IT HAS only been a year since Shahron Nawi moved his business into a second floor shoplot at Medan Niaga Tasik Damai in Sungai Besi, Kuala Lumpur. The 32-year-old Sarawakian and former Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) student is believed to be paying about RM2,000 a month in rent for his costume and accessory rental business.
Though Shahron said his fledgling business has yet to bring in RM100,000 a year, it is a milestone for someone who started with just a single rack of eight tarian asyik costumes from a cupboard in a student dormitory.
“The beginning of Aron Nawi Creations was initially a secret operation, for obvious reasons. My startup capital then was only RM500, scraped together from scholarship funds and pocket money from my parents,” he revealed.
Costume design has always been in Shahron’s blood. His sister, Selbiah, runs her own theatre group while he has been an active member of cultural dance groups from the age of 13.
By 15, he was designing, sourcing for fabric and stitching in the final touches for a dance troupe of 16, fashioning unisex Iban, Melanau and Kadazan costumes. He credits teacher, Catherine Leonard of SMK Pending, Kuching, as his mentor and chief financier, having spotted Shahron’s talent at a Boy Scouts’ cultural night.
His first creations were markedly simple versions costing no more than RM150 for a three-piece set. By the time, he entered second year in UPM, he had established a price range from RM60 for a simple top to RM300 for grand ensembles with accessories such as feather boas and headgear.
All in, it took the student entrepreneur three months to see a return on his investment.
“To be in this business, there is a constant need to reinvest. As there are so many characters when it comes to costumes, it is impossible for anyone to have a complete inventory. I slowly built my collection based on demand. Clients would ask if I had a certain costume and even if I did not have it, I would say yes and make it for them later. I don’t like to turn down any clients,” he said.
Fortunately, he had few contenders in the beginning, having strategically positioned himself as an active member of his faculty’s performing arts society, where he was a volunteer traditional dance instructor.
Organising committees running the university’s annual performances conveniently channelled the costume-making to him and since he was already designing them, he decided to take charge of the tailoring as well.
Between 2005 and 2011, Shahron ran a home-based operation, using initial university contacts as his stepping stone, targeting graduation ceremonies and official functions. Included in his prospect list were big corporations and their annual dinners.
Thinking out of the box, he also approached museums to make traditional costume displays, feats he promptly posted on his Facebook page.
Most vivid in his memory was a project involving a multinational baby product company in 2010 as it happened during the most challenging period in his life. Earlier in the year, Shahron had been struck by a condition called Bell’s Palsy, which caused half his face to droop.
“I had been beading a costume for 16 hours and decided to take a break. Suddenly, I realised I could not close my mouth. Upon looking in the mirror, I discovered my whole face had twisted into a bizarre lopsided grin,” Shahron recalled.
A nerve specialist in Taiping fixed the problem after six months but not before Shahron completed the project which saw the company flying him to Langkawi, the location of their annual dinner.
“Lopsided face and all, me and my make up artist brought 30 costumes for the event,” he said.
Though he prefers not to reveal his fees, the total bill for the project fell between RM5,000 and RM10,000. Vanity and profit aside, it marked how he added value to his services by offering make-up, styling and wardrobe assistance services, allowing him to charge higher rates. He has also learned not to be carried away by work after the Bell’s Palsy episode.
Shahron also does not just provide a costume to a client, expecting the customer to figure out what to do with it. His winning edge is the fact that he offers package costume rentals together with dance shows, using contacts from his student days.
Coming back to his principle of never saying ‘no’ to his customers, Shahron said his aim had always been to offer total solutions.
This has been the guiding philosophy that has won him big projects, supplying up to 20 costumes at one go.
To-date, a major revenue earner for Aron Nawi Creations is preparing dance troupes from government departments who are billed to perform at official launches, functions and cultural events.
The issue of inventory is a never-ending one as one must have something fresh to present for every proposal. In addition to making the pieces himself, he also sources ready-made items from Thailand, Indonesia and China. A shopping bill for new patterns and fabrics, which he buys and stocks for later use, can come up to RM5,000 each time.
At present, Shahron estimates he is sitting on RM50,000 worth of stock.
“With costumes, we have to make at least six pieces per pattern, at most 12. They have to be in different sizes ranging from S to XXL. The sizes always have to be roomier so we can make adjustments. Ideally, customers should come in a week or even earlier so that proper fittings can be made,” said Shahron.
Cultural know-how is also crucial, especially when it comes to traditional costumes. To look the part of Cik Siti Wan Kembang, the legendary warrior queen from Kelantan, for example, Shahron said a costumer must know how to assemble the look with the right headgear and accessories.
In his time, he has seen faux pas such as Malay costumes presented with Indian headgear, a misrepresentation of culture.
The nature of costume rentals is highly seasonal, he added. From experience, he said the year-end was always a busy season where sales can reach the RM20,000 mark in a month but during the low season, earnings can easily be slashed by up to 70%.
Shahron reckons there is still room to grow. For now, his next goal is to set up a dance studio above his boutique for better artistic control.
“Many of my customers have asked for show packages so it makes sense to establish a permanent dance studio so my troupe can have a space for rehearsals,” says the former dancer from Istana Budaya and Aswara.
But his mother has been asking him to return to Kuching. “In KL, I am confident of making a living, but in Kuching, I am not so sure,” he said.
Kuala Lumpur is where the headquarters of all the big corporations are located and, he believes, is also where decisions are made. Small-town enterprises may not have the viewpoint or budget for his services. Nevertheless, he reckoned his strategy will need revision and modification to work outside Kuala Lumpur.
“Costume rentals have improved since the introduction of the 1Malaysia concept. Schools, colleges and universities have been renting traditional costumes to reflect the country’s multi-cultural nature. Just recently, I had a secondary school student coming to us for a school project,” said Shahron, who caters to a clientele that ranges from kindergarten children to adults.