Lecturer turns local masterpiece to global street wear
First, he got rejected a sponsorship by Malaysia Airlines because his brand was “too small” to collaborate with. Next thing you know, the ABSTRAX brand has skyrocketed across the country for its patriotic concept and fresh homegrown designs. It all started on a capital of just RM5000, and that sounds almost unfeasible; but co-founder Dr. Faiz has persisted through his fair share of difficulties in building up the brand to where it is today.
On top of managing a concept store, he is also a full-time lecturer at UiTM in Hotel and Tourism Management. Education is not something he takes lightly, and through ABSTRAX, he endeavours to exemplify to his students how ideology and practicality can walk hand in hand. Convicted with the ‘straight, attitude, loyal’ philosophy, Dr. Faiz shares with us the necessity of being steadfast after failure.
You mentioned in previous conversations that you had a battle in deciding whether or not to return to Malaysia - tell us about that journey.
I was in the states for almost 7 years and the things that I experienced during my time there was overwhelming. I was exposed to the streetwear industry and it is huge! The brand and the things that they do to promote the brand, it’s almost the same as Malaysia but the scale, purchasing power, and culture are different. The competition there is also different - big brands tend to collaborate with one another in a conducive setting. It’s not to say that Malaysia is not like that, it’s just that we are so far away from getting things done in terms of big collaborations with the big guns. I miss seeing those things.
What’s the story behind your successful collaboration with Malaysia Airlines?
This success actually started with a failure. Having graduated from the tourism industry, I feel that I had to amalgamate the brand with tourism. I believe for every shirt we sell, there has to be a story behind it and that story is important in persuading people to buy our products. I came up with this idea called ‘Road to Jakarta’ during our journey participating at an Asian streetwear festival in 2013. I prepared a 13 page proposal to give to Malaysia Airlines asking for a sponsorship. I waited for two weeks for a feedback, but got silence. Finally I got the call from their representative saying that they cannot proceed because ABSTRAX is a very small company and the proposal was rejected. We spoke for 2 minutes and I said that it was alright and that I accept the rejection, but if they had any projects involving design to please remember ABSTRAX. After a few seconds of hanging up, I got a call from the same guy again saying that there is a project where they needed help in designing a few collaterals for Malaysia Airlines and in return, they’ll give us the sponsorship tickets.
There are so many brands that are trying to reproduce successful brands; what do you have to say about that?
On a positive note, I consider myself successful if people want to replicate my designs. It’s like I’ve reached another level of recognition. When they’ve realised what they’re buying is a counterfeit item, it will lead them back to the ABSTRAX store to purchase an authentic product. However sales wise, we were impacted quite badly because it was so easy to replicate our jerseys. We were aware of this, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. If we wanted to abolish this, we had to pay a sum of money to a third party to conduct raids. There was this one case where my brother interviewed the person selling fake ABSTRAX jerseys and he said this prolific statement: “Saya tak payah nak jual baju-baju Manchester, Arsenal, Barcelona - I just sell this design I can pay my rent”. I thought that was interesting and in a way it’s like an economic generator. When Fahmi and I first started ABSTRAX, it wasn’t for self-satisfaction, it was to show people that we can do it. It’s important that we inspire others because what you give, you also receive in return.
You closed down a store in 2009 - what happened there?
There is one philosophy that I constantly repeat to myself: it’s OK to fail, but it’s not OK to quit. I’ve learned this from my past failures. Some designs don’t sell really well and people didn’t trust local brands back then, so that led to us to close down one of our stores at Bukit Bintang. I was still in the states back then, so we decided to take a different approach and focus solely on social media. We focused on blogging and that became one of our major turning points where people became interested and wanted to buy our stuff.
You have three shops to run all at once, why do you still choose to lecture as a full-time job?
I already said it’s not OK to quit right? [laughs]. I feel that I need to inspire and teach others the knowledge I have learnt. We need to use the information we get from books as a guideline for when we are applying it in the industry. By lecturing, I am able to show my students a real life example through the store; they also get really excited knowing that their class is being thought by ‘Dr. ABSTRAX’. It’s also really rewarding to see my students become successful in what they do.
What don’t people already know about ABSTRAX?
I don’t get a single cent doing what I do for ABSTRAX - I don’t have a monthly salary. The thing that you see today started off with the RM5000 that we started off with. I chose not to get paid because I know if I did, I’ll become complacent and won’t work as hard as I can. Even Steve Jobs paid himself $1. My rewards come in non-monetary forms - the recognition and support. I’ll pay myself one day but I’m not sure when that will be. Money, followers and recognition will follow along if you do something passionately and sincerely.
In a country where we often look to the west for ideas and inspiration, Dr. Faiz is determined to say otherwise. The fact that every design has a story attached makes it more than just fancy visuals on a t-shirt. Beyond business, it’s time that potential and qualification are recognised - that we stop questioning the capabilities of a country that’s filled with great original ideas waiting to be tapped into. He continues to believe in ABSTRAX, which is on its way to greater heights. In their works they hope to see a movement of people who’ll do the same.