Fri, 19 Aug 1994

Young Designers Contest 1994: In search of distinction

By Dini Djalal

JAKARTA (JP): Fashion designers from Europe and North America are looking to "the Orient" for inspiration.

In his spring and summer collections, Jean Paul-Gaultier dressed his models in nose-rings and bright saris as an homage to Indian and Masai culture. Vietnamese-style collarless jackets in earth colors or indigo, fastened by ornate silk buttons, are now a wardrobe staple. Even the cheongsam, that demure seductress of a dress, has glamorously crossed the oceans. The originally Chinese dress features prominently in Ralph Lauren's summer collection and was worn by Demi Moore in the film Indecent Proposal.

Meanwhile, Asian designers living in the midst of these "inspirational" cultures are trying to develop their own distinctive styles. They do not want to ignore the traditions of their respective ethnic groups, but they also want to be contemporary in scope.

The task is not as easy as it may seem. The option to appropriate the tribal designs of various ethnic groups without further thematic or technical innovation, is tempting, but hardly amounts to a "personal style". Defining a "contemporary Indonesian style" is akin to defining a contemporary Indonesian identity, which is as yet in the formative stage.

Young designers

These are the issues being explored by the Indonesian Fashion Designers Council (IFDC). Established in June 1993, last week it staged the second Indonesia Young Designers Contest. The winner of the contest, along with IFDC's member designer Carmanita, will represent Indonesia as the ASEAN Young Designers Contest 1994 in Singapore.

This year's contest winner is 23-year-old Syah Reza Muslim from Jakarta. He is a student at the Susan Budiharjo Fashion School. A protege of Hanky, of Hanky Coiffure et Beaute (one of the sponsors of the event), he was urged to began designing by fellow designer and friend Hutama Adhi.

When asked what his future plans are, Muslim replied, "I still have to polish my skills for the ASEAN contest." Does he want to develop an Indonesian style? "First, I have to develop my designs, and then I will explore Indonesian cultures for further inspiration," explained Muslim.

Muslim's designs were praised precisely because he met the contest's requirements of commercial, wearable, individual, crafted, Indonesian designs. His collection was named Kabaya, after the traditional Javanese female dress of long-sleeved and fitted embroidered bodices over a tightly-wrapped sarong.

He modified the traditional silhouette by cutting off the sleeves and extending the trail of ladies' jackets to ankle- length. The colors and fabrics were kept simple and natural -- mostly white, cream, and shades of rust in light linen and cotton.

What stood out was the technical quality of his designs. The jackets and waistcoats, for both males and females, were elaborately cut but appeared seamless. The embroidery, which innovatively replaced sleeve, waistband, pocket, and jacket panels were simply gorgeous.

The winner of the Favorite Designer award also demonstrated technical upmanship as well as promising personal style. Chelsia Cahadi hails from Ujungpandang and is a 20 years old. For this collection, she applied the bead work of Tana Toraja, in the traditional colors of black, red, green, white and yellow, for a striking and original effect.

Evening wear consisted of colorful, intricately-beaded bodices, atop short or long black organza skirts. Day wear was comprised of beaded brassieres underneath red cropped jackets and waistcoats paired with matching low-waisted shorts, skirts or slim pants. Many pieces were trimmed with bark or beaded fringes, and sleeves or pockets were often ornamented with beaded appliques.


The most memorable part of the evening, however, was the show staged by Sutanto Danuwijaya, a designer from Surabaya who placed second in the contest. His collection was named "Oriental Mystery" and began with a cloud of dry ice and gongs and chimes from a traditional Chinese orchestra.

A stream of models then danced through the smoke, waving fans and clothed in black and white linen aprons over ankle-length skirts or wide-legged trousers. The audience gasped as male models strolled the stage in similar aprons or long linen Mao- style robes, with their heads sporting Chinese black caps with long braided hair-pieces extending down to their waists.

The uniqueness of Sutanto's designs lie not only in his clever pattern cutting but in the application of beautiful Chinese coin- motifs, either in black and gold thread or similarly colored beaded appliques. These large appliques appeared boldly on the bodices of simple, black evening wear shifts and on the sleeves of beautifully-cut collarless black suits as well as on the various linen aprons and drawstring trousers.

The overall effect realized a sleek aesthetic vision and a sophisticated cultural appreciation. It is what Asian design should strive for: a balance between individual style and local traditions.

The other finalists made fine attempts at this ideal, but fell short of the aim. Their designs were beautiful, yet looked too similar to most other mainstream contemporary collections of layered chiffon dresses, palazzo pants and linen suits. Giorgio Armani's simple shapes seems to have been the paragon of esthetics. Yet if every color-blind "victim de la mode" adopted this "elegant look", won't it cease to be "elegant"?

The colors were also not very radical. A beige suit may have many virtues and outlast decades of fashion trends, but hundreds of beige suits does not a wardrobe make.

Fashion industry

The world of fashion is often regarded as shallow and inconsequential. But a successful fashion industry has great economic, social and even political implications. France's fashion designers contribute more to the national economy than most other industries. An influential Indonesian fashion industry, combined with the supporting textile industry, could do the same.

Yet, presently, Indonesian design has not been able to capture much international attention. Its products benefit from cheap labor but have yet to gain the quality nor the individuality that is sought by the international market.

Susan Budiharjo, organizer of the contest and a successful designer, remarked, "In order to enter the international market, we must refine the 'Indonesian touch'."

"In the past, Indonesia has entered design competitions in Paris and Singapore," she continued, "but has never gotten much recognition. We realize now that they want an Indonesian element, that, even in Singapore, there was always special characteristics of their own culture present in the collections, however little."

"Why try to imitate the styles of other cultures?" she asked.