Talking joys and challenges of creative diversity with Shari Akal

Shari Akal outside her Woodstock studio

Creativity often comes part and parcel with a good dose of curiosity. And, as anyone pursuing multiple interests will know, this is both a blessing and a curse.

When thinking about creative diversity, Shari Akal immediately pops to mind. I first got to know her in 2016 as one half of the Bouwer Flowers duo and found her exuberant passion for floral design compelling and inspiring.

As our paths crossed more often, it soon became evident that her enthusiasm wasn’t limited to flowers. In fact, it isn’t unusual for Shari to stay up into the early morning hours, waiting for trays of delicious vegan baked goodies to come out of the oven. Or, to spend hours creating intricated costumes for film projects and styled shoots. More recently, she’s taken up piano- and ukulele lessons and also squeezes flamenco dancing into her free time.

Shari Akal with a few of her creations

And let me tell you, while she admits to feeling like she ends up “dropping balls all over the show”, for Shari, half measures simply don’t exist.

We recently visited the Woodstock studio space Bouwer Flowers shares with Jessica Anne and Cheeky Observer to talk about the joys and challenges of creative diversity.

From assistant florist to owner

Floristry had always been an interest of Shari’s and also seemed to run in the family:

“My grandmother was a florist and I’ve always been interested in floristry. Maybe more the thought of having a beautiful shop that people could come in and request something for a special occasion,” she explains, referencing a scene from the “terrible 90s movie” Bed of Roses.

“In the movie, Christian Slater is a florist and gives this impassioned speech about how at the worst times and the best times in people’s lives, you are there to help comfort or celebrate. And I just thought that was such a beautiful thing.”

While the dream of having a beautiful shop may not have come true (just yet), Shari has been playing an integral role in scores of wedding celebrations and other special occasions with Bouwer Flowers.

She’s also worked her way up from assistant florist to co-owner to, finally, owning and running the business full-time more recently.

“Debra Bouwer, wife of a good childhood friend, started Bouwer Flowers at the end of 2014. I immediately contacted her and said that I knew it was a new thing, but if she was interested in getting help, I was very interested,” Shari explains.

Debra, then still based in Durban, suggested that Shari fly up to help her with weddings throughout 2015. They soon found that they had a good team dynamic – Debra naturally focusing on the big picture, while Shari would always pay attention to detail – which led to Shari buying a third of the business.

When Debra and her family relocated overseas last year, Shari bought the remainder of the shares from her and now operates as the sole owner of the business.

Finding a niche when you feel you don’t belong

Prior to realising this childhood dream, Shari had been pursuing a career in fashion, but soon found herself at odds with the industry.

“The more I did it, the more I realised that it could be incredibly shallow. It doesn’t have to be. But it can be. And I just didn’t want to be involved in the superficial parts of the industry,” she explains.

During her undergrad studies, she often found herself confused by which direction her career in fashion would take. While the design aspect came naturally, her ferocious appetite for all things academic sent her on to pursuing postgraduate studies, instead of kicking off a design career.

“I was lucky to have an amazing supervisor who opened my eyes to all the academic sides of fashion, which I didn’t really know existed.

I discovered that, essentially, fashion is sociological. It’s really about society and culture and, as superficial as trends can be, they can also be incredibly interesting and telling of who we are as people at any given time.”

As she immersed herself in her studies, it became clear that she’d never be a fashion designer. Instead, she started lecturing, striving to inspire her students to delve a little deeper, rather than wallowing in the shallows of an industry that actually has so much more to it than meets the eye.

It was also, then, through her more academic pursuits within fashion, that Shari discovered her passion for costume.

“I love how costume marries the intellectual and conceptual with the design and artistic side of fashion.

Costume design by Shari Akal

Whenever you’re designing a costume for a themed shoot or a stage production or whatever it is, you’re trying to communicate identities to the audience as quickly as possible. So, you need to be so clever about every single choice you make and what you put onto people’s bodies. And that just got me overboard excited.”

Although Bouwer Flowers is currently her focus, Shari does still get to put costume design into practice ever so often too.

“Last year, for instance, I joined forces with my cousin, who’s a script writer, to do a film that aims to visually depict depression. So, I designed costumes that really illustrated the heaviness, suffocation and feeling of being trapped that comes with depression,” she says.

How creative collaborations help us grow

It’s not unusual for Shari to talk about collaborative projects, which makes it clear that she has a gift for working well with others. Something many creatives struggle with.

When asked why she thinks creative collaborations are so important, she uses the Cape Town floristry industry as an example:

“It used to be rather competitive. But in the last two or three years, a lot of the newer florists who’ve come in, decided that we’re not going to compete anymore, but rather help each other.”

Using an established network, florists don’t hesitate to call on one another when the pressure is on.

“I think we all just decided that we weren’t going to hide anything. So, what ends up happening is that you learn each other’s trade secrets.

And while it might bite you a little bit, business-wise, in the long run it opens more doors than it closes,” she says.

Shari Akal in her Woodstock work space

Letting something die, allowing something else to grow

Her most important collaboration thus far has undoubtedly been the strong partnership she shared with Debra. Apart from bringing diverse talents to the business, they also had to make a couple of tough decisions together.

