The business of going into business with friends can be a treacherous one. But long-time friends Julie Anne Kang and Aina Syahirah of Kulet are living proof that you can successfully go down that path, and flourish—and not only in the trade but also as a person.
For those not in the know, Kulet is a Malaysian shoe brand that focuses on releasing your staples (think: your comfortable everyday silhouette, in easy-to-wear tones). To them, the term ‘nude’ doesn’t translate to a singular colour, as nude is different for every individual. So you can expect with each drop, that the label will cover their bases by introducing timeless designs that are in inclusive shades of nude. And although its name translates to ‘skin’, the shoes are not made with animal-derived leather.
We caught up with the duo to talk about their seven-year-long journey, and how they have come into their own as an individual, as well as co-founders of Kulet.
How did Kulet come together?
Aina (A): We go way back! We have actually known each other since primary school days and even though we weren’t close then, we stayed in touch throughout the years on social media.
Julie (J): Our paths finally crossed again when Aina was working at an independent e-commerce fashion company and I was looking for an internship, luckily I was hired! Once we both left the previous fashion company, Aina came up with the idea to start her own shoe brand. She felt there was a big gap in the market for neutral footwear at an accessible price point that was made in Malaysia.
A: This was when I approached Julie proposing the idea of Kulet. We started working on the foundation of the brand in the middle of 2015 and launched our debut collection in October 2016. The shopping environment was really different back then, and the local community was in its very early stages of being more supportive of local brands.
How would you describe your friendship and partnership?
J: When we first started out as colleagues, we had a very good working relationship together, which contributed to building a good friendship. This was around nine years ago, so you can imagine how much time we’ve spent together—we naturally become each other’s confidants.
A: Because we witness a lot of big life moments, we have strong mutual respect for one another, not just as friends but within our business partnership, too. We find that we interact with each other the same way we would interact with our own sisters.
What’s your favourite facet about your partner?
A: Julie is a sincere and gentle person, and if you know her, you’d know that she has the best intentions for people around her. I find comfort in the way she’d share her wisdom with me. Especially when I’d tell her about my problems. It’s definitely a privilege to have a business partner who is also your good friend. It makes going to work a lot more fun.
J: One of my favourite things about Aina is how calm and level-headed she is. She is a very kind person and she is such a good example to look to when it comes to handling any issues, be it in a professional or personal setting. She always handles everything with such grace.
What made you feel like “yes, I definitely should partner with her”?
J: One of the memories was how we would always like the shoes that another person would wear when going to work, or we would turn up in very similar outfits.
A: We had similar tastes and it really came down to our similar work ethics. We can be friends and get along with many people, but if you’re on different wavelengths when it comes down to business matters, then being in a working partnership will prove to be challenging.
J: So thankfully, we always prioritise Kulet’s growth above our own personal preferences equally.
It’s been seven years since Kulet was established. How do you think you have grown with the brand?
J: We were both in our early 20s when we started Kulet, and now that we’re in our 30s, our confidence in our decisions has definitely solidified. In the beginning, we decided to build Kulet’s branding without being heavily influenced by ongoing trends, but from time to time we questioned if this was the best way to go about it. But seven years on, we have finally reached a comfortable point where we are confident with this branding position without compromising on the brand ethos.
How do you both complement each other?
A: We balance each other out really well. For instance, if one of us is uncertain or freaking out about a decision, we can always look to the other for calmness and reassurance. We take turns in both these roles. This way, we also keep each other grounded to make realistic decisions for the company without getting carried away.
As local brand owners, what does Kulet bring to the table that you’d like to let your supporters to know?
J: We don’t have any formal design training, so when we started Kulet it’s always been from a consumer’s point of view. We really love the local brand community and how much it has grown throughout the years.
A: However, we notice there’s an overlap in the consumer base, so we try to focus on offering designs you won’t find as easily in the market.
What’s a style tip you think applies to everyone?
A: Identify what style works best for your body, because we’re all built uniquely. We should try to build a capsule wardrobe with pieces that best complement your body type. It makes getting dressed every day an effortless process.
J: As long as you feel good in it, it doesn’t have to be the latest or trendiest outfit.
Where do you think the brand is heading now, seven years into the game?
A: Over the past few years of sustaining a business (especially going through a pandemic that altered many businesses), we learnt that we appreciate setting short-term plans for Kulet and being flexible with changes that come. One of our initial goals has always been to live a fulfilling and balanced lifestyle, and I think we have that in both our work and personal lives.
J: While large businesses might set quite rigid growth plans, for Kulet we’re very happy to go with the flow and remain a small but profitable brand. Not just in a financial sense but also be a fulfilling creative avenue.
A: At the end of the day, we just want to create products that people are proud and happy to wear.
J: The most recent milestone we want to highlight is the Nazifi Nasri for Kulet collaboration. It’s been a dream of ours to expand our product line and there is no better way than to work with a fellow Malaysian brand that we’re such huge fans of.
A: We’d like to believe that Kulet is still in its early days and there’s so much more we’d want to explore!