Thursday, 29 October 2015

From Jakarta #8

Collage of images from JFW2016

Jakarta Fashion Week is not over yet, two more days to go, including the grand finale tomorrow but I have been thinking a lot about everything I saw and heard over the past few days and can't help writing about a few things that really struck me and which I have been mulling over.
First, there is the sheer diversity of approaches and philosophies of fashion on display. Whoever thinks that Indonesian fashion is all about 'modest fashion' is very wrong. Indonesia has the largest Muslim  population in the world, accounting for nearly 80% of the overall population of the country - figures vary depending on sources - but it is not an Islamic country. Muslim fashion from Indonesia may be well known in the Euro-American world thanks to  designers like the Sumatran Dian Pelangi, fresh from a residence at London College of Fashion, and with a recent show in New York under her belt.  But there is plenty of other fashion which does definitely not make use of hijabs. Nor does this mean that its creators, who may well be themselves Muslim (as I said Islam is the dominant religion in this country) are bad Muslims for not designing clothes that include a hijab!
A footnote here will not go amiss: I know that in the UK and elsewhere Muslim fashion  is known as 'modest fashion', a term that is very  loaded,  under its political correctness, but I am translating directly from the Indonesian term which is busana Muslim, that is, Muslim fashion.
I do not think the Indonesian busana Muslim is necessarily a strong religious identity marker as such: the more I see it, the more I perceive it as just a fashion, and only one of many trends. Thus I am wary of the way it is being construed outside Indonesia and it troubles me that it colours the perception of lifestyle in this country with just one hue. Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia. It has a richness of cultures (note the plural) and this is not only acknowledged and more or less respected by the Indonesians themselves, it is also important that people outside Indonesia should be aware of this diversity.
There is nothing like fashion to allow for  an expression of diverse creativity, as fashion is, as I noted elsewhere, underpinned by culture.

Busana Muslim, JFW

The other important issue that was raised in the context of this fashion week is that of sustainability. The film produced by Livia Firth and Lucy Siegle, The True Cost, was screened. Siegle was here, courtesy of the British Council, to lead discussions and for a press conference. Sustainability is very much on the British Council's agenda here in Indonesia,  the UK seems to have taken the lead in questioning current models of fast fashion production and the impact they are having on the environment and the life of individual consumers.  An impressive undertaking to be genuinely applauded.

JFW: it's not all about busana Muslim
I went to the events and really wanted to hear the views of the people attending them. There was a huge elephant in the room and everyone was careful not to acknowledge its presence, not even Lucy Siegle ventured into that area, even though in her day job, as she put it, she is an environmentalist. I guess being an official guest can sometimes put one in a very difficult position, unsure of what can and should be said.  Indonesia at the moment is going through one of the worst possible ecological disasters, the haze from its burning forests, in Sumatra and Borneo, with  millions of people affected  with respiratory disease. It is connected with palm oil and the slash and burn policy.  It is not  only about peatland, that would be taking an extremely narrow view. Is fashion  implicated in this chain and at what point? Well, what do you think? What are the many uses of  palm oil?

Lucy Siegle at the Press Conference on sustainability, with LCF students and Adam Pushkin, British Council
Yes, fashion could certainly begin to mark a change, were it to embrace sustainability, making those all important decisions concerning the environment - the current ecological disaster  is not just an Indonesian matter, we live on the same planet. But how can sustainability be implemented? This is the question some people have asked.  Education and training are paramount. It is not just a matter of going back to using natural dyes, as Jakarta Post journalist Lynda Ibrahim points out in her blog. A  lot more dots need to be joined.
I have a great deal more to say on sustainability and diversity,  how the two are and can be connected, and the issue that is dear to my heart, that of representation. But all this will have to wait for now, as I have to get ready to attend Day #6 of JFW.

