maturity beyond her years about her time at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago and how she used her creative talents to help her combat illness and now is helping other children do the same through her handbag collection.
Yali was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of four and had a recurrence at the age of 10, when she received a life-saving bone marrow transplant from her brother.
“At the time of my treatment, sibling bone marrow transplantation was a new and evolving type of treatment for my condition so it really was a remarkable experience,” Yali said.
During her treatments, Yali was often in isolation, and found comfort in the creative art therapy programs offered by the hospital’s Family Services funded by K.I.D.S.S. for KIDS: Kindness Is Doing Something Special For Kids, an all-volunteer fundraising auxiliary of Children’s Memorial Hospital. It was there that she first began experimenting in handbag design.
“What I always say is that I needed a powerful vocabulary to express my autobiographical voice and I wanted to feel like a person, like a creative, fun-loving kid, and I wanted to be seen for who I was aside from a sick child,” she said. “Sometimes the hardest story to tell is your own and that’s really where the art therapy program helped me and ultimately that’s where the power of the purse came to me.”
She used the concept of the bandana, typically used to cover the heads of cancer patients, for inspiration.
“My main idea was that I took the bandanas that were intended to cover my hairless head and really defiantly made purses out of them,” she said. “Soon that paisley bandana became the symbol of the cancer experience that I always place in as a design element in my handbags. It’s a symbol of transforming this experience and my situation into something different, something positive.”
Yali, who attended Solomon Schechter Day School, Chicagoland Jewish High School, and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, says it is part of her personal philosophy to embody the idea of hiddur mitzvah. She first learned the term, which means “beautifying the commandment,” while serving as president and founder of Va’ad Vogue, the CJHS fashion club.
“This was really how I found my voice, the way that I could praise the Almighty and observe tikkun olam,” Yali said. “I would say that my Jewish education and religious background really emphasize to me that when I’m fulfilling a commandment or performing a good deed I can do it in a beautiful way.”
At 17, Yali had an incredible opportunity to design a personalized handbag with Kate Spade to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the organization that orchestrated the experience. The bag raised $50,000 and Yali and Kate Spade were honored as donors of the year.
Soon after, Yali started her own brand of handbags, trademarked Yali’s Carry On ® to signify how cancer survivors carry on in the face of their medical baggage.
While still in high school, Yali created a pink beach tote as part of a school charity project, which marked the alliance between K.I.D.S.S. for Kids and Yali. The beach tote raised $10,000 in just a few months—more than surpassing her original goal of $1,000—for K.I.D.S.S. for KIDS to go toward funding the new playroom being built in the new Children’s Memorial Hospital, due for completion in 2013.
Yali calls her newest bag her “pride and joy so far.” The bag features a peacock, a symbol of renewal with a tail composed of varying paisleys, long to represent each survivor’s story. The tail does not circle the entire bag because Yali’s story is still ongoing. There are 18 colors on the bag “that symbolize life’s vibrancy, chai.” She says the purse encourages “moving forward and carrying on in the face of adversity.”
There are also elements of the bag that come from biblical interpretation and midrashim. “I think that’s really where handbag design relates to Torah, which sounds somewhat hilarious, but it’s true,” she said.
So why purses?
“I really do believe in the power of the purse,” Yali said. “The purse is something that’s very unique to a woman. People don’t necessarily only invest in handbags because they look nice, but they also have to be functional… Bags tell a story about the person that is carrying them…it’s sort of a biography of the woman when you empty out all of its contents.”
So what’s next for Yali?
Currently, she is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania in the school of nursing. Her dream job is to be an advanced practice pediatric oncology nurse, where she could integrate her creative talents with nursing.
But, she said, handbag design is most definitely still in her future.
“Absolutely,” Yali said. “[It’s] one of the ways that I carry on fashionably, Judaically, philanthropically and really my handbags are carry-ons and they’re a metaphor for the way that I want to carry on with vibrant elegance, vast purpose and a meaningful voice for the cancer experience—I think that’s where my future leads me.”
Yali’s Carry On for K.I.D.S.S. event will take place Sunday, March 6 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Saks Fifth Avenue Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Meet Yali, and help her support Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago with her limited edition tote bag ($85). All proceeds from the sale of each tote plus 5% of store sales to benefit K.I.D.S.S. for Kids. www.kidssforkids.org.
To learn more about Yali or to pre-order the bag, visit www.yaliscarryon.com.