Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Maui boy Asa Ige has taken his love for art and a fondness for ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, and developed a successful flower design business on his home island. In the process, he has met such notable figures such as television personality Oprah Winfrey, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and even the man who became America’s 45th president, Donald J. Trump.
Ige owns and operates Asa Flowers in Wailuku. He began his business in New York City in the early 1980s, selling exotic tropical cut flowers at floral shop, Stamens & Pistils. For a time, he operated two shops: one in Midtown Manhattan and another in Greenwich Village.
A 1974 graduate of Wailuku’s Baldwin High School, Ige made the big leap to the Big Apple in his early 20’s to study design, not flower arranging, at the prestigious Parsons School of Design. He was later asked to teach advanced flower arrangement at Parsons, however.
When Ige arrived in the Big Apple, he was already armed with a bachelor of fine arts degree in design from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. He also worked for a time as a graphic designer in the highly competitive New York landscape.
He laughs as he recalls how graphic design was done in the 1980s. “It was all cut and paste. All very tedious work.” And, it was all done with X-Acto knives and paper — not computers, he said.
At a company party for which a Hawaiian theme had been selected, Ige was assigned to handle the floral decorations — after all, he was from the Aloha State.
He scoured the flower shops of New York City, but couldn’t find anything that said “HAWAI‘I.”
“They had no idea what I was talking about,” he said of the shops he checked out.
That’s when the light bulb clicked on in his head: He would open a retail shop specializing in tropical flowers.
Ige flew back to Hawai‘i and immediately began making the rounds of local growers and suppliers, statewide, who could supply his needs on the Mainland. He even got his parents, Edwin Sr. and Elsie, to help him. Every week, his parents, both of whom have since passed on, along with friends, would pack a box of Hawaiian blossoms and air ship them to him in New York City. His father was a successful Maui businessman and the owner of E.T. Ige Construction. Asa Ige is grateful to his father for supporting him emotionally and financially during his endeavor in New York.
Besides his parents, a grower from Mountain View on Hawai‘i island would send him anthuriums, bromeliads and “all the unusual stuff,” Ige added.
“It really made a big impact in the flower industry,” Ige said, as no other flower shop in New York could match the unique and exotic blooms available at Stamens & Pistils.
People began to take notice of his work.
Soon, representatives from the Trump Organization visited Ige. They said they wanted Stamens & Pistils to be the florist at Donald Trump’s up-and-coming Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino in Atlantic City, NJ.
Ige was shocked, as he hadn’t applied for the job.
“‘Don’t you know what this means?’” Trump’s representatives told him. Ige said they told him that florists from the tri-state area were gunning for that job.
“‘But we are giving it to you,’” he recalled them saying.
He said the Trump Organization flew him and his parents to Atlantic City to see Trump’s hotel being constructed.
Ige and his family decided that he would accept the job.
The hotel opened in 1990.
“It seemed like a good deal at the time,” said Ige, adding that he had many encounters with Trump, even riding in future president’s helicopter for the short commute from Manhattan to Atlantic City.
But the move proved to be a bad deal, he said.
“I lost my shirt out there,” Ige said.
He said he sent the Trump Organization invoices for his work. Besides being the corporation’s official florist, he also had a retail shop in the Trump Tajo Mahan.
But Ige only received partial payments.
“I couldn’t pay my vendors,” he said.
In a year, he was in debt. Fortunately for Ige, he was able to find a buyer for Stamens & Pistils in Atlantic City.
Ige decided to focus his energy on his Midtown Manhattan shop, as he had closed the Greenwich Village shop shortly after opening the one in Midtown. All of this happened before the Trump episode.
Again, he ran into problems that he could not have predicted.
It was the early 1990s and the U.S. was involved in the Gulf War. Then the recession set in.
Ige decided to close Stamens & Pistils, but remained in New York City for two more years, trying to enjoy life in the city after his misfortunes.
