Sun, 13 Jul 2003

Fashion --- between bustiers and batik

Muara Bagdja, Contributor, Jakarta

When models paraded down the catwalk in Dior's flamenco-style haute couture in Paris last week, fashion lovers here took notice.

But for those with a thirst for world fashion, the ready-to- wear brands turned out by workshops in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan might just have to do.

While international fashion proceeds, the country has gone its own way in fashion in the last few years, defined by two distinct camps of style.

King of chic Sebastian Gunawan and his host of followers have redefined evening wear by celebrating the glamorous figure- hugging gown, sparkling with beads and sequins and complemented by upswept hair and striking make-up.

But just as vital are the "holdouts" to the ethnic-style that emerged in the 1980s, a group that includes trendsetting designers such as Ghea S. Panggabean as well as younger ones like Biyan.

"The Indonesian fashion market is unique. World fashion this fall will return to the 1960s but in Indonesia we still have a partiality for evening gowns," said Samuel Mulia, the chief editor of a+ lifestyle magazine who is known for his sharp observation of the local fashion scene.

"Our fashion is a reflection of pop culture. Everybody aspires to be like Krisdayanti or to have a figure like Inul (Daratista)," said pioneering batik designer Iwan Tirta, referring to the country's two most popular singers.

But despite the penchant for glamor, ethnic-style designers continue to hold their own.

Obin and Baron Manangsang, for example, have successfully introduced batik printed on lightweight and soft-hued fabric. They have become popular substitutes for traditional batik cloth, often worn as a shawl in place of a pashmina.

A former model, now running a textile boutique, admitted that her imitations of Baron's cloth sold well.

Edward Hutabarat has reinvented the kebaya (the traditional Javanese blouse), conducting seminars across the country and inspiring fashionable women to take his book Busana Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Dress) along to their tailors to have the designs copied.

The recent division of the Indonesian fashion scene and the preoccupation with western-style clothing can be traced both socially and culturally.

"In the 1950s, several years after Indonesia proclaimed its independence, Christian designers of Chinese descent, like Peter Sie, began to make a career out of fashion," Iwan said.

"They were aware of Western fashion, Dutch-educated, and esthetically influenced by the European elements of their churches."

While many of the Chinese-Indonesians had vocational training in cookery or sewing, Iwan said, for male Indonesians, a career as a fashion designer was seen to be something for "sissies". Instead, they were steered to jobs in the civil service.

The fashion scene expanded with designers like Ghea and Samuel Wattimena in the 1980s, and suddenly fashion design was a more acceptable occupation. Still, Chinese-Indonesians such as Sebastian and Biyan remain a prominent and important force in the fashion community, he added.

Another factor influencing fashion today is easy access to information, particularly due to the Internet. A copy of a gown worn by a celebrated dresser like actress Nicole Kidman to a red- carpet event in the United States can be found in stores in Jakarta almost overnight.

Combine this with a flood of high-quality yet inexpensive imported garments, the economic crisis that struck in 1997 and an attendant downturn in the local garment industry from its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s -- and it's clear why some designers are forced to concern themselves with exclusive made-to-order creations for high-end consumers.

"This is an unfavorable situation because fashion is determined by the user," Iwan said. "Now it can only meet the desires of a particular social segment."

"It's a fact but, unfortunately, more inspiration has yet to come from this country.

It's a return to the 1970s, when designers bowed to the tastes of a small circle of affluent women. Designs are overwhelmingly market-oriented with standard patterns that are safe and saleable.

The emphasis is on pretty adornment -- all those beads and sequins -- comes at the expense of any significant change in style or inspiration.

It may seem at first that ethnic-style designs are doomed to be curiosity pieces, taken out of the closet for traditional ceremonies and family gatherings, but otherwise lost in the smothering embrace of the ball-gown craze.

Prominent ethnic-style designers are mostly over the age of 40 and have a less commercial ethos than some younger designers.

But the fears are likely to be unwarranted.

While globalization leads to uniformity in many aspects of life, it also engenders a backlash by those, including the young, tired of monotony.

The young design duo Urban Crew featured faded or "shabby" batik in a recent show, and designer Ary Saputra innovatively included woven batik cloth by Baron in his collection. Another young designer, Dina Midiani, has continued the tradition of patchwork batik that she began several years ago.

Oscar Lawalata, who has become a media darling for his androgynous appearance and is one of the most talented young designers, has long had a fascination with traditional Makassar woven fabric, even using it with a tie-dye motif.

Ultimately, there does not have to be a winner from the two styles. Each should develop in its own way, in keeping with today's democratic atmosphere.

Samuel accentuates the positive. The two camps are dominant forces but they aren't responsible for stifling creativity, "it just means that Indonesia may still create its own trends," he said.

Fashion -- Pages 13, 14