Saba Gul has lately been everywhere, from the Huffington Post to Al-Jazeera, Vogue India and fashion blogs. The young woman from MIT started her entrepreneurial career with Bags for Bliss as a full-fledged social entrepreneur, but a couple of years into the business and she felt that way of doing things was not sustainable. In came Popinjay, not just a new name for her label but also a completely different attitude, without letting go of the social foundations that were a basis for the brand. Saba wanted to bring positive change to struggling women’s life through a sustainable business model. The socially conscious handbag label crafted in Pakistan provides women with employment opportunities, skills in embroidery and fair wages.
Tell us a little about the birth of Popinjay:
It was the story of a young girl named Azaada Khan that made me think about the state of education and women in Pakistan. She was raised in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime when girls weren’t allowed to get an education, and she was so desperate to go to school that she had to disguise herself as a boy to attend one. She ironically changed her name to Azaad, which means free. This girl had to go through so much to get something which should’ve been her basic right. The thought stayed with me and I decided to quit my six-figure job in USA and moved to Pakistan to kickstart Bags for Bliss that eventually became Popinjay.
The Bliss bag designs are very different from Popinjay. Who is behind the creative switch and who decides the designs and themes for the bags?
I am not a designer but certainly the head of this creative switch. The creative transition was very much aligned with the switch from Bliss to Popinjay; from not-for-profit to profit and from working just for the impact to focusing on product and customer, and finally right down to the aesthetics. Our first collection was a collaborative effort. Tia Noon (co-owner and designer of Kamiar Rokni), was heading our inaugural collection La Mezquita with her designs. Mifra Inam, a graduate of Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design helped with the sampling and my role was to make sure the product was a right fit for the market. Inspiration was all around us as we picked ideas for the collection. All three of us had been raised in Lahore and being surrounded by the rich culture was such an inspiration. The architecture in Lahore, primarily the Islamic architecture ultimately became the theme for our inaugural products.
How does art intersect with fashion for Popinjay?
Designers are artists in a way and there is an intersection between fashion and art. But at the same time I think its important to make a distinction between art and fashion. I see a lot of things that are termed as art but we have to create something functional, to carry around, something practical for everyday use. The pieces have a heavy artistic element to them. If you see our La Mezquita designs, the collection is united by Islamic architecture from around the world. And Havana, our next collection is inspired by Cuban tile design. When you are working in fashion it’s important to strike a good balance because we have to make sure the customer is happy.
What inspires you?
Our women inspire me. They are hard working, their optimism, their resilience, their eagerness to earn a living with dignity, their dedication to their families and children, their hopes and dreams, I am constantly inspired by the women we work with. They have so much hope despite the difficult circumstances.
Describe your relationship with the female artisans in Hafizabad
We share a professional relationship but we are friends as well. We share experiences that are common between us. They have worries that we do, they have dreams for their children, we are strengthened by this connection. I think there is also a fascination with each others’ lives, they are fascinated with my life. Once I sat with them and they said you always ask about us, tell us about yourself too. They wanted to know where I went to school and they assumed that I must be highly educated. We carry out these investigations with each other all the time [laughs].
Where do you see Popinjay in the future?
I see it as a global brand that stands for the values we stand for, which are justice, equal opportunity, female empowerment. I see it as a brand that works everywhere, not just in Pakistan; one that produces all sorts of products and not just handbags. I want to promote all kinds of skills for all kinds of artisans around the world, not just embroidery and not just Pakistani women.
[quote]We stand for justice, equal opportunity and female empowerment[/quote]
What’s the current start up scene like in Pakistan?
It’s growing, its hopeful, its small, its underfunded, but there’s a lot of growth. There are a lot of young people who want to give up traditional jobs to start independent and meaningful work. Pakistan has a lot of problems but there are definitely solutions. Young people are looking to engage to solve all the problems so we just need to provide more guidance for them.
The challenges include the weak ecosystem, infrastructure and lack of emotional support for beginners. There isn’t a funding ecosystem, no network of angel venture capitalists, like there is in the U.S. There is also no ecosystem for mentorship. These are some of the weaknesses that have to be worked on.
What is legacy to you and how will you leave one?
For me the legacy is the work that Popinjay does. The women who create the products and the customers who buy our products. It’s about empowering our customers to make conscious decisions, what they buy, how they buy and empowering women to work with dignity. I believe Popinjay is working hard on all fronts to do that. I think my legacy is creating a brand that can do all those things.
How has Saba changed with the journey from Bliss to Popinjay?
I have become more practical, learned a lot about how market and products work. I think my time and attention has been diverted to the market and how it works. I have grown to take on the role which requires facing the realities of running a business.
At 31 years old, Ansar is mother to 3 daughters and 2 sons. She works on Popinjay’s Timurid Baguette, something she takes great pride in, being a master at embroidering its motifs and intricate patterns which make use of 7 colors, which she knows by heart. Her husband drives a car for a family in Lahore and makes about $100 per month. Ansar takes home $60 from the 100 hours of embroidery she does for Popinjay’s products, more than half of what her husband earns every month. Ansar’s education was cut short by the death of her mother and her marriage when she was in class 10. She wants to make sure she gives her children the advantage of education that she was unable to receive in her life.
Bilquis considers herself a single mother for her three children. Her husband is mentally incapacitated and unable to provide an income for the household. The income she earns through Popinjay supports her family of five in addition to paying for her husband’s medical bills. Her great desire is to go for the pilgrimage in Mecca for which she saves part of the income she earns. Her happiest moments are those spent playing with her children – she smiles as she talks about how her son twists her arm affectionately, or tells her funny stories about his friends at school. Sometimes he asks her to give him lunch money – a mere 30 cents for a bowl of rice and chickpeas at school – but she cannot afford it. Bilquis is the artisan for the Anfa envelope clutch.