By Sonya Rehman
There were many moments during her entrepreneurial journey when Hirra Babar wondered if she was doing the right thing. Even though she graduated from one of Pakistan’s top business schools, fashion spoke to her – it was an exciting field where she could express her ideas – no matter how outlandish – with complete abandon. Fashion meant immense creative freedom and the thought of a desk job at a multinational gave her the heebie-jeebies.
Launching her start-up, Warp, in 2016, the 33-year-old Lahore native dreamt of creating a line of bags for the modern woman. But not just any bag, she wanted to make something which fused good design with solid functionality.
“Warp essentially means to twist, so I wanted to re-interpret handbags in a contemporary form,” states Babar, the founder and creative director. “Good design is something that evokes the five senses…the shape, for instance, is so important, it should pique a potential buyer’s interest. A handbag needs to have its own character.”
Featuring a line of ‘hexella’ handbags in Warp’s signature, chic geometric shape, the pieces have been showcased at a number of international trade fairs and fashion weeks over the years. From being a part of Mipel (a prestigious leather handbag and accessories event) in Milan in 2018, to presenting at Tranoï (a leading trade show) at three seasons of Paris Fashion Week in both 2019 and 2020, Warp was also selected by the National Chamber of Italian Fashion to display its pieces at Mipel in the emerging brands category.
“I’ve experienced many challenges with growing and sustaining Warp because I’ve been dealing with a lot of firsts working in this region,” Babar candidly states, “We had no competition when we started out and had an open playground. Whatever mistakes we made initially were also somehow forgiven because there was no one to compare us with in the local context. Pakistan is one of the largest leather exporters in the world and it’s sad that we don’t have a single commercial brand that’s selling high value goods overseas.”
Sophisticated, sexy and edgy, Warp’s products range anywhere between $80 to $500. While by no means easy on the pocket, Babar reveals that during her start-up’s early stages, nailing the quality down to perfection was an absolute nightmare.
This, Babar states, was primarily due to the fact that she wanted her handbags to carry a 100% made in Pakistan label. However, as she went along, Babar realized that she had to train and educate her craftsmen in making products which not only matched, but surpassed international standards.
“I wanted to mobilize local resources. It was the driving force for Warp. I wanted my pieces to be made locally and sold globally,” she says. “But it was challenging because no one had demanded better quality from the craftsmen and therefore they didn’t know how to improve their craft. They do an amazing job, considering how much they know, so initially, it was quite a trial and error process. I didn’t want foreign customers to get a bad impression or question our craftsmanship.”
Citing an example of an international order which not only went very wrong, but it was also an experience which propelled Babar to perfect Warp’s quality right down to the very last stitch.
“We had our first retail order for a concept store in Seoul, South Korea, for fifty bags. This was the first time we were shipping such a big order overseas,” she states, “But when the bags arrived, the shop owner was absolutely furious. ‘Is this the quality you want to send us?’ she’d said. I was so taken aback when I learnt how they had carried out the quality check – with a magnifying glass, literally! It was such an education for me to begin to pay attention to all those little nooks and corners of the handbag. I shared the feedback with my craftsmen and ever since, they’ve improved a lot. There’s definitely an appetite to learn and do better, it’s just that no one has ever guided them before. Where a design took us six months to master, now it takes us a week to finalize.”
Stating that Warp has had to remain flexible and in a “constant learning phase” since its inception, Babar mentions that she travels to continue learning the tricks of the trade.
“I think that is what has helped me in moving ahead, we have more knowledge now than we did six years ago.”
After the initial design has been agreed on, a 3D paper prototype is given to Warp’s craftsmen, led by Muhammad Afzal, a master craftsman who Babar met in Lahore in 2016.
“He made some really nice samples for us in his first few attempts,” the entrepreneur recalls, “Then, when he came on board, he set up his own workshop and hired apprentices and craftsmen. Afzal’s always very curious and keen on learning new things and bettering his craft. He used to further research the techniques we’d speak about by looking up videos on YouTube. He understands the work that we’re doing and we work more like partners. It’s a shared learning process that’s built on a foundation of mutual respect.”
Hoping to take Warp to Paris Fashion Week in September, this year, Babar states that she’s also working on spearheading exhibitions in the Middle East, which interestingly enough, is where a majority of Warp’s clients are based.
“I think as an entrepreneur, nothing is more joyful than having a product – that was just an idea or a concept – in your hands as a fully functional product. It’s at that moment when you forget all the blood, sweat and tears that went into making it. Building a start-up is a lifelong journey, and I want young entrepreneurs to know that the first few years is just you figuring things out. Don’t expect the results to come right away.”