(All photos of varying quality, including iOS uploads taken  by me unless otherwise specified)

Thursday, 22 October 2015

From Jakarta #7

Svida Alisjabhana
With  Jakarta Fashion week kicking off on Saturday, I felt I needed some preparation. Thus yesterday I secured an appointment for an interview with Svida Alisjahbana, Chief Executive of the Femina Group, who publish several magazines including Dewi, the powerhouse behind Jakarta Fashion Week, in order to understand better the significance of this event.
With a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Columbia, Svida is a super competent business woman with vision. JFW is now in its eighth year, still growing. Its aim is to situate Indonesian fashion on the international scene and nurture Indonesian designers' talent, through a series of initiatives and sustained training.
Thus the Femina Group, through JFW, has been involved in a programme called Indonesian Fashion Forward, with the participation of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, the British Council and the Centre for Fashion Enterprise,  London College of Fashion, University of the Arts. IFF aims to nurture a group of upcoming designers, selected through stringent criteria,  to become world class players, through business teaching and branding strategy.
Indonesia's fashion industry is one of the fastest growing industries, with exports totalling 65% of Indonesian exports, as per figures released by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Enterprise. Thus it is important for local fashion to have the competence and means to compete internationally.

One of the images on CFE websites, featuring British designer Vivenne Westwood.

The British Council has facilitated the partnership with the CFE and has been involved in a number of projects, featuring collaborations between UK and Indonesian fashion designers. Fashion is underpinned by culture,  so this collaborative work inevitably explores issues of culture and cultural adaptation, with interesting outcomes (you can read about these projects here).
This year the British Council will contribute to JFW a talk and a discussion focused on sustainable fashion, screening  Livia Firth's documentary The true cost.  I am looking forward to it, as indeed it will be food for thought. Some of the issues explored in the documentary might seem very close to home, in this setting.

I have also had the opportunity to talk with an upcoming designer, who will be included in a group show at JFW, only twenty-four, but already well set up with her own website for online sales, with a degree in fashion marketing, trained internationally - she was in Milan and Paris. Yet she seemed to be fairly non-committal re the sustainability trend. The same designer also told me that her preferred look is 'skinny', she likes her models to be skinny, and her ideal wearer is 'skinny' even though her clientele is of different sizes. Bless her, she was honest in stating her preferences!
 Body image is beginning to be regarded as an issue, because of the ubiquity of photoshopping, which can be done quite crudely, so a fashion magazine editor tells me. He also told me that in Indonesia the people who have a real impact on women and men are TV celebrities and pop stars, fashion magazines have a very select readership. For one thing the fashion magazines are expensive, so not affordable by everyone! Products other than fashion are also often advertised by celebrities rather than models.
His observations gave me a real insight. "We are not a very visually oriented country" he maintained. "Apart from a few centres like Yogya and Bali, already with a rich and sophisticated tradition of art making, which have taken on and developed the visuality of digital media to a very high standard, the visual sensibilities of the rest of the country are often shaped by the images conveyed through cheap, Chinese imported colour TV sets that can only highlight very strong colours". Thus  if the TV sets in  remote areas show strong colours dominating the clothes worn by the TV stars, everyone will think  the fashion in Jakarta is that garish and will adopt the garishness. Interesting point, it would have never occurred to me.
Indonesian designers deliberately choose models for their shows that conform to so-called 'international standards' of height and dress size, with a look that is actually fairly close to a European look - fair skin, high cheek bones, straight noses. Or should I say that the organisers of major fashion events choose such models? It is not too clear. What is clear though is that even more than in other parts of the world, models here are very far removed from average looks. Sometimes it is hard to tell  if the models are Indonesian, Korean or Russian. In their ethereal beauty, they can be indistinguishable, their bodies merging with the clothes. Like I said, there is a real push to implement international standards in all areas.

A model at designer Biyan's recent trunk show. Photo by me

Given such a context,  the September issue of Dewi magazine, with Sarita Thaib on its cover, was indeed a very brave initiative and one which demonstrates an awareness of the conversations taking place in London, New York etc about fashion images. There was no photoshopping involved and it was a way to say that it's all right to be mature, one can be beautiful even at fifty, there is no need for cosmetic surgery, which is doing rather well here among the members of the upper classes, the readership of Dewi.
What about disability and its perception? Oh, that is a minefield...

