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Meet Malaysia's 'Mad Hatter'
Publication Date : 30-08-2013
When Bremen Wong tells people he’s a miliner, he normally gets a blank stare. This has made him more intent on proving his mettle
The most charming aspect about meeting Wong in his tiny studio somewhere in Kuala Lumpur is that you’re able to get a glimpse into his world.
Despite its less than noteworthy size, the 40-year-old’s regular stomping ground is a happy one, crammed with rows and rows of chapeaux – framed odysseys of his beautiful, wild and occasionally madcap subconscious. Presiding over the room are a pair of hats the shape of swans; while cascading down the walls is an amazing assortment of headgear, from Victorian style derbies to whimsical avant-garde creations to vintage pillboxes to sequinned turbans.
“Malaysians often look at my hats and ask, ‘This is a hat, meh?’” says Wong, who has been called “The Mad Hatter”. “They don’t consider my hats ‘hats’ because they look different from caps. But a hat can be much, much more, than just a cap.”
The pervasive ignorance does not seem to rattle this mild-mannered Sabahan designer. On the contrary, he sees himself as a sort of evangelist, imparting free chapeaux-related wisdom to anyone who would listen.
His quiet confidence and boundless patience are rather remarkable traits for someone who’s been in business for only three plus years – a short time compared to his hat-making heroes Stephen John and Philip Treacy (“The public may have laughed at Treacy’s hats for Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie, but I thought they were great! It’s not easy to come up with something like that!” he says, referring to the princesses’ outlandish headgear at the royal wedding in 2011).
But Wong – who’s propped himself up in a tight corner of his workshop – is that kind of guy. He is as average as they come. Clad in jeans, T-shirt and white trainers, he does not own any outrageous hats, but instead has his trademark Samurai-style bun to rely on.
One can partly attribute this placid exterior to the way he was brought up. “I was a kampung boy, leading a very simple life on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu,” he recalls. “I only moved to KL to study and make a living.”
However, Wong’s interests initially were in television production, not fashion. His creative inclinations were already evident back then – the young man wanted to produce films for TV, not act in them. But jobs in the entertainment industry were scarce and he had to settle for a different career.
He eventually found work as a promoter for Hong Kong-based fashion label Theme – a role he deeply cherished because it allowed him to interact with customers and share style tips. Slowly but surely, he worked his way up the ranks, eventually becoming senior textile development manager for French multinational retailer Carrefour, in charge of developing a fashion collection for each season.
But Wong pined for more. Having spent more than a decade in the fashion industry, he knew he was ready to risk it all for something bigger. He left his job and started small – first, by selling hairbands and T-shirts that he designed himself at a neighbourhood bazaar. The former turned out to be a hit among customers.
Wong began expanding his niche in headpieces, even selling them on social networks. The then 36-year-old was soon recognised for his hard work and whimsical creations.
“At the end of 2009, Stylo contacted me through Facebook to ask if I wanted to appear in a runway show. I was ecstatic. I felt as if I just won an award!” he chirped. “I suppose you could say that was the start of my career as a milliner.”
Not everyone was pleased however. “My mum wasn’t supportive because, as the eldest son, I’m expected to be the main breadwinner for the family,” he says. “She kept insisting that I get a real job instead!”
Everything turned out for the best however. Says Wong: “I keep telling my mother that I’m not doing it for the money; she eventually understood when she saw how committed I was to making it work.” Now she’s his biggest cheerleader, donning fancy designs from Wong’s namesake line everywhere she goes. “She loves to dress up; the bigger the hats, the better,” enthuses Wong.
Apart from his mother, Wong’s designs from both his avant-garde and wearable collections can be spotted on members of the royal family and big-name celebrities, like songstress Siti Nurhaliza, Hong Kong actress Kate Tsui and even Malaysian-born supermodel Ling Tan. He would one day love to dress Faye Wong because her “irreverent style and personality” echoes his own design philosophy, which is anchored in creative freedom.
Wong, you see, 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 like to take a break and meditate,” he muses.
Wild and spontaneous as they are, his designs are mostly inspired by his own life experiences. He says: “The sea and the mountains of Sabah inspire me. As does my family’s unconditional love and support.”
And unlike other milliners, Wong doesn’t utilise any hat-making gadgets like molds, steamers and ovens. (“We can’t afford it right now,” he admits.) Instead, he makes everything by hand, taking up to a week or two to complete each piece. While the lack of proper technology unfortunately puts a limit to the things he can come up with, it also forces Wong to constantly experiment and think.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of how to better my designs. I’m not in my 20s anymore. It’s a continuous learning process for me; there’s just no time to rest,” he remarks.
Recently, he has developed a newfound appreciation for acrylic and PVC because it’s durable, lightweight and malleable – a necessary feature for one who works with unrestrained imagination. His eccentric designs allows him to attract equally eccentric clients, one of whom recently ordered 20 to 30 hats at one go. Her purchases spilled from a cardboard box on a low table beside us – a testament to just how much he is in demand.
Nonetheless, Wong’s signature creations – visual sculptures that soar like wings of a giant bird or spiral into a pair of antlers – can be hard to digest for the average Malaysian. As such, he is constantly playing with different techniques and styles, and has since expanded his ready-to-wear collection to appeal to a wider set of audience. His latest Fall/Winter 2013 innovation – a pillbox hat meets French beret – treads the fine line between cheekiness and convention. Fashioned from colourful swatches of fabric, it’s compact, surprisingly flattering but, most importantly, easy to match.
When it comes to looking for the perfect hat however, Wong advises first-timers to throw all caution to the wind. “I think a woman should just follow her heart. She shouldn’t let anyone, not even me, tell her which hat suits her best because they don’t know her as well as she knows herself,” he says.
Meanwhile, he has big plans for the near future. “I’ve tied up with several events and magazines in an effort to increase brand awareness. I’m also planning to sell my hats in Seethrough Concept Store at Jalan Telawi, Kuala Lumpur, from September onwards, and conduct regular tea party-cum-hat-wearing-workshops there,” he says.
The public certainly needs all the education they can get, since the most common reaction Wong gets when he tells people he’s a milliner is a blank stare. He says: “It’s only when I tell them I’m a guy who makes hats that they understand.”
Asked if that bothers him, Wong gives a shrug. “Actually, it’s not important what people call me. What matters most is that I’m living my dream.”