In a world where ‘penguins pop’, there are bald-headed minions standing in assembly lines, hot-air balloons floating up into a blue sky, Japanese geishas, multi-colored umbrellas and a voracious, roaring Lannister lion.
It takes about a thousand painstaking brushstrokes to create these images, transforming staid white canvas shoes into something special, quirky and utterly fashionable.
‘Penguin Pop’, journalist Saadia Gardezi’s brainchild, is a true labor of love where orders for customized shoes are taken and then diligently created. The artwork is all done by Saadia herself, in the evenings when she returns home from her day-job and over weekends.
“Things just took off by sheer accident,” she recalls. “I had some old canvas shoes lying about and I decided to paint them for myself. Some of my friends admired them and I made similar shoes for them. Then, friends of friends began to place orders and before I knew it, things had taken off.”
Just a year old, Penguin Pop’s success can easily be attributed to Saadia’s flair for art. With a seasoned gimlet eye she may create a rendition of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Nights’, an Avengers comic strip, a menagerie of Disney characters or an endearing Cookie monster on a pair of shoes.
“Orders are fulfilled within two to four weeks and I prefer painting canvas shoes because they are durable. I use fabric and acrylic paints treated with varnishes that allow the shoes to be scrubbed clean without damaging the paint. On special order, I have painted wedged heels and even constructed a very tricky paper collage on shoes. Canvas, though, works best. I paint the shoes myself because I can’t trust anybody else to follow my vision to the tee,” says Saadia. “It often takes as long as 15 hours to create a single shoe."
This means that only about a maximum of 30 orders can be accepted per month and prices rise high, beginning at about Rs 5000 and rocketing to Rs 12,000. “It is hard grueling work and my customers appreciate that their shoes are uniquely their own. Most of them don’t mind the high prices.”
Sales are undoubtedly augmented thanks to the vestiges of social media, when happy clients or popular blogs post images of Penguin Pop shoes on Instagram.
“Orders definitely filter in right after an image is posted on Instagram. Suddenly, there are about a hundred e-mails in my inbox,” laughs Saadia.
In this era of paid online content, how often does a fledgling brand like Penguin Pop pay bloggers to boost its popularity? “Not once,” says Saadia, “although I have had bloggers calling me up, asking for free shoes in return for online advertising. I have had to tell them that it doesn’t work that way; that many hours are invested into creating a single pair and I can only invest that kind of effort into an actual order. Fortunately for me, online magazines and bloggers that I don’t even know personally have liked my work and posted repetitively about it.”
It’s almost a beatific fairy tale; amidst the unnecessary online lauding of mediocre designers and copycat fashion, a small-scale but exceptionally creative concept like Penguin Pop gets appreciated on the merit of its design.
“A few days ago, actor Osman Khalid Butt called me, placed an order and told me that he was a huge fan of my work. I was completely taken aback because I am a big fan of his. I had never expected this to happen!” relates Saadia.
Where does she see the penguins popping to in the future? “I am just going with the flow,” she says. “I am a journalist and a professional cartoonist and this is the most I can do at the moment. Let’s see where it goes.”