Datin Azrene Ahmad is a fashion designer and the founder of Three Little Ahmads, a company that produces reversible clothing for able-bodied children and those who are specially-abled. She holds a degree in Law and a Masters in Human Rights Law but was always inclined towards fashion design.
Did you always want to pursue social entrepreneurship?
It was by chance. I always had an affiliation towards women and children’s causes. When we started Three Little Ahmads, I wanted to ensure that it was ethically and socially conscious. I was adamant that everything we made was 100% made in Malaysia. But that alone is not enough. I took the cause that I was passionate about, women, and decided to give back to our female workers. We do not send our clothes to be manufactured overseas in countries like China, Vietnam or Thailand. We do not try to keep our costs down that way. Three Little Ahmads is very much a social enterprise so in that sense; we try to keep the economy within Malaysia by providing opportunities to Malaysians. These opportunities are geared towards single/stay at home mothers who have given up their jobs or where it is no longer possible to have single-income households. We don’t engage them on a monthly basis, we do it on a piece-by-piece basis. So every time someone orders a piece from Three Little Ahmads, RM15-48 actually goes to the workers. This is also why our pricing is on the higher scale.
Another way that it is a social enterprise is in the designs. We always have two collections that come out at any given time, one is for able-bodied children and that design will always have an adaptive element that will allow it to be worn by special/different-bodied children. So, it is a two-pronged social enterprise in that sense and I feel strongly about that because of my work as an image consultant. I work with people who are generic/everyday people and I work with their bodies. I analyse their bodies and figure challenges. But even as a figure consultant, I was ashamed to say that I always thought about bodies in the normal manner. We have this particular section of society that was marginalised and I felt that every single aspect of a person’s life has always been geared towards finding solutions for normal people to the point where we always forget about those who are special. This is not necessarily through any fault of our own, it is the fact that being specially-abled it is still seen as taboo in this country.
So this is how we decided that Three Little Ahmads would very much be a social enterprise. We really wanted to do something to make sure that fashion was inclusive and fashion designers did not just design clothes for ordinary people, but also for those whose bodies have different needs.
Walk us through your normal workday.
My normal workday is not a generic 9-5. I am first and foremost a mum so I wake up when my kids wake up and I get them ready for school. After dropping them off, I get into the office at about 10 am to 11 am. If it is an administrative day, then I work from the office answering emails, having meetings with the team and answering enquiries, mainly from buyers on the possibility of putting our collections in their stores. My work here focuses on deciding how to expand Three Little Ahmads. If it is an operatives day, I would be at the factory talking to suppliers, choosing fabrics and deciding how much of the materials need to be ordered.
I learnt how to work with and treat people as human beings, rather than as dollar signs.
How did your time at University affect your career path?
I spent 17 years of my academic life qualifying as a lawyer. I spent 6 years working as a paralegal with the intention of qualifying as a solicitor in the UK. It did not happen that way in the end, I got married and came back. By that point, different opportunities arose which meant that I could not progress with my legal career. I learnt early on that I benefited from having a secular group of friends. I believe that that has benefitted me and my career because say I want to open a market in Ghana, I have friends in Ghana that have placed themselves professionally in very high places which would make them able to help make things happen for me. Being street smart is also something I learnt because if something happens, you can go off on a tangent, or pivot. I’ve had so many pivots in life but I would like to think that it was because of what I learnt at university because I was street smart. The skills I learnt at university allowed me to become a fashion designer with a difference. I studied a generic Law degree, but for my masters, I specialised in Human Rights Law. Even that helped contribute towards my business because I learnt how to work with and treat people as human beings, rather than as dollar signs.
How did you find inspiration in designing the clothes?
I think the inspiration comes from firstly being thrifty and economical. When I was pregnant with my eldest 13 years ago, the options were not the same as what we have now. Clothes were expensive and of low quality. If you went to a generic store, you would spend RM90 on a piece of clothing that had one use. But now, if you went to Three Little Ahmads and spent RM150 on a piece of reversible clothing, you can wear it in two different styles. The inspiration for that are my children who can get quite dirty, so you can just flip over the clothes and it looks as good as new.
