Pakistani craftswomen reap what they sew

From the countryside to the catwalk: How high fashion is helping artisans - in a project cut from a different cloth.


Kot Ishaq, Pakistan - This quiet village, nestled amongst fields of mustard flowers and wheat about 100km northwest of the Pakistani cultural capital of Lahore, is not exactly the sort of place you'd expect high-end fashion to be having much of an impact.

About 150 women in this village, however, have spent the past two years illustrating how a new model of selling for-profit, high-end consumer goods can change rural artisan's lives for the better.

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They work for Popinjay, a Pakistani start-up company that provides high-quality - and high-priced - fashion accessories (though mainly handbags, at the moment) to North American and European markets, while being driven by goals aimed more at their employees' lives than the company's bottom line.

Popinjay's handbags, employing intricate, hand-embroidered silk designs inlaid into leather, don't come cheap: the top of their current collection will set you back $475 - or about twice the average monthly income for a Pakistani household - but they're also not aimed at the domestic market.

The company sells exclusively through high-end retailers such as Anthropologie in the United States, and does not actually supply goods to the Pakistani market at all.

Popinjay is the brainchild of Saba Gul, a 31-year-old entrepreneur who started with the simple premise of trying to find ways to make a positive impact on women's lives, with particular focus on providing young girls with avenues towards attaining an education.

Her work started as a company called Bliss in 2011, in the town of Attock, where the organisation would incentivise school attendance for girls by providing on-site training and work opportunities for an hour a day, in addition to regular classes.

Bliss, which started as a non-profit, slowly made the transition towards what is now Popinjay, providing women with employment opportunities, skills in embroidery and, most importantly, an income - along with the independence that that brings.

Without [this work], the only choice I'd have would be to seek money from my parents... Now that I have this income, I don't have to be ashamed. I can make my own money.

Bilquis Bibi, artisan

Today, each of Popinjay's 150 artisans works around four hours a day, and make, on average, between $19-$38 for each piece of embroidery they produce. Each piece takes between two and four weeks to make.

Making $33-$56 a month works out as a significant contribution to a family's income, in a village where the total household income, often for a large family, is about $95.

So not only do the part-time jobs help boost a household income by 35-60 percent, they provide women with the opportunity to work, in a country where the female labour participation rate is just over 15 percent.

For someone such as Bilquis Bibi, the Rs5,250 ($50) she made last month is the difference between being able to send her children to school and being forced to pull them out.

"Without [this work], the only choice I'd have would be to seek money from my parents," said the 35-year-old mother of three. Her husband, she says, suffers from schizophrenia, and so cannot work.

"Now that I have this income, I don't have to be ashamed. I can make my own money," she told Al Jazeera, while acknowledging that the money wasn't enough to entirely run the household.

The difference the opportunity to have an income makes, however, is not just monetary, Bilquis says: "When I come here to work, I feel lighter. I laugh, and talk to my friends here… I didn't have any other opportunities to work before this - this was the only way I would be able to have an income."

It may sound somewhat counter-intuitive, but the $35 an artisan will make for the work she puts into a $250 handbag is far more than what is on offer from most other fashion brands - particularly those aimed at providing the lowest prices possible, says Gul.

Most of the consumer price, she explains, is retailer mark-up, with Popinjay wholesaling each $250 bag, on average, for about $100 to the retailers. Seventy-percent of that, she says, is what it costs to make the bag - including the $35 (or 35 percent) that goes to the artisan.

Switching to for-profit

"Bliss" made the switch to a for-profit model in 2013, becoming "Popinjay", and the manner and reasons that drove the change provide an interesting insight into the opportunities that global capitalism can allow for creating a social impact.

Money earned by the craftswomen makes a significant
impact on their family's lives [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

While the goal of the company remains to create income opportunities for the women of Kot Ishaq, the way in which the public interfaces with the brand is through a high-end product, Gul says.

"There is more competition in the for-profit sector, and that's because of the fact that when you look at a non-profit - let's say you're delivering education or healthcare to an impoverished community - there really isn't that much competition there," she said.

The problems inherent in the non-profit model, she says, are with finding funding and the difficulty in attracting the kind of marketing and financial professionals needed to ensure the product is successful.

"I wanted this business to grow and scale, and I had this very fast-paced start-up mentality that I wanted to apply to this - and non-profit funding cycles were just painfully long. Sometimes I'd be talking to people for over a year, and then our contact person would leave the organisation, and we'd just be back at square one," she said. "I realised that this was not the kind of money that I want, it's also not the kind of accountability that I want. I want someone who will give me money quickly and want me to deliver quickly.

"If we're selling a product in the for-profit sector, we need to compete and we need to move fast, and we need to deliver fast - so that makes it more important for us than a non-profit to keep up with that pace. Marketing ourselves as a non-profit, I think, hurts us, because we’re not attracting the things that we need to compete."

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The difference for Popinjay is that they are selling a product to a high-income market, and that requires the back-end of the business to be geared towards business, rather than focusing on development goals.

"The problem that I was trying to solve, which was the problem of education and livelihood, of having access to money or being able to market your skills in a way that brought back income, that problem was best solved by [incorporating the women's employment] into the model, and not just giving them money, or giving a part of the proceeds of the products."

So far, Popinjay runs sales targets from week-to-week, but Gul says the ultimate goal is - once steady revenue streams have been built through additional retailer agreements - to refocus on the lives of her employees, increasing the impact on their lives in ways that include providing access to education for their children, or providing them equity in the business.

"This is a brand that is making the world a better place rather than a worse place," she said. "And taking people's money, but putting it in the right place."

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

An earlier published version of this article incorrectly stated that the craftswomen make $19-$38 per month, instead of per piece of work. We apologise for the error.