x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

With Zanbeel, craftswomen create purses full of hope

In Pakistan, Anam Mukri teamed up with underpriviledged craftsmen to start her luxury handbag business, Zanbeel. Now in Dubai, she's looking to recreate her brand with local talent.

Naila Yasmeen, right, and Saima Nadeem are training to produce their own handbags and clutches. Photos by Antonie Robertson / The National )
Naila Yasmeen, right, and Saima Nadeem are training to produce their own handbags and clutches. Photos by Antonie Robertson / The National )

In Pakistan, Anam Mukri teamed up with underprivileged craftsmen to start her luxury handbag business, Zanbeel. Now in Dubai, she's looking to recreate her brand with local talent.

"It looks like easy, but not," Naila Yasmeen tells me, smiling widely.

We are gathered around a table in Yasmeen's cramped Al Qusais flat, surrounded by sheets of cardboard, multicoloured rulers, pencils, industrial-sized scissors and swathes of richly-coloured fabric. Under the guidance of Anam Mukri, the founder of Zanbeel, a bespoke, luxury bag brand, Yasmeen is learning how to transform this simple palette of materials into a beautifully-crafted clutch bag.

Yasmeen, it turns out, is brimming with entrepreneurial spirit. The unassuming 40-year old Pakistani has spent 20 years living in Dubai and is employed as a "henna lady" by a local tourism company, providing visitors to the emirate with a taste of local culture through her intricate, swirling designs. She is also a tailor by trade and, I am reliably informed, cooks a mean biryani, which has led to the odd, small-scale catering job of cooking hearty lunches for local office workers. "I make jewellery too," she says, showing me a plastic box full of beads and other trinkets. So when she was approached by Mukri to add bag-making to her repertoire of skills, she jumped at the chance.

"I asked her why she wanted to work with me and she said it was her dream to send her eldest son to college so he can study, but she can't. That sealed it," Mukri says.

Mukri now visits Yasmeen's house two or three times a week to train her in the art of bag-making. They are joined by Saima Naddem, a fellow henna lady, who is also eager to learn this new trade. All three women are giving up their time for free, in the hope that once they have mastered the process, Yasmeen and Naddem will be able to pursue a new career creating bags under the Zanbeel brand.

The 28-year-old Mukri founded Zanbeel in her native Pakistan in 2007 and has made corporate social responsibility a cornerstone of the brand. Her intricate, high-end, handmade bags are now sold around the world, with stockists in Canada, Kenya and Hong Kong. There is also a webshop, www.zanbeel.net, where bags sell for between $200 (Dh735) and $500 (Dh1,836), and a Facebook page with more than 20,000 followers.

After studying textile design at the University of East London, Mukri worked at Harrods as part of the floor merchandising team, dealing with high-end, slightly eccentric brands such as Sonia Rykiel and Missoni. She also became increasingly involved in client styling and began to play around with the idea of creating an accessories brand of her own.

Mukri returned to Pakistan and set about establishing Zanbeel. "Zanbeel is actually the Persian word for basket, but that's not why I chose it. The word comes from a South Asian folktale - a saga of eight volumes about a hypnotist called Ummro Ayyar. He would steal things from people by hypnotising them, and store them in a pouch called a 'zanbeel'. The magical beauty of that pouch was that however much he stored in there, it always remained empty. I grew up fascinated by this whole concept - I wanted a zanbeel of my own. My mother would use this word often in everyday dialogue. She'd say, 'Why are you stuffing everything in my bag? It's a bag, not a zanbeel, it's going to get filled up'." Mukri's plan was to develop a Muslim brand that focused on quality and exclusivity, rather than mass production and commercialism, creating statement bags out of luxury materials such as satin silks and Swarovski crystals. The challenge was finding the right people to make them.

"Making fabric bags is very different to making leather bags," Mukri explains. "Fabric bags are very sensitive to touch. The minute the material gets stained, you can't do anything about it. You can't alter a bag, it's not like clothes, so it goes to waste. You have to be very careful and very sensitive. The margins of error are zero. If you make a mistake, that's it. You can't really go back on yourself."

Mukri's father recommended a skilled craftsman who had no experience with fabric bags but was honest, hardworking and in need of work. Mukri spent six months training him in her workshop in the suburbs of Karachi. "We both learnt together. That summer, I went to London and did a private course in bag making. And then I returned to find that he had developed his own skills, through practice and using his own initiative. We hit a jackpot when we started making our handmade box bags, which were previously only made in China or Italy.

"We started making them by hand in Pakistan. Our speciality was that we also did custom-made designs. Brides-to-be were our biggest clients and they loved the fact that everything could be made according to their specifications. We could also turn things around very quickly, which helped."

The duo started experimenting with new shapes and techniques and kept a close eye on fashion trends to ensure that they remained ahead of the game. They started bringing out four collections a year, with around 15 bags in each collection. The only problem was that Mukri's sole employee had to commute for two hours each day to get to the workshop, which was becoming increasingly problematic.

"He also had to look after his ailing wife and eight children. So we decided that in order to facilitate him, we would move the workshop nearer to his home, which was in Korangi, one of the most troubled areas in Karachi. That enabled him to look after his wife and children and I saw the change it made to his life. He was happier and looking healthier and that all influenced his work. The end result was that the quality of the bags he was making improved by one hundred per cent. We hired more people and this obviously had an impact on their lives as well."

The workshop remained in operation until four months ago, when the newly-married Mukri moved to Dubai. Now she is looking to rebuild the business here, using the same basic model of employing people from underprivileged backgrounds. "If you empower your employees, they are going to empower you, and I've experienced that first hand with my employees in Pakistan. Obviously, it can be a challenge finding the right people. It is not just about finding people from low-income backgrounds or who are underprivileged; it's about getting the right people on your team. I was telling someone that I wanted to do this and they introduced me to Naila. She is hardworking and reliable and as enthusiastic about this as I am."

One of the other key challenges that Mukri faces is finding the materials that she needs to create her bags. "I can't find the right glue and I can't find the right cardboard in Dubai. We use three different kinds of weighted cardboard for the bags and so it's really important that you use exactly the right quality and the right weight."

The next task will be finding a permanent workshop. "We have talked about building a whole team. We also want to work with women who do crochet and embroidery. There are wives of labourers living in Dubai who are obviously living in very destitute conditions but they know how to do this beautiful crochet and traditional embroidery, so I want to use that, along with the crystals."

Mukri is currently contacting organisations like the Sharjah Business Council to see if they would be interested in working with her, and the Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre (Ductac) and the Dubai Ladies Club to see if they would be interested in adding bag-making lessons to their roster of events. She is also running private bag-making classes for individual clients.

Back in Al Qusais, the ladies are starting a new bag from scratch. The process begins with a simple sketch, which is then carefully measured out on to a thin piece of card. They do the body of the bag first, then the flap and, finally, the gusset. Getting the measurements absolutely right is the hardest part, Yasmeen tells me, pushing back the sleeves of her abaya and hunching over her ruler. "It's like going back to your basic geometry class," Mukri laughs. "It's essential that you check each measurement three or four times."

The women work in unison, chatting away happily as their children run in and out of the room. Once the dimensions are perfect, they are transferred onto a thicker piece of card, and then traced out on to pieces of foam and fabric.

Then all the elements are attached, using non-toxic glue, and the decorative elements are added. The difference between success and failure lies in the tiniest of degrees and millimetres.

It might "look like easy" but it's certainly not.