Besides that, observation especially when working with specially-abled children. Say for someone on the Autism spectrum, the most important thing for them is starting the day right. To do this, they need to be able to dress themselves. Someone who is very high on the spectrum, would not have the same motor skills or use of their hands as someone on the lower end of the spectrum. Someone like that would then find buttons quite difficult, so wearing snap or magnetic buttons is mind-altering. It means that they do not have to be distressed with dressing. When they put something on, children on the Autism spectrum also like to do things their own way, so they wear clothes back to front for example. They often get told off for wearing something the wrong way, which upsets them and causes meltdowns. So, with the reversible shirts, there’s no right or wrong way to wear your clothes; it is up to you and down to creativity.
This year we plan on expanding to adult clothing. We are the first fashion label to be granted RM500,000 from TERAJU. With that, we hope to expand the label to cater towards mums and dads, especially the adaptive line that we can market to hospitals and other organisations. This also allows us to expand the people we cater, to open it up to people with other disabilities, such as Alzheimer’s.
I felt that every single aspect of a person’s life has always been geared towards finding solutions for normal people to the point where we always forget about those who are special.
Do you believe that networking is as important as having creativity in fashion design?
With Malaysian fashion designers, we are creative people, but we need to understand that it is a business at the end of the day. Social entrepreneurship in Malaysia is often seen as a charity, rather than a business. A social enterprise is a business but with a social element. In terms of networking, it is important because you do not have the funds or profits you necessarily would have if you ran a business the ‘way it should be’. But at the end of the day, a business should still have a profit and the only way that can happen is through networking and making things happen.
For example, I have a friend from Kolej Tuanku Jafaar, who runs an import-export business. So any fabrics that I purchase from overseas goes into his container which guarantees that my fabrics arrive on time. It is important to cultivate relationships early on in life, in school and university, because these are the relationships you need. My ex-husband’s ex-girlfriend is a buyer in Zalora, the largest e-commerce platform in Malaysia. The reason Three Little Ahmads ended up on Zalora was because of her since they wanted to branch out to children’s clothing and she automatically thought of us because of that relationship.
What do you think is a misperception that the general public has about your job, or an aspect to your job that many people aren’t aware of?
I believe that many hold the perception that fashion designers do not have hearts. They are people who are very whimsical and only deal with people who are ‘beautiful’. People who are fashion designers have the ability to service a wide variety of people and often do. Many think that ideas float out of nowhere or that it is easy/cheap to produce an item. They do not realise that the higher the quality or the more specifications it may have, the more expensive a garment will be. In today’s world, more consumers are likely to purchase products from companies that comply with their ethical values, such as sustainability. But following these values can be expensive at times, such as through purchasing organic cotton, and hence must be reflected through the price.
Don’t think that having a title behind your name, like CEO or CFO, will secure your place in life because they will mean nothing if your company goes bust.
Are there any down moments in your work?
I have lost friends, people in the industry. When I came into the industry, many things were new to me because I never went to design school. I did not know who were the main suppliers I should reach out to or which tailors to reach out to. When I started, I asked friends (who were in the business) to help mentor me, but many of them said no. Another down moment was the fact that when we came into the industry, people said we would not last. But we have been around for three years and are expanding, allowing us to gain a lot of traction. Getting the TERAJU grant was also important to me because people do not usually give large amounts of money to fashion brands. I also think there is still a lot of hesitancy in the industry to be more inclusive, so we cannot be involved in things like KL Fashion week. There is currently no room for children’s clothing or pictures that are not stereotypically ‘nice and pretty’, which is what some people in this industry fixate on, but that is what prevents it from being inclusive.
At the end of the day, your company and all its employees will depend on you, and you owe it to them to make sure that you can do the best that you can possibly do to make your company as successful as it can be, whilst staying true to its values.
What do you think are the key attributes needed to succeed in this profession?
Don’t be afraid to do dirty, difficult or menial work. Don’t have an ego. Don’t think that having a title behind your name, like CEO or CFO, will secure your place in life because they will mean nothing if your company goes bust. You must know everything about your business from bottom to top, not top to bottom. You need to be patient with people and adaptable to situations. Things will not always go your way and you need to be prepared to think quickly on your feet.
If you never went to business school, take online classes and study the industry. Because you need to know how to budget, how to price your items, how to make profits. At the end of the day, your company and all its employees will depend on you, and you owe it to them to make sure that you can do the best that you can possibly do to make your company as successful as it can be, whilst staying true to its values.