JAKARTA, Indonesia — Amongst the facts about Indonesia that one finds repeated in tourist guidebooks, country profiles and international news reports are the following: For over 350 years, Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch, and for a few years after that during WWII, by the Japanese. The Indonesian archipelago of 17,000 islands is home to more than 240 million people, making it the world's fourth most populous country. Indonesia is also home to the world’s largest Muslim population and, of course, was once home to a young Barack Obama.
On the other hand, very little is known about Indonesia's fashion industry. Unlike other large, developing economies — including Brazil, Russia, and India, which have been actively promoting and exporting their fashion culture to the West for years — Indonesian fashion has kept a mostly low-profile.
So, it was with great curiosity that I embarked on a tour of the Indonesian fashion industry this past week, hosted by the British Council as part of the UKYFE 2010. What I discovered is that Indonesia — perhaps the most creative country in all of South East Asia — has a rich tradition of hand-made textiles and craftsmanship, a thriving urban fashion culture, and a high level of adoption of new media and technologies.
It was like a BoF dream come true.
BATIK AND IKAT CRAFTSMANSHIP STILL THRIVES
Contrary to the stereotype of Asia as the continent of low-quality, mass production, Indonesia has a long tradition of luxurious, hand-made textile production that still thrives today, providing the country with a competitive advantage, especially vis-à-vis its South East Asian neighbours and China, where there is little in the way of traditional craftsmanship.
Indeed, the production of ikat and batik — centred in the historic Javanese cities of Surakarta (Solo) and Yogyakarta and recognised by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage — is an important generator of economic income and employment.
Batik creation is painstakingly-detailed, involving the application of intricate wax patterns on fabric, which is then boiled and dyed again and again, infusing the fabric with layers of different colours to create centuries-old motifs, "each with its own story and philosophy," according to the Mayor of Solo, Joko Widodo.
However, machine-printed batik has gained popularity in Indonesia and elsewhere, while traditional batik motifs are frequently copied abroad. What's more, the ASEAN-China free trade pact has opened the domestic batik market to aggressive competition from mass-produced Chinese fabrics.
Thankfully, there are some individuals who are finding ways to simultaneously preserve and push batik forward, creating innovative new products and textiles based on the combination of traditional techniques from across the archipelago, which like India, has hundreds of different cultures and textile traditions.
Although she may call herself a "cloth maker," founder of BIN House, Josephine 'Obin' Komara has been one of the key proponents of the revival, development, innovation and modernisation of Indonesian textile creation, calling it "real luxury for textilians." Having seen the immaculate work of weaving, dying and embellishment in Obin's workshop in Solo, my UKYFE colleague Justin Smith said he had "never seen so much perfection in one studio, anywhere." It's no wonder that Obin has found markets in Tokyo, Singapore and elsewhere.
But apart from Obin and a few of her contemporaries — particularly in Yogyakarta which is more aware of international market opportunities — Indonesia has not reached its full potential for exporting batik and ikat. Instead, it has taken Western designers like Dries Van Noten, who most recently used batik parang in his beautiful Spring/Summer 2010 collection, to bring batik and ikat to the mainstream fashion industry.
BANDUNG DISTRO IS BLOSSOMING
The biggest surprise of my time in Indonesia was stumbling across the vibrant urban culture of Bandung, a city with raw creativity bubbling up from the local indie music and skateboarding scene. In Bandung, stylish hoodies, t-shirts and jeans replace the sarongs and conservative Western dress that are more common in other Indonesian cities. Style-savvy Muslims have incorporated the streetstyle in their own dress, which still adheres to their religious values and principles. And, in the evenings, local cool kids take things up a notch, peacocking their latest outfits, many of which are spectacular, do-it-yourself creations with metallic studs, patches promoting local bands, and strategically distressed denim.
How did this happen, and why in Bandung? In the aftermath of the 1997 Asian currency crisis, which devastated the Indonesian economy and sent its currency, the Rupiah, plummeting, international streetwear brands were no longer affordable. So, enterprising locals in Bandung, which is conveniently located near scores of textile companies and t-shirt factories, started designing their own products to fill the market void at more accessible price points, eventually becoming known as the Distro market.
