To celebrate the World Day for Cultural Diversity, a bevy of fashion designers showcased garments crafted from traditional Indonesian textiles at the Gandaria City Mall in Jakarta, Indonesia. Held from 17 to 19 May, Ethnic on the Go attracted 25 brands and organizations from across Indonesia, and around 1,200 visitors.
Perhaps surprisingly, the event targeted Millennials and Gen-Z, a demographic that has only recently started showing appreciation for clothes made from fabrics that have played such an important part in the archipelago’s culture. Some of the more notable brands that made the most of the runway at the event included Oerip, Mufit, Nduk, Metty and Soekirman.
Dian Erra Kumalasari, the designer behind Oerip Indonesia, one of the ready-to-wear fashion labels that took center stage at Ethnic on the Go, says that she wants to show young people that wearing garments made from traditional fabrics is not outdated.
“I use interesting designs and traditional fabrics such as batik, lurik, ikat and hand-woven kain in my clothing. All my garments are modern and easy to wear to attract the younger generation. They are also quite affordable. I don’t want our youth to think that traditional fabrics are only suitable for elders,” Dian says, adding that her lines are currently sold in 13 countries.
Reaching the Spotlight
Garments made from traditional textiles have come a long way since falling out of favor in the years following the archipelago’s independence. After the turmoil of the struggle against the colonizing powers, the majority of young Indonesians turned to Western lifestyle and fashion, with traditional attire only worn at formal events and festivals where men could be found wearing sarongs (a single piece of fabric wrapped around the waist) and women kebayas (body-hugging embroidered blouses).
It was not until 2009, when UNESCO recognized batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, that traditional Indonesian fabrics started to experience a real revival. To mark the day batik was internationally recognized as part of Indonesia’s national heritage, National Batik Day is celebrated across the archipelago on 2 October each year.
Inspired by the accolade, that same year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called on Indonesians to wear batik to work each Friday to reflect the country’s love for the colorful fabric. Some companies have even gone so far as to incorporate homegrown textiles into their corporate wear. In 2018, Bank Central Asia asked Didiet Maulana, the designer and co-founder of the fashion brand Ikat Indonesia, to design its uniforms. The venture involved 45,000 meters of tenun, a traditional textile from Troso village in Jepara, Central Java, which was used to create 81,000 garments.
Core of Indonesian Identity
With around 250 million people and over 300 ethnic groups, Indonesia offers plenty of room for diversity and creativity, and this is reflected in the country’s traditional textiles. "Each fabric pattern carries a different message and reflects the culture of a specific region. It is a means of visual communication,” says Dian.
“It is important to respect the cultural meanings inserted into the fabric by the artisans. I try to do this by offering the clothing in one-size-fits-all. This means that I can cut the fabric in the appropriate places without affecting the meaning of its motifs. It means that young people can easily buy my designs online without worrying about purchasing an incorrect size.”
Dian says that it is crucial that traditional fabrics are shared with the world, helping to ensure that it is preserved for future generations. “I want to share our Indonesian fabrics with the world. I usually use at least three different traditional fabrics in each of my garments, a unity in diversity. I feel that they go hand-in-hand with nature, freedom and the spirit of our elders — all of which influence my designs. At the same time, it is great to see that Indonesia’s textiles are continuing to evolve to reflect modern production methods and fashion trends. For example, batik patterns only used to be applied to silk and cotton, but now they can also be found on thicker fabrics such as cashmere and wool.”
National Icon Goes International
Today, traditional textiles are an element of pride for the old and young alike, with the fabrics frequently used in haute couture creations and fashion accessories such as handbags. Indonesian designers who utilize traditional textiles have been making waves on the national and international fashion scene.
Iwan Tirta, an Indonesian designer who initiated the revival of batik in the 70s and 80s before the textile regained popularity, is one of the names credited with putting the fabric on the global stage; his batik creations were even worn by world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in 1994. Even after his passing in 2010, his atelier in Jakarta still stores 13,000 batik motifs that the maestro amassed from across Java.
A number of renowned international designers have also followed suit. US designer Nicole Miller’s batik dress has been spotted on Angelina Jolie, while Belgian-American designer Diane von Furstenberg’s batik dress has been worn by the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton.
Looking to the Future
For an art form that emerged from the cultural diversity of the archipelago, the rising profile of garments made from homegrown textiles among the young should not come as a surprise. This interest in tradition is also what spurs designers on to combine homegrown fabrics with cutting-edge designs. “It is great to see that so many modern Indonesian designers are looking to tradition for inspiration,” notes Dian. “We should appreciate and support our weavers and artisans to keep them alive by not undervaluing their work and keeping their work popular with our youth. The blend of styles and traditions encapsulated in traditional textiles really fits with our cultural diversity. This cultural richness is something that we should continue to show to the world.”
About the author
Anita Surewicz is a journalist who has been writing and editing content for websites, magazines, and newspapers for the past ten years. Over this period, she has been based in Indonesia, Cambodia, Colombia and Portugal. When not working, Anita enjoys chilling with her golden retriever Milo.