Modernising the Living Heritage of Indonesian Batik

How newer generations are making sure this cultural icon is here to stay.
Friday 30 November 2018
Indonesian batik in all its modern day glory. Photo: Getty Images

With their distinguished long history and deep cultural significance, it is no wonder that batik, ikat, lurik and songket which represent the different cultures of the archipelago are alive and thriving in Indonesian design and fashion. Wearing batik is not merely a nod to the western idea of “ethnic” fashion but is a matter of pride and identity.

When the Dutch East India Company (the VOC, later nationalised by the Dutch government) controlled the archipelago, it was less a matter of ideology and more about control of their lucrative trade monopolies on nutmeg, pepper, cloves and cinnamon – and later – non-indigenous cash crops such as coffee, tobacco, sugar and opium. Under Dutch rule, the natives of Indonesia (as the archipelago became known after 1880) lived in a rigid social order, replete with a racial caste system.

While Javanese openness to cultural exchanges and foreign influences manifested in batik designs, the VOC on their part, prohibited the Javanese from adopting western dress, to create a distinction between the colonial masters and their subjects. And the Javanese responded by remaining fiercely proud of their batik heritage.

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As one of the more visible consequences of rapid development and a growing economy, has meant that Indonesians have embraced western fashion wholeheartedly. Western luxury fashion designers such as Dries Van Noten, Dior and Gucci, meanwhile, have also used batik and ikat in their collections, recognising the beauty and quality of Indonesian fabric design.

The movement of peoples within the Nusantara (the greater Malay world and the shared similarities of language, race, culture, cuisine and religion) was a way of life for centuries. Until that is, the Dutch and the British shared the spoils of the Napoleonic wars and carved the archipelago into its modern-day borders. In the 1960s, Nusantara turned from a romantic notion to a dangerous one with Sukarno’s Konfrontasi, the undeclared war against the formation of Malaysia which resulted in border skirmishes.

This ended when Sukarno was deposed and other than this brief disconnect,
Malaysians still feel an affinity for Indonesia and love visiting Medan, Jakarta, Bandung or Yogyakarta to eat, sightsee and shop. UNRESERVED visited Jakarta to see how Indonesian retailers and designers are passionately keeping their culture and heritage alive.

We spoke to Zamri Mamat, the Malaysian General Manager of Marketing for Plaza Indonesia, the leading shopping mall in Jakarta with close to 65 premium and international luxury brands. Zamri tells us how the shopping experience in Jakarta is differentiated from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, “Jakarta ranks first in customer service. We work with retailers to train their staff and they are told not to judge customers by their appearance. And with the exchange rate, prices in Jakarta are competitive in the region.”

Certainly, we are suitably impressed by the gracious service, the helpfulness of staff and their product knowledge. Interestingly, unlike Malaysia which relies heavily on the tourist shopping dollar, “Plaza Indonesia’s clientele is almost 99% Indonesian with 70% Jakarta-based, of whom 65% are women”.

The Indonesian fashion scene is thriving with many events including Jakarta Fashion Week (October), Indonesia Fashion Week (March) and Plaza Indonesia’s own Fashion Week (Spring/ Summer Collection) and Men’s Fashion Week (Fall/Winter Collection). Zamri says, “These investments in our own events for local designers and working with galleries to promote Indonesian artists are vital to keep the fashion and design world vibrant and relevant for the Indonesians.”

Indonesian designers have an innate design advantage. With their understanding of the semiotics in textiles and their traditions, the designers’ respect and reverence for their heritage, process and structure in their fashion is palpable. And they seem to succeed where their designs evolve to meet modern day demands, yet are always rooted in tradition. It is art they can wear.

Retail Therapy in Jakarta
If time is of the essence, and you do not wish to experience the infamous Jakarta jams, three hotels are best for their location and service – Hotel Indonesia Kempinski, the Grand Hyatt and the Keraton at The Plaza – all are either directly connected or within easy reach of the two main retail destinations, Plaza Indonesia and Grand Indonesia. Slightly further afield but close by during off-peak hours are Plaza Senayan (Hotel Mulia Senayan) and Pacific Place (the Ritz-Carlton).

For serious batik aficionados, your first stop should be Iwan Tirta. Iwan was a distinguished lawyer having studied at the LSE, SOAS and Yale, later working at the UN in New York. However, he became most well-known for his batik advocacy rather than his legal advocacy, as he introduced batik on silk and advocated a return to batik tulis instead of the mass-produced batik cap.

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Mandela wore batik to signal his freedom to take or leave Western conventions of power. Photo: Iwan Tirta

He achieved international recognition when he designed batik shirts for world leaders at the 1994 APEC summit. His most ardent fan may have been Nelson Mandela, who became known for only wearing batik shirts, Iwan’s designs amongst them. These shirts became known as “Madiba Shirts” and Mandela wore them because “it signalled his freedom to take or leave Western conventions of power: they are the sartorial embodiment of a vision of global citizenship.” To own a batik shirt from Iwan Tirta is to own a batik maha karya or masterpiece.

Alun-Alun at Grand Indonesia is a laudable effort aimed at “supporting the development and marketing of culture-based products” and you will find a showcase of batik shirts galore (Alleira, Parang Kencana amongst many), jewellery, homeware, handbags and a handful of Indonesian designers such as Ghea, Agnes and Obin (Bin House). You can spend hours here going through the carefully curated collection that may appeal to more urbane taste.

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Lovely @ralineshah in her Biyan Private Collection. for #crazyrichasiansmovie #biyan

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Kudos to Galeries Lafayette at Pacific Place for their focused promotion of Indonesian designers under one roof. Biyan, Indonesia’s most commercially successful designer and his diffusion line “Studio 33 Biyan” is well represented on two separate floors. (Biyan’s signature boutique is on the ground floor of Pacific Place.) Amongst the many designers are Ghea, Poppy Dharsono and Denny Wirawan. Looking at the brands, you sense how ingrained the interplay of the traditional with the modern is in their design ethos with names such as “Play with Batik”, “House of Kain” or simply, “Bateeq”.

There is also a larger collection by Agnes Budhisurya and I marvel at how Agnes and Ghea have transferred the most fearsome motifs from wayang kulit and ikat onto sheer gossamer-like fabrics, making them instantly lighter and more wearable.

Whilst trying on so many different designer creations, it strikes me that the fabric and design are inextricably linked. The designers do not design a garment in isolation; there is a conscious reference to their heritage. The motifs and colours form the essential melody while the cut and drape of the garment is the lyrical result.

And there are so many more designers to explore – Edward Hutabarat who is passionate about preserving textile traditions for the younger generations or visit Ara in Kemang, one of Jakarta’s best multi-label concept stores featuring a diverse collection by Sapto Djojokartiko, Peggy Hartanto, Toton and many more.

And true to their ease of adapting the traditional with the current zeitgeist, you see designers creating fashion for the hijab community. The fashion retail scene in Jakarta is fresh and exciting, and Indonesian designers have a unique spirit whilst always remaining true to their heritage and identity.

Related: White Mischief: A Tribute to Colonial Style and a Bygone Era