Bilang: Tailoring heritage, tradition as the heart of fashion design

When two friends and creativepreneurs Zulhelmi Kamaluddin and Fikri Afif started their fashion label Bilang, they aspire their brainchild to be different and bold.

The homegrown brand was inspired by the idea of recontextualising heritage and tradition in their designs, giving a unique take on their personality.

“Bilang prides itself to be a brand that is bold yet elegant, quirky yet subtle, vibrant and playful in its choice of hues and textures. Elements of tradition, glamour and backstories are at the core of its DNA,” said co-creative director Zulhelmi in an interview with The Bruneian.

Although being new in the fashion design scene and not equipped with basic tailoring knowledge, it does not stop these business partners to jump into the venture.

Image courtesy of Bilang

Bilang story

Starting as fashion stylists in the early days has enabled them to understand the ins and outs of the fashion industry in Brunei and Malaysia which in turn further sparked their long-time interest in fashion design.

“We have always wanted to design clothes but did not have the opportunity yet back then. What we specialises in are marketing and media while Fikri has a background in merchandising and illustrations where he worked with a lot of fashion brands… Leveraging on those and that we never do anything in the core of fashion design, that was one of the reasons why we wanted to do Bilang,” said Zulhelmi.

Entering its second year in the business, Bilang has evolved from tailoring ready-to-wear pieces, bespoke designs to apparel collections, marking a new milestone with hopes to cater more to their clientele.

The name Bilang is derived from the Brunei Malay word meaning “every” which is also commonly used by the Kedayan community in Brunei.

The word is usually paired with hari (day), tahun (year), orang (people) and masa (time) which stand for every day, every year, everyone, and every time, respectively.

“We wanted our brand that echoes Brunei and we thought about how a fashion label should be named… We often use the word Bilang in daily conversations which some may forget about it. For me, it is part of my heritage,” said the youthpreneur.

Moreover, the word Bilang is also found in Malaysian and Indonesian Malay language but each with its own meaning.

“In Indonesian Malay, Bilang means to say while in Malaysian Malay, it means to count. In these three regions including Brunei, the core word is Bilang, the common trait that we share and that it is acceptable by others,” he added.

Moreover, the creativepreneurs curated Bilang’s character or DNA as brave, different and to stand out while at the same time blending in.

“That is why when we come up with designs, it must be different from anyone else in terms of colours, materials and silhouette when we dressed our muse,” said the co-creative director.

Asked on how different the brand is from existing fashion labels, he said that in terms of design and silhouettes, they try as much as they can to take inspiration from local heritage while at the same time giving it a new touch.

“For the National Day T-Shirt collection this year, we name it as the ‘Bilang Tahun’ which means every year as we celebrate the annual occasion on 23 February. We named it ‘Bilang Tahun’ with the aim to remind people that it is a Bruneian word and that everyone can relate to it via the t-shirt,” added Zulhelmi.

The brand released two designs especially for Brunei’s big day which are black with yellow print and white with red print each bearing the numbers ‘2302’ representing the date of Brunei’s independence.

Bilang made its debut collection in 2020 for Raya before making two pieces for a custom show and tailor-made pieces which it will continue making if not releasing any new collections.

The brand does not have its specific core product just yet and it is keen to explore and navigate its way in the fashion business with plans to tap more into the streetwear or apparel market.

“We do have plans to do more sometime this year and this t-shirt collection is to test the market. We are hoping to come up with better designs, something that is more minimal and different,” said Zulhelmi.

Entrepreneurship in Brunei

Sharing his sentiment on the support given by the government of His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam to youth initiatives especially entrepreneurship, the creativepreneur agreed that there are several helpful programmes that businesses can benefit from.

“There is a lot of especially on financial and knowledge support. There are agencies like Darussalam Enterprise where they will provide guidance and training for free. It’s a matter of whether you want it or not. For us, we have gone through training and programmes and it is beneficial because not all have a business background,” he said.

In terms of the current climate of entrepreneurship in Brunei, the creative finds that it is more vibrant compared to five or ten years ago, thanks to the power of social media.

“With the help of social media, what I must say, people are learning how to do business online and you don’t need a website to penetrate into international markets. Given the current scene, people are getting more and more creative with their business, offering a variety of products while differentiating themselves from others,” he said.

This article was first published on 23 February 2022 in our 2022 National Day Supplement |


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