Inevitably, he decided to return to Maui, where he ran his father’s Maui Sun hotel (now the Haggai Institute) in Kïhei for a time. His father had built the hotel, which was subsequently sold.
Ige then opened an aquarium store, another of his hobbies.
When he least expected it, the owner of the new Grand Wailea hotel, (now Grand Wailea A Waldorf Astoria Resort) came knocking on Asa Ige’s door, offering him the job of running the hotel’s floral department. Ige ran it for three years and then left when the hotel was sold to new owner.
In 1999, he opened Asa Flowers in Puuone Plaza, a building owned by his family.
His seven employees assist with the floral designs and delivery. All of their arrangements begin with an empty vessel and only a vision. Most of his work is for the upscale resorts in West and South Maui, where his colorful and artistic floral creations liven up the lobby and common areas.
On a recent day, gorgeous arrangements of red torch ginger, bird of paradise, white anthuriums, red orchids, proteas and green ti leaves were being assembled for delivery to hotels.
Ige is also the creative talent behind the festive Thanksgiving and Christmas displays at many of Maui’s resorts. In fact, one room of his Wailuku shop is filled with decorations for those displays.
His client list includes The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua Resort & Spa, The Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa, and one of Maui’s newest hotels, the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort & Spa.
Ige’s talent has attracted business from all segments of the community: corporate clients such as Nike, FedEx and Sprint for their special events; wedding decorations and bouquets; floral arrangements to cheer up hospitalized patients and other custom orders.
He doesn’t advertise, relying instead on word of mouth and social media to get the word out about his work.
“There is a lot of Asian influence in our work,” says Ige, a sansei whose grandparents immigrated to Maui from Okinawa. “The Asian part is trying to simplify something into something simple and elegant.” He believes Western designs tend to focus on mass or a lot of product. The need not be, he says. “There is a way of blending the two,” says Ige.
As a youngster, Ige saw ikebana arrangements that he admired. His arrangements are based on the philosophy that every part of the flower and the plant plays a role in the arrangement.
He doesn’t have a favorite flower, but noted that orchid and rose “varieties are so amazing.”
According to Ige, the peony is one of the most sought-after flowers these days. Native to Asia, Europe and western North America, Ige said they are now available all over the world.
“The flower industry is so sophisticated. With shipping nowadays, you can get (flowers) all the time,” as long as they are in season, he says. “This is everywhere in the world.”
Ige’s floral arrangements have had a worldwide audience.
There is no question in Ige’s mind about his career highlight: That was designing for the Dalai Lama on his visit to Maui in 2007. Ige was asked to decorate the stupa for His Holiness at War Memorial Stadium, where he was to address a crowd of thousands who converged on the Valley Isle from all over the world. Ige was required to undergo an FBI security check to get the job. He said he decided to integrate native plants and flowers into his arrangement.
Ige was also invited to create the floral arrangements for the Dalai Lama’s hotel room. For that, he said he tried to envision what His Holiness’ eyes would settle on when he first awoke in the morning. That’s where Ige decided to set his arrangement.
Ige said his meeting with the Dalai Lama was not the result of his having been selected to create the flowers for his talk. Rather, it was by chance, he maintains, adding that His Holiness is never corralled to meet people. “It’s all by him choosing you,” he said.
Ige recalled standing behind a barricade at the hotel hosting the Dalai Lama’s stay.
“He approached me, (held) my hand, looking at me in my eye.” Those standing around Ige told him he was blessed.
“It was just a wonderful experience.”
In his floral designs, Ige strives to channel positive energy and beauty. Flowers are a “powerful tool,” he said, regardless of whether they are for someone who is sick, or for a special event, or “just because.”
“Flowers are fleeting. They only last for a certain amount of time, (but) the memory is so beautiful.”
Editor’s note: Last year, Asa Ige shared his thoughts on the “Legacy of the Sansei,” in the Herald’s 2016 Maui edition (Oct. 7, 2016).
Melissa Tanji has been a reporter for The Maui News since 2000. The Maui native earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.