Today, Bandung is home to 1,300 Distro companies and an impressive retail cluster of fifty stores catering to locals and tourists alike. The increased competition has only served to spur further innovation and creativity. Unfortunately, the creative entrepreneurs of Bandung have struggled to receive government support and for the most part, the mainstream media here have given them a miss.
In its place, under the leadership of creative entrepreneurs like Fiki Satari, local support groups like KICK (Kreative Independent Clothing Kommunity) and CEN (Creative Entrepreneur Network) have been formed to bring the Distro community together, organise festivals and events, and lobby the government for support and funding. Dicky Sukmana, the entrepreneur, dreamer and architect behind the label Invictus, has been instrumental in creating a media voice for Bandung's creative entrepreneurs, with his magazine Suave Catalogue. Dicky started his own business with only 12 t-shirts, but now sells more than 3,000 t-shirts a month. He is just one of the hundreds of young creatives who are shaping what could be the future of fashion in Indonesia.
BLACKBERRY LEAPFROGS BROADBAND
While internet penetration in Indonesia is relatively low at 12.5% and download speeds can be very slow, many Indonesians are leapfrogging traditional computing and snapping up smartphones instead, making this one of the highest potential Blackberry markets in the world and creating real potential for mobile commerce and communication.
What's more, high levels of BlackBerry adoption have fueled the widespread use of applications like BlackBerry Messenger and Twitter. Indeed, Indonesia has the sixth largest user base of Twitter in the world, and many of the editors I met at the Femina Group, Indonesia's leading consumer media company, were busy tweeting away with the same enthusiasm as their Western counterparts.
Still, the Internet is where it's at and Fashion 2.0 in Indonesia is alive and well. Indonesia even has its own answers to Net-a-Porter and The Fashion Spot. Simplight.net was set up in 2000 to sell fashion online, directly to consumers while Hanifa Ambadar (aka Hanzky) returned home to Jakarta from America in 2008 to focus on leveraging the early success of her fashion blog and community, Fashionese Daily. Today, Fashionese Daily attracts about 10,000 visitors per day, making it the most widely-read independent fashion website in Indonesia and a trusted source of consumer opinion about fashion and beauty products.
Says Diaz Parzada, Fashion Director of Femina Group, "If I want to know where young Indonesian women in their 20s are spending their money, I go to Fashionese Daily."
Over and over again, my UKYFE colleagues and I were asked by Indonesians how they can grow their domestic and international fashion businesses. Indeed, the fertile combination of craftsmanship, raw creativity and rapid technological adoption offers real market opportunities, but only if government and corporate organisations can find ways to nourish creativity in all its forms and encourage collaborations inside and outside Indonesia.
If the Indonesian batik industry is to capture the international attention it deserves and reach its full market potential, it will need to tailor its product to international aesthetic tastes and build further creative and commercial connections with foreign markets. With the growing popularity of digital prints, there are opportunities to manipulate and innovate traditional motifs, while still bringing a handmade touch through traditional manufacturing. This could be a strong marketing message, and one that is in sync with the changing tastes of global luxury consumers, who are looking for something special, of high-quality, with innovative design, and delivering real value.
However, leaving the international market aside, the most significant opportunity for Indonesia is in targeting its huge domestic market within its own borders, particularly in the middle of the market. While Indonesia remains a very poor country, there is a growing middle class with disposable income, but not enough to be shopping regularly at the luxury stores which are also planting their flags here.
The local market opportunities include both traditional craftsmanship and modern interpretations of batik and ikat. Furthermore, given the vibrancy of the Distro sector in Bandung and the scale of its economic growth, impact and popularity with young Indonesians, both the Indonesian and West Java governments, as well as the national fashion media would be well advised to give this nascent industry the attention and support it deserves.
And finally, as young people are innovating on the internet, so should the major media publications, to create an opportunity to connect with the next generation of Indonesian consumers. They should not make the same mistakes as CondeNast and others initially made in the West, which was to "wait and see." Otherwise, they may find themselves in the same predicament as their Western counterparts...playing catch-up.
Imran Amed is Founder and Editor of The Business of Fashion