Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Beyond batik: Indonesia promotes untapped textiles

Indonesia's batiks have long been familiar on the global fashion scene, but what is little known is that the vast archipelago has as many traditional fabrics as it has islands.

This is largely due to geographical accident, explains Jasmin Wirjawan, who organised a gala evening in Paris showcasing the work of three of Indonesia's top designers using "tenun", as the handwoven textiles are known.

"Batiks come from Java, historically the trade centre," where the capital Jakarta is located. "In the past communications with other islands were not well coordinated."

Tenun come from all over the country, every region having its own variants using different colours and raw materials, distinctive motifs and techniques, from Bali's "ikats" to Sumatra's gold threaded "songkets".

Hand-weaving in Indonesia can be traced back over 2,300 years and reflects its position as a cultural melting pot. Indian, Chinese, Arab traders and even Europeans have all left their mark.

Cita Tenun Indonesia, the country's woven cloths association, is behind a drive to promote tenun on the international fashion market.

That included a strong presence at Paris' Pret a Porter trade salon this week, a source of inspiration for top designers of the likes of Dries van Noten, who is known for bringing ethnic influence into his work.

But Oscar Lawalata, one of the designers in Paris, is equally keen to boost domestic demand. The problem, he says, is that tenun are associated in people's minds with traditional costumes and ceremonial wear.

"I am trying to develop textiles in a modern style, so that they can be worn every day."

He has been working closely with weavers in East Nusa Tenggara over the past three years to introduce new technology alongside traditional methods, "half machine, half by hand, so they can produce a bigger quantity, so it is more efficient and faster." It has also improved their income.

His initiative was rewarded last year with the British Council Young Entrepreneur Fashion Award during London Fashion Week.

Lawalata's bold shapes, trapezes, cocoons and clean-cut tops using naturally-dyed handwoven silks and cottons, would not look out of place on the Paris ready-to-wear catwalk.

Fellow designer Priyo Oktaviano has already cut his teeth in Paris, assisting Nicolas Ghesquiere as one of his pattern makers at the prestigious house of Balenciaga.

He returned to Indonesia in 2003 to set up his own label, and clients include the singer Bjork. He has also worked closely with local weavers in Bali, which inspired him to research the cultural influence of China on the island.

According to Balinese folklore a Balinese king married a Chinese princess from the Chung Dynasty. His latest collection, dubbed "Romance of Heritage", has a Chinese twist, mixing mandarin-collared cheongsams and Indonesian kebayas made up in lace and Balinese woven silk.

Denny Wirawan, who has shown in Dubai, Mumbai and Washington, brought to Paris a glamorous succession of cocktail frocks and evening gowns in the bright colours characteristic of South-East Sulawesi glittering with woven metallic threads.

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