Thursday, April 28, 2011

Life's Coming Up Hibiscus

By TAHIR ALHAMZAH, The Star, August 29, 2002

MANY a time one’s true gift comes to the fore in the end, no matter how it might have been suppressed at a shaky beginning.

Azriduan Ahmad, also known as Dwen, is a case in point. As he holds a Science degree in Business Administration, you might think that was how he got started in business. However, as it turns out, it was his initially-thwarted artistic side that got him venturing forth and succeeding in the business world.

His company, Dwen Creations, sells flowers – fake flowers. Just like florists selling all sorts of fresh flowers, Dwen Creations offers a myriad selection of flowers – ranging from hibiscus to orchid to plumeria. Almost 90% of his flowers are based on real flowers and their colours. Only recently has he been expanding his range of artistic and stylised creations.

The products – which are hand-made – can basically be categorised into two: standard and signature pieces. While the standard ones are the FIMO Polymer clay flowers without any embellishment, the signature pieces come with semi-precious stones, crystal beads and mother-of-pearl, among others. The flowers come in the form of accessories like necklace, earrings, bracelets and brooches.

There are also individual flower pieces which one can wear in the hair, just like the typical image of an exotic tropical girl with a flower behind an ear. In fact, that is exactly what the pieces are meant for.

The demand for such flowers are high in Hawaii, where girls and women are seen everywhere with all sorts of blooms as part of their everyday accessories.
The island is also the place where Dwen established himself as an accessory designer.

Although Dwen loved to draw and sketch when he was young, he did not apply for an art and design course when he enrolled at Institut Teknologi Mara. Instead, he ended up studying business. In 1995, he went to Oahu, Hawaii, to further his studies at the Hawaii Pacific University for two years. Upon graduation, he worked as an in-store merchandiser at a United Colors of Benetton store there.

“I used to enter many drawing competitions in school. I even represented my school then. However, when I entered a technical school for my upper secondary education, I took up technical drawing. As I only had that with my SPM, I thought I would not qualify for the (art and design) course (at ITM),” Dwen explains how he ended up not pursuing his higher education in what he loved most.

Nonetheless, it was the business diploma that got him all the way to the Pacific island, where he majored in Tourism, and the place where he developed his creativity.

“I was introduced to clay by a friend’s wife. When I played with it and transformed it into roses, it was she who saw the light. She suggested that we get into business making flowers from clay.

“Next thing we knew, we were busy making the flowers and selling them. However, as the couple could not really give their full commitment, we went our separate ways, leaving just (my partner) J.P. (Kenrick) and me,” he recounts.

In early 1998, he left Benetton to concentrate on this new venture. Both partners then paid more attention to making and distributing clay flowers – arranging them into necklaces, earrings, bracelets as well as flower lei and the individual floral piece, which the Hawaiians call hairpic.

Dwen and Miss America 2001 Angela Baraquio, who wore Dwen's FIMO clay creations: a double-strand pua kenikeni lei and matching hairpic.

“As the hairpic goes into the hair, it needs to be light. However, the polymer clay which I was using is comparatively heavy if it is used to make hairpics,” he says.
Playing around with the clay substances, he came up with a mixture he named “Dwentech”. This material, which he said he “invented”, is lighter than polymer clay and also more flexible and durable than the material (a product of Japanese technology) used for hairpics by other manufacturers.

Eventually, “Dwentech” became the winning formula for Dwen’s creations. Word of mouth later made his products much sought after by retailers and consumers. Feedback he received from users were mostly positive, including one woman saying she was surprised to find her hairpic intact even after she had inadvertently slammed her car door on it!

Dwen with Angela Baraquio, Miss America 2001

Being at the right place at the right time was also partly how Dwen firmly established his enterprise in the Rainbow State; another turning point for him was his connection with Miss America 2001 Angela Baraquio.

With her, Dwen struck the right business agreement with the right person.
“We were at a Made-in-Hawaii trade fair in Honolulu when the then newly-crowned Miss Hawaii (Angela Baraquio) came to our booth. It was my partner (Kenrick) who approached her. Mesmerised by her beauty, he asked her who she was and when he found out that she was going to represent the state at the finals of Miss America for that year, we thought it’d be a good idea to sponsor her with our flower and jewellery pieces at the event,” he says.

As Hawaiians are usually associated with flowers (be it in the form of lei or individual flowers – hairpic or fresh ones – slipped just behind the ear) and it was not practical to use fresh flowers for the event, the organiser for the Miss Hawaii pageant agreed to the deal.

At the finals, Baraquio wore a yellow hibiscus (as it is the state flower) hairpic for the swimsuit segment, and a double-strand pua kenikeni lei and matching hairpics during the talent segment when she performed the hula dance. Baraquio also won the subsidiary title for the swimsuit round and when she stepped out to receive the prize, she had on a pink orchid hairpic and a triple-strand Arabian jasmine choker.
The deal worked out even better for him when Baraquio was crowned Miss America 2001.

She was also the first Asian American (Baraquio is a Filipina Hawaiian) to win the coveted title. Throughout her reign, she was seen everywhere sporting clay flowers created by Dwen – appearing on Larry King Live, Late Show with David Letterman, and when she met the US president – so much so the flower has become part of her image.
“At one time, she appeared in public but nobody recognised her. Realising what was missing, she took out her hairpic and slid it behind her ear. Only then the public recognised who this woman was,” says Dwen.

Flowers and floral jewellery pieces by Dwen have been available at more places in Hawaii ever since. Previously sold only through distributors, he now also has a boutique (opened in March this year) on Kapahulu Avenue in Waikiki, a place frequented by tourists. Besides being retailed in Hawaii, his flowers are also available elsewhere such as in San Francisco, California, and Japan.

“My products are only available at places that stock Hawaii-related goods on the (US) mainland,” says Dwen. And his products have also been distributed in Malaysia since early this year.

Having had established himself comfortably there, Dwen decided to move his base back home to Malaysia – where overheads are comparatively much lower. He officially transplanted his office from Hawaii to Kuala Lumpur only in May.

“Everything there is expensive. The salary for one person there could well pay for three here. Even when I’m making the flowers here now, the cost (including transportation of the goods there) is still lower,” explains Dwen.

Although there has been a change of address, zipcode and country on his calling card, Hawaiians can still enjoy his beautiful creations – thanks to his boutique and other business commitments he still has there, such as being appointed as one of the sponsors for the Miss Hawaii pageant since last year.

Angela won the Preliminary Swimsuit Competition at the Miss America Pageant 2001. Angela was wearing my FIMO 3-strands White Pikake Choker made to look like a famous Hawaiian flower, the Pikake/Jasmine flower. Also a matching FIMO Pink Orchid Hairpic on her left ear.