...the new world player

by Liz Marchetti
In the Western hemisphere, Indonesia is more often associated with gap years, honeymoons and cheap labor, rather than glamour and designer labels. Detailed accounts of its breathtaking landscapes etched over 17,000 islands welcome nature, but unstable political history is widely divulged, Indonesia’s fashion scene has remained a bit of a mystery and a relatively lowbrow affair. But with the advent of Indonesia Fashion Week last February, the local design houses have finally caught up and established a strong presence in the market share, all at an astonishing pace.

Financially speaking, the country remains crippled after a string of corrupt, inefficient governments thrust Indonesia’s fragile economy down a spiral of downturns. In 1997 the economy collapsed under the East Asia Financial Crisis. Indonesia was the country most badly hit, so it took a long time for its industries to flourish again. Although the country remains poor, with more than half of its 240 million population living under two dollars per day, it is also a creatively fueled place with a largely positive outlook on life. Many in Indonesia play an instrument or compose music, draw or sing. It seems natural for fashion to be an important element, attuned to their artistic sensibility.

With the recent boost injected into the fashion industry, the message resonates loud and clear: Indonesian fashion wants to be taken seriously. And as the colossal neighboring economies of China and India continue to expand, it seems like a wise move for Indonesia to do so too. In 2008 the first edition of Jakarta Fashion Week (different than Indonesia Fashion Week) was run, showcasing 47 local and Australian designers and putting Jakarta on the fashion map. Four years on, the four-day event has turned into a six-day event and features 51 shows by South East Asian talents, including Bernard Chandran and Ashley Isham, of whom Lady Gaga is a fan. The two cleverly mix cutting edge designs with classic savoir-faire and are part of a young, bold wave of experimental designers whose creations go beyond the traditional wedding-themed collections one would associate with much of Asian fashion. Perhaps, its because customers are changing too.

The younger generation has a knack for customising clothes to create an individual, yet trend-led style. Despite being one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, it is rather liberal. Girls get away with short skirts and low-cut shirts, while many boys favour piercings and tattoos. Indonesians wear school uniforms until they enter university, so they prefer sartorially rebellious choices outside of class: from fluorescent shoelaces to geeky glasses, it’s all in the details. But are locally made clothes just knock-offs of Western trends?

The body of work on display at IFW 2012 showed otherwise, as most collections had one thing in common: heritage. Notably, the centenarian batik is at the core of the country’s economy, with a production value worth 3.9 trillion rupiah (£269 million). More than 400 brands in the event that proved a diverse and colorful offering which received a phenomenal feedback. Created by the Indonesian Fashion Designers Association (Appmi) and six government ministers, it attracted over 20,000 visitors. And the facts speak clearly: the fashion industry accounts to Rp 71.9 trillion (£4.9 billion)and about 5.9 percent of Indonesia’s GDP. It employs around 4 million people, fetching Rp 50.3 trillion (£3.5 billion) as foreign exchange for the country.

Jakarta based freelance stylist and blogger Michelle Koesnadi of Glisters & Blisters says: “The scene here is quite at its peak. There are lots of new designers trying to make it big, then there's also the blogger clan, not to mention the amount of events happening. Internet and social media have made fashion more accessible.” As a result people tend to dress up more- especially the men- spurring a sea of “style tribes”.

While it was mainly the rich who could afford luxury goods, the younger generation is also buying in: “Especially with the fact that many designer stores offer 0% instalments with various credit cards”, adds Koesnandi. Katrin Suthajaya, head designer of Bali based fashion house Seta Danda, who participated to IFW agrees: “In my opinion, Indonesian customers prefer buying luxury brands collections more than local brands. They are willing to spend a lot of more money for luxury brands.” She set up her company in 1989, which manufactures women’s clothes with hand stitched beads, sequins and embroidery. But her main focus is export as the market in Indonesia, especially Jakarta is very difficult. She says that cost of distribution, overhead cost and corruption make small industries suffer: “IFW is just at its very beginning. Even then, with such a big budget, it did not attract many foreign buyers. So I assume it’s very premature to decide whether it can be compared to other Fashion Weeks like Hong Kong and Milan.”

The main issue is that Indonesian brands haven’t yet grasped local consumers, who are more interested in Western High Street chains and their online shopping offerings. Koesnandi claims that costs of small brands’ garments can be prohibitive: “Some products go up millions of rupiahs and the consumer isn’t willing to pay that for a brand that is not worldly known. This makes it rather tough for talented new Indonesian designers to survive. They might produce a great collection but it might not sell well. Once the price goes higher than Rp 400,000 (£27), potential customers start comparing it to Zara and other high street brands.” Essentially, local brands have little reach and a small support base.

So what does the future hold for Indonesian fashion? Koesnandi says: “I can see that local talents are getting more recognition and hopefully, regular people here will start finding their own style identity instead of wearing something that doesn't entirely suit them.” She has a soft spot for local couturiers Biyan & Eddy Betty; and ready-to-wear brands Cotton Ink, Nikicio and Shill by the Buntar sisters.

Indonesia’s fashion is still carving its identity, but the rest of the world is finally watching. With some international support, local talents may finally get to have their cake and eat it too.