A trio of young designers in Jakarta are putting a new spin on Indonesia’s age-old textile traditions.
By Brooke Grebert-Craig
Photographs by Haruns Maharbina
Visit any part of Indonesia, and you’re likely to find a fabric still being created the same way it has been for centuries. From batiks printed with intricate patterns to imaginatively woven ikats, textiles are among the country’s most highly developed art forms, used for everything from wedding clothes and sacrificial offerings to office uniforms and interior design. But in the bustling capital of Jakarta, the past few years have seen Indonesian textiles make their way into a different realm—that of contemporary fashion and streetwear—thanks to a batch of young, local designers embracing and reimagining them in cool new ways.
The Sanskrit word purana means “ancient” or “old,” but 37-year-old Nonita Respati is reinterpreting it in a glamorous homage to Indonesian batik in her 2007-founded womenswear brand Purana. As a young girl, Nonita watched her mother and grandmother make batik fabrics the traditional Javanese way, painstakingly applying wax to keep underlying patterns from being dyed, exposing the fabrics to sunlight to fully develop the colors of their natural dyes, and placing them with pandan leaves in the cupboard to impart a nutty, botanical fragrance. Nonita carries on these practices today while blending them with bold colors, soft cuts, and contemporary patterns for a stylish mix of the old and the new.
After working as a fashion editor for eight years, Nonita burst onto Indonesia’s design scene when she showed her first collection, Retro Batik, at Jakarta Fashion Week in 2011. It received rave reviews for its rich tones of green and orange and geometric patterns that looked straight from the 1960s but were created with batik techniques. Since then, Purana has acquired a loyal fan base that ranges from teenagers to women in their sixties, who shop for the looks online or at a by-appointment boutique in the South Jakarta neighborhood of Guntur, which doubles as Nonita’s workshop.
I meet her here one afternoon. It’s a vibrant space, with colonial-style floor tiles and racks of colorful silk garments hanging on the walls and manikins. As for Nonita herself, she epitomizes Indonesia’s modern urban generation: hard-working, connected, and stylish, with long dark hair flowing over her black blouse. “I always try to innovate with new patterns and colors,” she says as she shows me a jacket striped with tie-dyed colors. It’s from her most recent collection, Arashibori, which mixes batik-printed garments with pieces made using the arashi shibori dying technique that streaks colors across the fabric like water ripples or driving rain. Although the technique is Japanese, its aquatic effect is a nod to the seas of the Indonesian archipelago, one of the continual inspirations and themes in her collections. She’s a self-proclaimed hardcore diver and often chooses palettes that conjure the dreamy hues of coral reefs. “Underwater, you see these beautiful color combinations that you never see on land,” she explains, recalling her 2014 Dots collection, which featured contrasting colors often seen in marine life—rich blues and purples against blazing oranges and yellows, curved together in ocean-like bubbles and swirls.
“When I have something in mind, I draw up a rough sketch and send it to a workshop in Yogyakarta that makes my fabrics,” Nonita continues, explaining her design process. “We go back and forth, as the color has to be right, and the size of the pattern has to be right. It takes one or two weeks to get the perfect mock-up, then we mass-produce the fabric, which is sent here and I begin to work with my pattern-maker.” Her final silhouettes share some resemblances to batik as it is traditionally worn—tucked to create drapes and pleats, devoid of beads and buttons so that the pattern’s full beauty is seen, but they’re more contemporary, often asymmetrical and loose-fitting, and made of fabrics like silk, cotton, and twill that are comfortable and lightweight. “Batik should be preserved—its culture, function, the important message that each batik expresses.” But preservation requires attracting a younger audience, and her trendy interpretations do just that.