By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Apr 26, 2009 at 2:39 PM

It’s a beautiful thing when fashion meets function. Such is the case with the creations of Malia Designs, a socially-conscious company that produces attractive, purposeful messenger bags, totes, scarves and wallets made in Cambodia by vendors with a human rights' mission.

Lia Valerio and Maria Forres Opdycke own the Chicago-based for-profit, and they hire designers in the United States such as Milwaukee’s Leslie Vaglica.

"Malia bags are more than lovely and functional, they provide sustainable income for disadvantaged people," says Vaglica.

About a decade ago, Valerio served in the Peace Corps and then traveled around in Southeast Asia. In 2005, Opdycke spent time in Asia, too, and during their independent travels, both women witnessed human trafficking firsthand.  Their experience inspired them to start a design business with the mission to provide a safe, secure working environment for Cambodians.

The Cambodian groups that make the bags (after they are designed by artists like Vaglica) are non-governmental / non-profit organizations dedicated to preventing human trafficking and providing employment for land mine victims, the disabled and street people. The goal is to bring their crafts to Western markets and therefor expand their access to sustainable income.

"We also work with women’s co-ops and family producer groups that provide a much-needed source of income for some of the poorest people in the world," says Valerio.

Malia Designs' products are made from recycled rice bags, repurposed mosquito netting and locally-produced silk. They range in price between $30 and $60. The creations are available nation-wide, and in Milwaukee, they're sold at Fischberger’s, 2445 N. Holton St., Whole Foods, 2305 N. Prospect Ave., and The Milwaukee Art Museum.

Vaglica, 26, grew up in Milwaukee and says her artistic mother taught her that it’s possible to make a living doing art. Vaglica attended UW-Eau Claire and Mount Mary College, where she determined sewing was her strong point. While attending Mount Mary, she met Valerio who was a design student at the time.

Also, Vaglica is a freelance seamstress who makes dance costumes, roller derby uniforms and tennis apparel for Eliza Audley, a local company that produces garment in the United States.

"I am particularly proud that the money contributed by Malia went to a specific request of children in an orphanage in Cambodia this year: beds," says Vaglica. "Lia has developed such a good relationship with Malia's producers, she gets to see first hand the benefits. Just hearing her talk about it is very touching."

Malia Designs donates a portion of their profits to an organization that fights human trafficking. Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery that adversely affects one million people every year, including people living in the United States.

"We believe that one way to counteract this global issue is to increase access to economic opportunity in the most affected areas," says Valerio. "Who can resist a great handbag that is ‘designed to carry a cause?’"

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.