Sun, 20 Feb 2000

Designer Musa's future all sewn up

By Agni Amorita

JAKARTA (JP): When the young Musa Widyatmodjo determinedly set out on his career as a fashion designer nothing could dissuade him. The 34-year-old bachelor has been working as a professional designer for almost a decade now, and half of that time was spent searching for a business identity.

Before approaching his market with elegant, light and very wearable creations that have become his trademark, Musa had several failures.

"It was when I suffered financial losses for almost a whole year," Musa Widyatmodjo recalls of his first years in the business. "Things got worse because it seemed that I was so alone in dealing with it. Fashion was definitely something my family and friends were not familiar with."

Instead of reconsidering his career as a fashion entrepreneur, however, Musa sought technical help from various quarters, including enrolling in several home industry courses and joining a local fashion association to gain ground for his fragile business.

Today, not only is Musa able to experience his dream career, but he is now an established designer and was chosen to lead the popular Indonesian Fashion Designers Association (APPMI). Late last year he took over the position from seasoned designer Poppy Dharsono. Musa said he was very surprised when some fashion colleagues nominated him to replace Poppy, who had held the powerful position since APPMI's establishment in 1993.

"I have a strong commitment to APPMI, but I am also known as a hard person to deal with in business. So I just laughed at this idea," he recalled. Musa's apparent reluctance to take the helm was reflected in his campaign speech on APPMI's electoral day.

"I tried hard to make a horrible speech in the campaigning hours, including a threat that I would be very tough in leading APPMI elected. I explained to them that for me APPMI was like a used car I had to drive to another town as fast as possible. So before the trip I would prepare the vehicle by repairing any faults that I could find, even replacing and totally removing some broken parts if necessary," he remembered.

Fortunately, the almost 100 college-graduated designers were not intimidated by his threat and elected him chairman of APPMI for a three-year term. "I have to say that it is an honor for me," he said in his workshop in Kemanggisan district, West Jakarta, last Wednesday.

During the fashion business' peak season comprising Ramadhan, Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year, he had to work quite hard to meet the extra demand. He successfully got through the tiring time, and the intense pressure is not apparent in his muscular appearance. This 185-cm tall designer doesn't even want to take a break after such a tight schedule. In his Balinese- inspired study, Musa, who has just created his newest feminine collection, is working on his programs for APPMI plus a promise for better cooperation with a "rival" fashion group, the Indonesian Fashion Designers Council (IPMI).

Born in Jakarta in November 1965, Musa was raised to be an economist like his father. "It got worse because when I finished high school in 1984, Indonesia was swept by an MBA mania," he said. Instead of working toward earning an MBA degree in Philadelphia where he was sent to select an institution of higher education to attend, young Musa was fascinated with American mega bookstores which introduced him to art and fashion. "I explained to my father that I wanted to work in a field that I liked the most and would not regret if I never got rich in it, instead of being rich from working in a place that didn't interest me at all," he said.

Musa then went to Drexel University and was the only Indonesian student who majored in fashion design. Although he initially didn't gain support from his parents, Musa worked well on campus. He won many awards from Philadelphia, including the Henry Callahan Award 1987 for Best Evening Wear Design, Letters of Commendation 1988 and 1989, the Callahan Achievement Award 1989 of Design Excellence, a Letter of Recognition 1988 and Siby Markel Brasler Award 1987 for Academic and Design Excellence. Musa was also chosen as finalist for American Concours Des Jeuneus De Mode 1987, the same year he became a semifinalist for American Leather Design.

With their teenage son establishing an identity in fashion, Musa's parents later became his number one supporters. They sent him plenty of fashion news from home, including entry to the prestigious Indonesia Fashion Design Contest 1990. Musa entered the competition and became a finalist. This was the beginning of Musa's career as a professional designer at home. Starting from a big zero, Musa designed, sewed and finished his first creation by himself.

"I had nothing except my mother's sewing machine because there was no money left to start this business after the cost of my overseas school fees," he pointed to his first creation, a birthday gown for a friend's niece.

Three months later Musa hired one assistant to help him get through his risky first years. After facing the ups and downs of business, Musa got stronger and gained confidence with his career. Today he employs more than 50 people.

His concept of beauty is carefully geared toward the Indonesian market -- meaning simple, feminine, far from provocative, and elegantly tailored. His creations sell for between Rp 300,000 and Rp 600,000 per piece. Having two labels -- Musa for his first line and My Badjoe for a more mass produced line, the launching of which was postponed after the monetary crisis -- Musa supplies four outlets in Metro Pondok Indah and Plaza Senayan, Pasaraya Blok M and Sarinah Department Store, Jakarta.

"Fashion has expenses," he said. "For fashion designers, it means that we have to really work professionally and never stop growing because we are not just artists who design, but also businesspeople who need to sell our work."