Sat, 27 Jul 1996

Linen fabrics: Wrinkles the rich don't mind

By Dini S. Djalal

JAKARTA (JP): As anticipation of the year 2000 heightens, cyberkids are busy shopping for styles fit for space-travel.

And millennium chic increasingly means synthetic fabrics. A trip to New York's Bloomingdales or Jakarta's Pondok Indah Mall means sifting through racks of clothes made of acrylics, rayon, even rubber.

Even that 1970s fashion disaster polyester is blazing through fashion circles -- albeit in a friendlier, gentler guise. Modern technology is revolutionizing this wrinkle-resistant but sweat- inducing cloth into anything you want it to resemble, from the softest silks to the lightest knits.

So with these cheaper synthetics racing to dominate shop- windows, natural fabrics manufacturers are busy spreading the word that the natural is as fashionable and as popular.

Following the International Wool Secretariat's promotional campaign in Jakarta last month, the French Linen Promotion board staged a fashion design competition last week at the Regent Hotel to launch linen sales in Indonesia. The winner of the competition, 26-year-old Yogi Soegyono, received a US$2,500 cash prize as well as a trip to Paris to further study linen designing.

Pricey plants

Currently, there are no linen manufacturers or linen importers in Indonesia. Jean Delacroix, chairman of the 100-year-old French Linen Promotion board, hopes this will soon change.

"We've surveyed the market for two to three years and feel that now is the time to enter the market," he said. France produces 80 percent of the world's linen supply, while Belgium's contribution is 15 percent and Holland's is 5 percent.

"Linen is a French tradition," Delacroix admits.

This French tradition, however, is not shared universally. Linen has but a 1 percent share of the fabrics market, while wool, cotton, and synthetics dominate the market.

But in stereotypical French fashion, Delacroix is proud of linen's exclusivity.

"Yes, we have a small market, but it's a top-label product, and only high prices too," he said with a laugh.

Linen is expected to sell in Indonesia at Rp 30,000 to Rp 120,000 per meter -- with designer fabrics expected to fetch up to Rp 250,000 per meter, after calculating the estimated 20 percent import mark-up.

"As they say in Europe," piped in Indonesian fashion designer Poppy Dharsono, who presented a linen collection for the show, "linen is the wrinkle of the rich".

Despite the high prices and heavy wrinkles, the French Linen Promotion board is targeting Indonesia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, as a linen haven. "Brazil is the world's number one linen importer," said Delacroix, "even though initially they did not like it." He counts linen's large pores, able to absorb 20 percent more moisture than cotton, as being perfect for the tropics.

Delacroix says that, eventually, linen will be manufactured in Indonesia through a transfer of technology. However, the complicated process of linen manufacturing -- requiring 100 days alone for harvesting and drying, not to mention the perfect humidity currently found only in the temperate climates of northern France -- may make the transfer difficult.

Until that time, an estimated 40 million meters of French linen may make its way into local garment factories and fabric shops -- doing little to ease the country's import surplus.

Indonesia's textile industry, a critical but weakening income earner, currently concentrates on polyester production, while 95 percent of the country's cotton is imported from the United States, China and India, said Poppy.

Chic wrinkles

While the purchasing of linen may burn a larger hole in the country's export deficit and in consumers' pockets, it is widening horizons for local designers. "As designers, we have to know how to handle all kinds of fabrics," adds Poppy.

Poppy herself obviously knows how to handle linen. Her beaded evening gowns, either in black or in white, were understated statements of elegance. She limited accessories to the odd chiffon scarf as fluid as the expertly-cut linen trousers and floor-length skirts.

Among the 19 participants in the competition, some also showed a deftness at applying linen, though others did not exploit the full potential of linen's unique texture and weight. The competition required only 70 percent of the collections to be made of linen, but the outstanding contestants opted for 100 percent linen content. Correspondingly, their less-successful colleagues misguidedly mixed the lightest linen with the heaviest flannel.

For example, Abdurrachman Arief's two-tone, cream-and-mustard shirts for men were witty takes on the bowling shirt, but hung awkwardly due to the mix of linen and flannel. Arief's evening wear was more stunning: a mermaid-style linen gown topped by a voluptuous halter wrapped in a web of mesh. Unfortunately, the halter was in flannel.

In contrast, Adi Wahyu Nugroho went all-linen for evening -- brilliantly. Perched atop a billowing pleated floor-length skirt was a shell in creamy yellow, fastened at the back with delicate silver buttons. The zipped gray suit for men was as minimalist and elegant, but considered too sedate by the jurists.

The jurors -- made up of Femina Group owner Pia Alisjahbana, batik artist Ardianto Pranata, fashion photographer Firman Ichsan, as well as Jean Delacroix from French Linen Promotion -- opted instead for more pizzazz.

First-prize winner Yogi Soegyono used the same plaid and pastels as Adi Wahyu Nugroho, but in unexpected ways -- as patches and jacket panels, zipped and fastened in odd places. What boosted Yogi's collection was his dazzling evening gown. Dipped in pistachio hues, cut in mermaid silhouette and beaded to resemble a glowing, ripe sirsak, the dress was a masterpiece among counterfeits.

Second-prize winner Buyung Ego Gunanda also won on creativity. Buyung took a modern but organic approach to the 100 percent linen designs, mixing warm colors like tangerine with copper wire accessories. Patchwork was again a favorite medium, but this time its fun stripes reminiscent of traditional Nepalese ikat were applied in novel ways: ethnic-techno for futuristic consumers. The amusement crescendoed when a model came out in what seemed to be trousers but were actually leg-warmers buttoned to hotpants -- flashing some peekaboo derriere to the outraged audience.

Despite using a considerable amount of wool in his collection, third-place winner Putra Lingga also displayed a lot of creativity, as well as skill. "His cutting is really excellent," praised Pia Alisjahbana. Indeed, his corseted ball gown, the cutaway skirt showing more leg than a pantyhose ad, deserves the accolades it received.

Yet some wonderful designs glided past without applause. Teguh Wibowo's Asmat-inspired collection in natural tones was beautiful, particularly the bias-cut dresses, if perhaps ordinary.

Febriansyah's zipper-peppered designs were also great, and definitely not ordinary. Febriansyah piled one pastel after another -- lavender on orange, mint on sea-blue, as well as piling linen on everything imaginable.

Linen skirts and trousers for both men and women would unzip to reveal another layer -- sometimes in chiffon, sometimes in linen. The ideas do not necessarily have commercial value, but they displayed a clever and uncompromising creativity which pushed the boundaries of an otherwise traditional fabric. With designers like her coming up with unconventional futuristic designs, the natural fabrics industry may soon play a larger role in the synthetic new age.