Debra’s original idea with Bouwer Flowers had been to create a weekly bunch that could be ordered online and delivered to people’s homes.

“We just felt so passionate about the idea that it was your weekly bunch. It wasn’t supposed to be a luxury item, it was supposed to be – fill your home with flowers every day or gift someone the opportunity to fill their home with flowers,” Shari explains.

However, instead of becoming the regular addition to the home Debra and Shari had envisioned, the bunches ended up becoming very gift-based.

Details from Shari's Bouwer Flowers work space

“We really wanted it to be a mixture of those two things and the problem with the gift-based thing is that you only have so many friends’ birthdays a year. So, it couldn’t really scale the way we needed it to.”

At the same time, Bouwer Flowers started receiving an influx of wedding enquiries, which forced them to reconsider the main thrust of the business.

“It got to a point where you just have to sit back and go we are trying SO hard to make this happen and it’s not happening. We’re not trying at all to make THIS happen, but it is happening.

So maybe we need to shift our focus. It was actually really hard to do that, but we did.”

Since then, the Bouwer Bunches have been phased out entirely with weddings becoming the main focus.

To master your One Thing or remain a Jack of all Trades?

Of course, these sorts of shifts in focus are always painful. Even more so when having to choose one creative pursuit over another.

For Shari, it has always come more naturally to run with various projects simultaneously than dig into a single one. For instance, till quite recently she was juggling floristry and costume design with a third passion: baking vegan confectionaries.

Shari explains that when she first switched to plant-based eating, it was hard to find the things she was craving. So, she started experimenting with making her own.

“It’s quite different these days, but a couple of years ago vegan treats were all just super healthy. And while I’m really into healthy eating, when you’re craving a slice of rich chocolate cake, that’s what you want. So I started experimenting with making things exactly the same as their counterparts.”

She soon became so adept at the endeavour that she even started supplying vegan treats to a local Woodstock bakery.

While to any outsider she seems to excel at this, executing everything she does with flair and charisma, she admits to often feeling like she’s letting herself down.

“I will always sacrifice eating, sleeping, whatever to get something done. So I will not allow myself to let someone else down. But, will it be executed to the standard I want it to be? Maybe not.

And I find that almost impossible to recover from,” she explains.

These feelings of intense regret have often spurred Shari on to cut down on creative projects and focus on one thing.

“As much as it can be good to be a jack of all trades, you don’t want to be a master of none. You want to be a master of all. But you can’t be! I think a time’s going to have to come where I decide on one thing… But, I also know myself and know that I’ll never ever be able to do only one thing,” she laughs.

Shari Akal outside her Woodstock studio

One of Shari’s greatest strengths is her desire to constantly learn new things, which is also obviously the driving force behind the sheer diversity of her pursuits.

Thus, for her, committing to one project and one only would be practically unthinkable.

“Maybe I have to realise that I can’t have it all, but you can’t have one either. So, you’ve got to find that middle ground.

Like, okay, I’ll have these three. Rather than seven,” she muses.

Creating rituals of celebration and rest

Unsurprisingly, keeping various projects running successfully at the same time can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Especially when you hold your work to an almost impossible standard.

Shari stepping out for a coffee break across the road

Shari sheds a bit of light on her struggle with this when she says: “I think I am so obsessed with proving myself. To whom, I have not figured out yet. And I think that’s where things can get dangerous and you can end up taking on too much, because you’re clearly trying to get this payoff that will never come.”

As anyone in a similar position would know, this makes it extremely difficult to step back and accept that it’s okay not to achieve 24/7.

“And if I do achieve, it doesn’t feel like an achievement. It’s like – okay, what’s the next thing, because that actually didn’t feel as good as I thought it would,” Shari adds.

Obviously, this puts a dampener on moments of celebration and interferes with periods of rest, of which Shari is well aware.

“I should actually come up with an activity that’s replenishing and good for the soul after the completion of every project. Even something simple, like going to a museum,” she says.

Interviewing Shari Akal about her diverse creative pursuits

Similarly, on the rare occasions when Shari allows herself to take some time off, she prefers to do something that replenishes body, mind and spirit.

“I think my favourite thing is to do something active. As much as I just want to lie down and be horizontal for hours and hours – which I can definitely do – I don’t think that replenishes my soul.”

Shari considers running, hiking and yoga integral parts of regular routine, while travel always features strongly as a long-term goal and reward.

We end off by talking about Shari’s dreams for the future and reach the conclusion that she might still find her ‘One Thing’, but that it probably would be made up of many parts and include an element of collaboration:

“You know what? The dream is probably a bakery-florist-garment store where everything’s in one place. But then I’d have to have some really wonderful partners. Because there’s no way you could do that on your own,” she laughs.

Nadia Krige interviews Shari Akal about her diverse creative pursuits

Head on over to the Bouwer Flowers website to see some of Shari’s incredible floristry work or to get in touch via email.

Typedeck is a Solid Stuff Creative project. Photography: Imar & Tamara Krige. Words: Nadia Krige.