Local Designers Going Global

MAY 10, 2015

Models wearing Toton Januar's fall-winter collection walk down the runway at the Mercedes-Benz Tokyo Fashion in March 2015. (Photo courtesy of Japan Fashion Week Organization)

Until several years ago, only a handful of Indonesian fashion designers managed to win international recognition for their works. Biyan Wanaatmadja, an industry veteran of more than 30 years, easily comes to mind. Drawing his inspiration from the wealthy trove of Indonesian culture, Biyan has been concocting some of the most exquisite and romantic designs not only for high-end clientele in the country, but also those residing in cities from New York to Dubai. His creations can be found in luxury boutiques worldwide and online at the famous shopping site Net-A-Porter. Not only that, he recently became the subject of a monograph book published by Rizzoli, which is penned by respected British fashion writer Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni.

What Biyan has achieved through his long and well respected career has an immense impact on the visibility of Indonesian fashion industry on the international stage. But in an increasingly interconnected market— thanks, in part, to the influence of social media as well as the globally attuned coverage of websites like Business of Fashion — some younger Indonesian designers are gradually stealing the limelight in the world’s fashion capitals lately.

Diaz Parzada, the program director of Indonesia Fashion Forward (IFF) — a business incubator program under Jakarta Fashion Week aimed to help develop emerging designers — views that it is important for these Indonesian designers to be put on the same pedestal as international brands. 

“When Tex Saverio showed his collection in Paris Fashion Week a while back, what makes it different from Lanvin or Chanel? They are all on the same calendar,” Diaz says, referring to the Indonesian designer whose name shot stratospherically after his theatrical and ornate creations were worn by the likes of Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lawrence.

Besides Tex, there is a flock of other homegrown Indonesian talents who aim for a wider market and audience — Toton Januar is one of them. 

His eponymous brand TOTON was initially started with a focus on the international market. “We thought that our philosophy of translating Indonesian heritage for modern women would bode well for international buyers and clientele — with the hope that customers in Indonesia would eventually warm up to this idea,” Toton says.

Known for his deft hand in merging Indonesian materials and craftsmanship with fashion-forward silhouettes, TOTON’s fall-winter 2015 collection was shown at Mercedes-Benz Tokyo Fashion Week last March. He infused the new collection with elements of Javanese “batik tumpal” motif — turned into a pencil skirt or as a panel in a tailored jacket — along with intricate embroideries inspired by the tattoos of Borneo’s Dayak tribe.

Toton actively markets his collections in international trade shows, trying to appeal to a variety of stockists abroad. “Truthfully, the backbone of my brand is export, and this is how the business actually works,” he explains. “We first started participating at Blueprint trade show in Singapore in 2012. In our third season onward, we went to Paris for the TRACE Showroom, which is always held in the middle of Paris Fashion Week.”

His experience in these trade shows has opened his eye about doing business with different parts of the global fashion industry. “Initially, I was reluctant to market my brand in the Middle East, but then I met some Middle Eastern buyers in Paris and found out that they were fashion-forward and had great branding sense,” adds Toton, by way of example.

Under the Hollywood spotlight, with her feminine designs showcased by Hollywood starlets and supermodels on the red carpet in the United States, designer Peggy Hartanto has also come to the forefront of international fame. 

Actress Portia de Rossi in Peggy Hartanto. (Photo courtesy of Peggy Hartanto)

Based in Surabaya, Peggy is known for an aesthetic that walks the fine line between feminine and sensual. Her signature pieces include geometric cocktail dresses with cutout accents, as worn by the likes of starlets such as Portia de Rossi, as well as streamlined jumpsuits favored by model-of-the-moment Gigi Hadid, among others. Not to mention, one of her dresses was featured on “The Big Bang Theory” star Kaley Cuoco on the cover of People magazine last September.

Lydia Hartanto, Peggy’s sister who does marketing strategy and sales for her namesake brand, says that the aforementioned appearances have a huge impact for the label locally and internationally. “We are working together with a fashion P.R. company in the U.S., and they introduce our label to actresses, stylists and magazine editors there. As a result, there is an increasing number of attention and inquiries coming to our brand,” she says.

This international exposure for the Peggy Hartanto fashionbrand, as Lydia observes, is crucial. “As we are targeting a worldwide market, it is very important for us to create a familiar image for our future clients and to introduce our label to prospective distribution channels. We have to show them that we are passionate and professional in doing business with them,” explains Lydia.

With the highest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia is also witnessing the rise of Muslim fashion designers in the country. This phenomenon has captured the international media’s attention — for instance, the revered chief fashion critic of the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman, took notice of the well-known Dian Pelangi and her colorful designs in her piece about Islamic fashion late last year.

More recently, another Muslim fashion designer Restu Anggraini made her debut at the Tokyo Fashion Week last March along with Toton Januar. Showcasing the latest collection of her brand ETU there, Restu was invited by the Japan Fashion Week Organization, the representatives of which were enthralled while viewing her works in Jakarta.

“Restu founded her ready-to-wear label R.A. five years ago, but we noticed that there was still a gap for executive-wear in Muslim fashion, so we started ETU in 2014,” says Rahmat Ramadan, Restu’s husband who manages the brand’s business operations. 

“We decided to call ETU as a modest executive-wear brand, because we found out that many women who don’t wear hijab also love our collections — including the Japanese ladies we met during the fashion week,” he adds.

As seen in the recent collection, ETU’s offerings are dominated by tailored numbers featuring clean lines and monochromatic shades that speak to modern career women in big cities. The geometric woven accents on some pieces also make for an interesting contrast that does not weigh down the entire look.

Asked about the response ETU received after showing at the Tokyo Fashion Week, Rahmat says, “It significantly increased our visibility and brand awareness — it seems everyone on Instagram was posting about us. The impact on our sales is also surprisingly good.”

The international exposure, as showcased by ETU’s example, can bring a designer’s brand to the next step, but at the same time, entering the international market also poses a whole new set of challenges for the designer.

As he reflects on his experience dealing with international buyers and stockists, Toton Januar says, “The biggest challenge so far, thankfully, doesn’t come from our lack of creativity or failure to attract their attention. Instead, it’s about how we can fulfill their demands, which means I have to expand my operational team. Quality is everything when it comes to the international market.”

Diaz Parsada also adds that the biggest challenge for Indonesian designers who want to enter the international market is the lack of understanding about how the international fashion ecosystem works. “Indonesia doesn’t have a concrete structure yet when it comes to its fashion industry. Through IFF, we do not only introduce them to the ecosystem, but also teach them about how it works and how to excel in it.”

Despite their global ambitions, it cannot be denied that it is also important for these designers to start looking inward. As Diaz says, “The most important market for Indonesian designers is actually Indonesia. And as long as these designers have a global standard in what they do, the fame and recognition will come.”