Sun, 22 Oct 2000

Local fashion -- any room for the grass skirt?

JAKARTA (JP): If France and Indonesia have an extradition treaty, then fashion designer Thierry Mugler could be running scared.

His crime? Putting his name to fanciful, no doubt extremely creative clothing which does not look out of place on a Paris runway, but could have some of its wearers arrested on charges of causing public disorder in the more sedate surroundings of a Jakarta shopping mall on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Monsieur Mugler -- best known for having a bare-breasted Madonna end one of his shows and, less desirably, for the commandeering of his signature torso perfume bottle by shabu- shabu users -- would not be alone in having to answer for the crimes. Two other prime offenders, Gianni Versace and Moschino, have, however, already gone to the great fashion palace in the sky.

Their victims? Usually but not always female, often with the years creeping up on them and with a lot of cash to spare.

They fall prey to the coaxing and flattery of fancy stores' henchmen and women and pay big money for attire that most rational people would not be caught dead in.

The Spice Moms and Dads strut around in the malls and trendy cafes in a combination of fashion styles of their own making. There are the knee-length rainbow-colored pants and cutoff Ts, and the teeny-weeny oh-so short skirts combined with you-know- what-me pumps. And remember the onetime big businessman, the one with a daughter who boasted about buying a new Swiss watch every year for hundreds of thousands of dollars, whose favorite "leisurewear" was a garish Versace shirt?

It's how you wear it that counts, Thierry would probably say in his defense. Time to state our objection.

If you are over 45 and gravity is taking its toll, no amount of dieting and sit-ups is going to take away the impression that you found yourself in that turquoise boob tube and those fire- engine red hot pants because you sleepily stumbled into your 12- year-old's clothing closet at dawn and got dressed in the dark.

These clothes can put the wearers in mortal danger, another reason to haul Thierry over to Jakarta and cut him down to size.

I watched as one mother, in capri pants, T-shirt and a pair of high heels, started to get a bit wobbly as she waited on the front steps at Plaza Senayan. She teetered precariously, trying desperately to regain her balance.

Would she fall flat on her face, or somehow get her act together and save face?

The suspense seemed to go on for an interminable time (I imagined the taxi drivers across the street would start a betting pool on her fortunes if it went on any longer) but then she took the tumble, arriving at the bottom of the steps in a heap.

Her daughter, who must have been about 10 but was in identical clothes save for the heels, and a helpful doorman bundled the poor woman into her car when it pulled up.

But some local designers are saying enough is enough. They proclaim it is time to pack away all those brand names and go back to tradition, updated for the times.

They are mixing and matching, using the traditional Javanese kebaya (blouse) with sarongs and other fabrics which make them a little easier to get around in. After all, it's always been a perennial complaint that women forced to dress up in traditional attire for Hari Kartini (Kartini Day) suffer as they mince around in the binding clothing.

Yet these clothes are only one part of the big patchwork that is Indonesian fashion. There is so much more to be found in the islands of the country which also could be brought out of the closet and made mainstream.

One designer, now a passionate advocate of the revival of traditional fashion, got a little huffy when it was suggested that the focus continued to be on Javanese clothing.

"My mother used to mix woven fabric from North Sumatra with batik all the time," he snipped, obviously taken aback at the impertinence of the question.

But if that is the case, then why stop at Sumatra -- we should head east for a little more inspiration.

How about the fashion statement of the koteka (penis sheath) and grass skirts of Irian Jaya?

One colleague argued they might become the uniform of the reform era.

"Why not?" he asked, perhaps only half in jest. "After all, they're practical and the Papuans don't think anything strange about wearing them. It's our problem, because we are used to being covered up."

Still, his vision is way, way ahead of the times. Despite all the cleavage and belly buttons getting an airing in Jakarta society, the fashion mavens are unlikely to embrace the traditional "primitive" dress of their Irianese compatriots.

Unless, of course, that grass skirt came to them with a "Made in France" label. Perhaps somebody should tell Thierry.

-- Bruce Emond