#CustomerDiaries: The World Is Not Made of Atoms. It’s Made of Stories.

Salma Hasan Ali. Image by Saanya Ali (Insta @saliphotography)
“Money can buy anything. But a story is priceless,” says writer and storyteller Salma Hasan Ali.

I first stayed with Salma at her home in Washington DC in 2014. She told me her own incredible story of coming to America from Pakistan as a seven-year old and of blending cultures and traditions in raising her family. She told me the stories of meeting and writing about people like Nelson Mandela and Abdul Sattar Edhi.

She told me one story that stayed with me. Running her hands along the fabric of an exquisite shawl in shades of red and gold, her eyes sparkling with pride, she told me about her friend Asif Shaikh, a master embroiderer in Ahmedabad who had made it. The stunning details of the hand-painted peacocks, the natural dyes, and the hand-embroidery spoke of Asif’s rich heritage; yet they fit into Salma’s modern lifestyle in DC.

“This took Asif two months to make! Every detail has been done by hand,” said Salma, beaming. Every time she wears the shawl, it speaks to her of Asif’s passion for craft, and reminds her of his studio that she had visited in Ahmedabad.

When we created Popinjay, we imagined its quintessential customer to be a woman just like Salma — the woman that collects and treasures pieces that tell a story. She wants to own something truly unique, not something she can pick up at a neighborhood store. She wants something meaningful that she can love and cherish; not another purchase that feels empty once the excitement of something new has passed.

But all the same, she is fashionable and buys premium products. She will not compromise style or quality to buy an ethical product.

With her everyday bag — the Baracoa tote.

Salma has built up quite the Popinjay collection in her closet, with a bag for every occasion. She talks up the brand, its mission and its design philosophy wherever she goes; every season we trace several new customers back to her. Each bag she owns speaks to her in the same deep, meaningful way that Asif’s shawl does.

“A Popinjay bag is not simply a bag. It’s a story. A connection. A feeling,” says Salma. “When I carry my Popinjay, I feel connected, not just to the women who made its beautiful embroidery, but to women around the world searching, striving, daring to dream a better future.”
With her favorite this season — the Fin shoulder bag in gold.

Earlier this month, Salma attended an event that was part of the National Prayer Breakfast, which brought together thousands of peacemakers of different faiths from around the world.

After the event, she sent me an email that gave me goosebumps:

“Saba, I carried my Popinjay this morning. On purpose. I always change my bag to a Popinjay when I go to something meaningful. Not only so I can talk about it when someone asks, but also because I want to bring along the women artisans who created the bag. To have them, in a way, be part of my experience. It’s a feeling of sisterhood.
I sat next to a princess. My Popinjay tote sat between us, listening to a new friendship developing — the princess shared her mother’s lessons on the importance of giving; I spoke of my parents’ tenacity when we moved to the US.
I feel these bags are our companions. We take them along as we would a friend, they sit beside us, hear our stories, our conversations, our deepest desires, our aching fears; they keep our secrets. They are already imbued with the stories of the artisan women many thousands of miles away; we add our own.”

I read the email thrice.

Muriel Ruykeser was right when she said the world is not made of atoms; it’s made of stories. Stories that help us define our identity and values. Stories that allow us to understand ourselves better, and find our commonality with others.

With the Pumpkin Anfa — Salma’s first Popinjay purchase.

Salma exclusively carries Popinjay bags every year to the Women in the World Summit, which brings together women change-makers from around the world to share their stories — women like Christiane Amanpour, Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep and Queen Rania. She feels the artisan women in Pakistan are her companions in hearing the stories of other inspiring women on stage.

The sold-out Lotus Foldover, which Salma carries every year to the Women in the World Summit.

Salma’s connection to her bags captures the essence of Popinjay — the creation of a lasting, meaningful bond between the artisans that make the products, and the women that carry them.

Popinjay handbags tell a story — of timeless art, impeccable craftsmanship and of pure love. The story spans three layers: the Popinjay team, its artisans and finally its customers.

Our team writes the opening chapter of this story by creating the designs, sketching the motifs, sampling the embroideries and sourcing the materials, with great attention to detail and a deep love for what we do. We know every stitch, every detail and every dimension of each bag; we have worked to perfect it for months. At every step, we are thinking of our customers’ needs as well as our artisans’ traditions and skills.

The artisans continue this story by making the motifs come alive with their hands, putting in all their love into each embroidery they create.

“It is very hard for us to part with the embroidery when it’s time to ship it,” artisan Ansar Parveen tells me. “We have worked on it for so long, and with so much love. It feels like a part of us. We are so proud when we look at the finished piece. It is beautiful and we have made it with our own hands!”

To the artisans, their work is a reflection of their worthiness. The quality and precision they are able to achieve makes them feel they are capable of anything. If they can create something that is worthy of being coveted by thousands of women across the world, is there anything they cannot dare to dream of doing?

The three-part love story finds its finale with women like Salma. When they carry the bags with great love and pride, when they tell the story of the bag to the person sitting next to them at dinner, when they make it part of their own life and experiences, and when they share a bond with women across the world because of it.

But the story doesn’t end with Salma. It continues to unfold in different cities with different women around the world, that each become part of it.

It lives on when Salma’s best friend Shazma hosts a trunk show for us at her home in Houston, and tells me:

I feel like I’ve been waiting for Popinjay all my life!

It lives on when another friend, Suzi, tells us about her Popinjay bag:

“My bag is one of those things you treasure and care for and leave in your will to a daughter.”

To these women, owning a Popinjay bag means their own story becomes intertwined with that of the artisan whose hands have created it.

Just like the threads of the embroideries on the bags.


Images by Saanya Ali.

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