When Bremen Wong first entered the fashion industry, his designation often caused Malaysians to be baffled.
“People then weren’t familiar with the word milliner,” recalls Wong. “So, I had to simplify it and tell them that I’m a hat maker.”
Fast-forward eight years later, Wong, 45, is now considered top of his game. And thanks to him, “milliner” is no longer such a foreign term.
His whimsical avant-garde designs have adorned A-list celebrities (such as songbird Ning Baizura and Hong Kong actress Kate Tsui) and been featured in numerous magazines.
He has been invited to fashion weeks locally and abroad (including Shanghai Fashion Week) and won awards along the way.
But if you were to bring up his many accomplishments, Wong brushes it off with a shy smile.
“I am happy if I helped to create more awareness about millinery,” says Wong, whose hat-making heroes are Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones.
“Now I want to encourage more young people to become hat designers,” adds Wong, who regularly conducts hat-making classes.
His down-to-earth demeanour is remarkable for someone whose work is visually over-the-top. One can partly attribute this humility to the way he was brought up.
“I was a kampung boy, leading a very simple life on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu,” recalls Wong with a wistful smile. “I only moved to Kuala Lumpur to study and make a living.”
Initially, Wong’s interests were in television production, not fashion. But jobs in showbiz were scarce and he had to settle for a different path.
Wong eventually found work as a promoter for Hong Kong-based fashion label Theme, which allowed him to interact and share style tips with customers. He then worked as a senior textile development manager for multinational retailer Carrefour, in charge of developing a fashion collection for each season.
After a decade working for others in the industry, Wong decided to branch out on his own. He started small, by selling hairbands and T-shirts that he designed, at a neighbourhood bazaar. The former turned out to be a hit among customers.
Then came the hats, which he promoted on social media. He credits Instagram (@bremenwong) for helping to create awareness about his brand.
Our interview takes place at his work station in The Studio. (The boutique, located in The Gardens Mall, Kuala Lumpur, houses a number of homegrown designers.)
We are surrounded by an assortment of headgear, from Victorian-style derbies to vintage pillboxes and sequinned headbands. There is also a range of eye-catching necklaces; each – like the hats – is made by hand and one of a kind. “My customers say they like my necklaces as they are chunky and unique,” says Wong.
“In April last year, I decided to move into accessories. To me, they are like wearable art. And a necklace is much easier for people to wear on a daily basis,” explains Wong.
In terms of materials, Wong works with acrylic powder and transparent thermoplastic. His Spring/Summer collection is inspired by, of all places, a scientist’s laboratory. “I call it Specimen B, and it’s all about my experiments.”
According to Wong, he does not abide by a specific process when it comes to making hats; he starts off with a random idea in his head and works from there.
“I’ve never felt a need to sketch out my ideas; I just go with the flow. Of course, there are times when I get stuck. When that happens, I take a break and meditate,” muses Wong.
As outlandish as they come, his designs are mostly inspired by his own life experiences. “The sea and the mountains of Sabah inspire me. As does my family’s unconditional love and support,” he enthuses.
Wong is candid about the struggles his family is presently going through.
“My one and only brother, who’s older than me, has an illness – so it’s up to me to take care of my family. I have had to give up business opportunities abroad as I can’t travel. So, I channel my sadness into my work, inspired by experiences that touch my heart.”
After eight years in the fashion industry, Wong’s passion is unabated. “Knowing how tough this business is, people are surprised that I am still surviving,” says Wong matter-of-factly. “But for me, I am still passionate about my craft. I don’t need to make a lot of money – as long as I make enough to buy my materials, I am happy.”
It helps that other industry players have taken notice of his talent. “A lot of different industries have approached me to work together. So far, I have collaborated on nail and shoe designs. An interior designer even asked me to come up with wall decor.”
The possibilities are seemingly endless for this mad hatter, and we’re only too happy to hop on his hair-raising journey.