Nothing to do but quote the New York Dolls in this review. Personality Crisis. That characterises as well as anything could, Jakarta Fashion Week 2008, which ran from 20 to 24 August. That’s not to say it was a “bad” fashion week. Not at all. Genius, and talent (and utter absence of talent), were all floundering about messily in the throes of a national and institutional personality crisis. This all felt painfully apropos for an Indonesian fashion manifestation at this particular moment in the country’s history.
Reviewing the dozens upon dozens of hasty defilés, our response is a simple gut reaction: “What is the what?” Hardly anybody here in Indonesia seems to have any idea, and nobody dares to ask. The best mind their own business and create, the worst mind someone else’s business and wallow. For the duration of the week which aspired in this “Visit Indonesia” year, to take a free-throw shot for recognition as a serious fashion event for Asia, there were tangential explorations in all manner of directions.
This is a country with no shortage of disposible income among the magnificently-moneyed few, and with few among the other sectors of society who are bold enough to challenge the origins of said disposible income. But even that is changing, and contributes to an identity crisis at a deep level. The Indonesian KPK (Anti-Corruption Commission) has been hauling formerly untouchable sycophantic freebooters in front of the judges of late, and threatening instigation of the death penalty for officials found guilty of serious corruption. This, among other things, is shaking the communal identity of Indonesia’s circle of “haves” in unprecedented ways. The structure of patronage is shifting, clearly. And patronage drives many creators of fine fashion here and elsewhere.
But let’s get back to pure fashion. The sketchily expressed themes that broached the surface of Jakarta Fashion Week were “Busana Muslim” (Islamic dress) and a vaguely conceptualised notion of Indonesian “ethnic”. Neither theme congealed in a satisfying way over the course of the week.
In addition to these two officially declared themes there were four others, more vague still, namely “contemporary,” “classic,” “cocktail,” and “evening.” Sadly, this whole misinformed concept of categorisation only served to underline Indonesian fashion’s place firmly and perhaps undeservedly in the realm of “developing world” culture. Peripheral, in other words. What a shame.
It’s a shame because there were marvelous sparks of brilliance dimmed beneath this shadow. Examples include Ratna Panggabean’s beguiling skill for deploying ancient textile traditions in ways that have integrity and tremendous style (see Ratna with models, above). For Panggabean, it’s clearly not about putting traditional textiles into her ensembles as a token gesture. She seems to breathe in the beauties of Indonesian textile traditions just as they are, subsume them, then breathe them out again into the world of high fashion to wear now. Other designers appeared to treat the obligatory inclusion of traditional textiles as something akin to a troublesome undergraduate assignment.
We saw poor quality ikats arbitrarily assimilated into ensembles as extraneous elements, and fine songkets turned into bath wraps without any understanding of their potential as integral elements of a fashion statement relevant to sophisticated women with a global awareness of style. Of course there were numerous exceptions which must be applauded.
The busana muslim (Islamic women’s dress) was another area with ups and downs. It was like a magazine feature of “dos” and “dont’s” hauled out as object lessons. The necessity to cover head, torso and limbs goes oft awry, and it went awry in this fashion week in every possible direction. There were ostensibly “halal” ensembles that were far too sexy even for liberal Muslims, flaunting transparent panes of cloth, ankles in platform sandals, and cuts that cling in ways that are far from demure.Meanwhile there were also dour drapes that would make anyone feel depressed and oppressed to see or to wear, Muslim or not.
In between these extremes there were a few remarkable and downright gorgeous examples which showed how a woman can look elegant, chic, intelligent and strong, without relying one bit on exposure of any of the blatantly alluring features of female anatomy. (See above.) It can certainly be done, and there is no reason whatsoever that a woman should look dowdy or dumpy if she chooses to adhere to the traditions of Muslim modesty.
We noted other points to take away, albeit general ones. For example, there is a tremendous wealth of detailed handwork at the disposal of Indonesian couturiers, and we saw no shortage of that, but it is not always deployed with the level of design consciousness that does it justice. Complicated handwork seems to be too often applied indiscriminately for flash value and not because it is relevant to the statement being made. Message: Just get real. What’s the design? Stay there first and foremost. Don’t be tempted to go to the fireworks show just because it’s noisy.
We also noted, based on this fashion week, that in Indonesia, feminine is definitely feminine, as in girly. There are few strong silhouettes, few bold lines, few liberating garments which have universal wearability for a woman who moves and works and gets involved. It still seems to be about being a bird in a gilded cage here, or an expensive accessory to the fat guy with the big bank account.
Another impression is that Indonesian designers have a wealth of textiles and ideas, but still a shortage of rigourous design and tailoring expertise. What we see is a dearth of great cutting and structure. They can drape but they cannot shape. Cut, fit and structure are still not up to the level of the European greats. There were, of course, individual pieces, certain ensembles, and specific designers (Oka Diputra for example), who were notable exceptions displaying profound understanding of how a piece should be cut and draped and structured to make a clear statement which works well with the body. These were standouts that drew applause, and for good reason.
It’s ironic that Oka gets the body and structure right, because most of his work is untailored, based on cleverly wrapped and tied pieces of ingenuously cut and structured flat cloth. Kudos are due to this Bali boy, who definitely gets it, and in a witty way. A cloth is a floppy thing, so where do you want it to stop, to stand, to stand out, to stand up, to roll over? And how does that work on the body? What are the lines? Where do they go? Where do they stop?
These are the questions that true fashion talents don’t even need to ask. They just know. Oka is an example (see above). Choosing to change his whole collection at short notice in honour of the passing of Yves Saint Laurent, he made his Jakarta Fashion Week show a “humble tribute” to the great French master, and pulled it off with aplomb. How, you may ask, can a designer devoted to simply wrapping and tying and twisting get the YSL shape. That was a challenge he set for himself, and attained. One clue to the mystery of this success: He applied zippers, not as closures, but as structure and linear accessories to make his garments take shape and give them bones. What wit, what gall, what sheer balls this boy has, and it worked like a charm.
In general, however, there is a personality crisis evident Indonesian fashion today. It’s not bad fashion, it’s just in its adolescence, and like an adolescent, there are flashes of brilliance which are of real value and will never be repeated or outdone. But it’s still loose and unformed and all over the board.
To sum up (without meaning in an way to denigrate the many splendours of Jakarta Fashion Week), Indonesian fashion seems still immature and lacks the wisdom that comes over generations of open awareness, confidence and enlightened patronage. That wisdom teaches us that elegance is often understated. There can be exuberance, but there is also restraint. One bold stroke is usually enough. Elegance is understated, yet still fresh and surprising. It is not about tiaras or outrageous juxtapositions of colour, pattern or technique just for the sake of it.
To be elegant and stylish, one must understand unequivocally that there are places to make a statement and places to remain silent. It’s a lesson to be learned. Let’s drop the randomly appended tiaras for example. There are no Cinderellas in the real Indonesia. And let’s drop the Taman Mini approach to “ethnic” (above right). Indonesian ethnicities and cultures are not theme park gimmicks or novelties. There is real value and real beauty in Indonesia’s cultural heritage, in its dress and textile traditions, and in the nature of the people of this archipelago, that are too magnificent to be trivialised. (Oh, and “ethnic” doesn’t mean “brown” by the way.)