Sun, 14 Oct 2001

Cloth is all that counts for Obin

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

In a comfortable room inside her old but smart house on Jl. Teluk Betung, adjacent to the Hotel Indonesia, cloth designer Obin, 46, spreads her collection across the carpeted floor.

Colorful pieces of traditional cloth with a range of motifs and patterns are laid out. Some of the pieces are batik, some ikat, others jumputan and embroidery, while a few are a combination of all of these.

In the background on a nearby television, a recent Japanese NHK TV documentary about Obin plays.

Carefully, Obin picks through the pieces, explaining the motif, the technique and the hard work and pain that went into creating it.

"I remember every single piece. You pick a cloth and I explain it to you," said Obin, short for Josephine W. Komara, who without fail wears a kebaya (traditional woman's blouse) and kain (cloth).

She is not kidding about remembering every piece in her collection. Obin has been working on traditional cloth since 1975, and a conversation about the subject with her could last for hours.

"I just love traditional cloth. It's a family thing. My mom used to wear lurik (a type of woven traditional cloth), and my father wore a sarong. Then I started to study it," she says.

But Obin got her start by creating fabrics for couches, chairs, pillowcases, lampshades and curtains, together with partners Yusman Suwandi and Inke Rafida.

After that, they started to make shirts with ikat woven motifs and traditional cloth-based products.

"I was looking at old cloth and wondering why there weren't any new motifs," said the woman who is known as "Mama" by her staff.

Obin began to study the various techniques used to make traditional cloth in regions across the country. She combined these techniques, resulting in a unique and exclusive traditional cloth.

According to her, the more she studied it, the more she realized how extremely rich traditional cloth in this country was.

"You know what, there are over 300 types of woven textures alone. But I feel so very sad because hardly anybody pays attention to our traditional cloth, which is really very beautiful," said Obin.

Some 20 years ago, Obin and her partners established a store called Bin House. From a small rented shop, it has developed into a gallery in the elite area of Menteng, one in Bali and another in Singapore.

Bin House products can also be found in several exclusive boutiques in Japan, where Obin often holds exhibitions.

And last Tuesday, she held a show at Chijmes Hall in Singapore.

"I want to show people in other countries that this country hasn't died yet. We still have something good to show," she said.

"You know what, Singaporean reporters told me they had never seen an Indonesian fashion show before. I was like, geez, what have we all been doing all this time? We're busy creating something but people outside our country never learn about it. And Singapore is like, so close to us," she added.

At the fashion show, Obin presented several new products, including batik on leather, batik on pashmina and batik on suede.

The research to create new products, Obin said, can take up to seven years.

"We try it out, fail, try again. You only see this beautiful cloth, but you have no idea how difficult it is to make it. But it's the risk, we have to be innovative and creative if we want to improve," she said.

While it takes a long time to make cloth, things are different if customers come to her store saying they are going to get married and want to wear something from Bin House.

"I would be very excited as if it was me who was getting married. I ask them from what ethnic group they come from, then I design it for them," Obin said.

"I don't know, I just adore seeing two people in love and getting married. For me, love is a very serious thing and marriage is something that we have to face eventually," she said passionately.

Seeing the grimace on my face, Obin looked straight into my eyes.

"Honey, if you think we have many choices, we don't. We actually don't have too many choices in this world. It's just being born, living and then dying, that's it. Marriage is part of our lives," she said.

Obin clearly has a thing about love. Her eyes sparkle every time she talks about her husband, Ronny Suwandi, an archeology and anthropology professor at the University of Indonesia.

Ronny joined Bin House in its early years, and now he handles the research and development department there.

"He's the one who taught me the correct way of thinking. He always emphasized that everything should be based on method," said Obin.

One thing you don't want to do is call Obin a fashion designer. She prefers to be called a tukang kain (cloth vendor).

"What's wrong with that? I am a tukang kain. Maybe I never formally studied cloth or design, but all my life has been dedicated to it. My whole life is my CV!" she said, adding that she only graduated from elementary school "because I was such a naughty girl".

The same is true for traditional batik-makers in villages. Those people, Obin says, deserve to be called artists.

"They're not laborers, they're artists. They create artwork. It would be impossible to create something beautiful like that if they didn't have a sense of art."

According to Obin, Indonesia has an advantage in its large population.

"In developed countries, where most people are educated, no one is willing to do hard work, craftsmanship and things like that. So we have potential," said Obin, who employs some 2,500 people across the country.

"People waste money by holding seminars on unemployment, that's bull! Give the money to me, I'll hire people to make batik and sell it abroad," she said.

Obin's main desire is for people to gain an increased appreciation for traditional cloth.

"I attach a 'Please do not cut' tag on some of my cloth. I hope people who buy it understand and don't cut it to make a dress. I know it's their right and they probably don't listen, but at least I've tried," she said.