“Education is such a privilege that I took it for granted until I was in graduate school and realised how much of a privilege it really was,” says Saba Gul, the brain behind Popinjay, a handbag company which aims to not only provide high quality merchandise, but also a livelihood for women.
Working in the development sector throughout her college years ignited a fire of passion in Gul, about empowering women and trying to educate as many women as she could.
“The concept of Popinjay came from an NGO I was working for called Bliss that worked towards the education of women across Pakistan,” said Gul, adding that it was apparent that women had to work, as coming to school took away from their wages. Keeping this hindrance in mind, the NGO incorporated their work and education together, allowing young girls to embroider fabrics during school hours so their wages didn’t suffer. “There was a huge conundrum of occupation versus education, and we were trying to bridge that gap. Every hour away from work at school was wages lost.”
It didn’t take Gul long to realise that the solution for these women was a sustainable livelihood that made a dent in their household income. The MIT graduate had never thought of a career in fashion, but was willing to go wherever her dream of creating a social development programme took her, which was designing handbags. “Popinjay provides these women with not only financial stability, but a social outlet to come together and enjoy what they are doing,” says Gul. “Since the product is being sold internationally, they feel like they are contributing to the world and adding value.”
“The first couple of years were very lonely and I was alone trying to build this programme up,” says Gul, “it has been a difficult journey but we raised money through Pakistani Angel investors, and last summer the programme finally started showing potential.”
Located in Hafizabad, women at Popinjay get the designs they are to embroider, and then various different assembling units in Lahore assemble the bags together.
Once Gul understood that the products needed to be in retail in order to make a marked difference, she knew that this was now more of a profitable business than just a social development programme. “Quality, design, distribution are all very important and I wanted a product that was very high quality and suited for the American market.”
While Tia Noon and a young fashion design graduate Mifrah Inam designed the first collection, the company has now hired Adil Iqbal, a Scottish-Pakistani designer as their creative director.
It is imperative to keep in mind that women based in rural areas have limited options of what they are socially and culturally allowed to do. Embroidery is a major skill set they have, and have honed it over generations.
The bags are modern, understated and help women in Hafizabad create a product that’s not only enriching their morale but also their financial stability.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2014.