Friday, 16 October 2015

From Jakarta #6

At Tri Handoko's  catwalk show, with models.

Indonesia is full of creative people in the field of performance, music, film, visual arts and design, including, of course, fashion design. There is a variety of approaches,  from  traditional craftsmanship  to modernist minimalism and the picture that emerges is much more complex than whatever is thought of as Indonesian art in the Euro-American world. Ask anyone in the West about Indonesian art. People will scratch their head and then mention in one breath batik, wayang  and gamelan. Contemporary art? No, somehow people find it almost incongruous that there should be anything here apart from time honoured village traditions.
It is a misconception I have encountered quite often - as I mentioned in other posts I  have been coming here fairly frequently for different purposes since 1989. So whenever I told people back in England or Italy about the vibrant contemporary art scene of Indonesia I was met with some disbelief. For many years I  taught university level courses which always touched on Indonesian contemporary performance and choreography, the 'kontemporer' style. During that time I met artists of great calibre and international standing such as Sardono ('Mas' Don) and also discovered the work of the Sumatran Minang choreographer Gusmiati Suid - I tried to share such experiences and knowledge with my students.

 On arriving here last month I was quite aware of the intricacies of Indonesian contemporary performance and expected that a similar diverse landscape would be found in the field of the visual, and of fashion design. My current research, preliminary though it is,  confirms this prior assumption.
I have met a few designers already, including the amazing Tri Handoko, whose work seems to be just right for me, I love the zen quality of his clothes. They are the kind of thing I want to wear and it frustrates me that I cannot find them back home, when I go clothes shopping.
 As we met over morning coffee the day before yesterday, on an unusually quiet day (it was a public holiday, marking the Islamic new year) 'Mas' Tri discussed his philosophy and his inspiration and how he likes minimalistic lines, no patterns, and a mix of black and white.  He then invited me to visit his atelier, so we left the coffee shop immediately and headed for his studio. Once there I just had to try a couple of things on, I could not help it. He told me he was always on the lookout for models with personality and character to match the quality of his designs and  then quite out of the blue, he asked me to walk for him at a fashion event in early December.  Of course I will, I regard it as an honour. Life can be quite unpredictable, I had no plans to model for anyone while here - apart from those photoshoots I mentioned earlier, more for fun and keep my portfolio up to date than anything else.
I will continue my discussion of designers once I have met a few more, this will allow me to compare and contrast, just to highlight the diversity and richness of talent one encounters here, which sadly is not seen at all in Europe and, generally, outside Asia. I know, I keep on saying this, but it really needs reiterating.
With JFW looming ahead this is the right moment to talk a bit about models, as they too have a role to play in  my current research, as the 'ideal' wearers of the designers' creations - we can unpack this definition of 'ideal wearer' a little later.
There are several foreign models in Jakarta and some agencies specialise in bringing them over. There are of course local Indonesian models, some of whom have the status of supermodels, but for the past ten years, model agencies have been working following the business model known as  'mother agency, local agency'. It means that agencies from Russia, Brazil, Germany, Australia, USA  etc send their young models in need of 'development' over here to work for a three month period and the models are then represented by a local agency who looks after them, puts them up in rented  accommodation and gets them work assignments.  The models then go back home. It's a recognisable pattern, models as migrant workers. There are some sleazy developments too but I will not discuss them here.

 Modelling in Indonesia is not regarded as a 'real' profession, so I am told. According to what some agents tell me, many local models are not willing to invest their energy into modelling - this is not confirmed by all my informants however -   but ultimately the reason why foreign models might be preferred  over local ones (the local 'super' are not included here, we are talking about average models) is that foreign clients operating in Indonesia (or local clients aiming at attracting foreign money eg the tourist industry) want foreign models.There is also a difference in the fees commanded by foreign models who are paid considerably more than local ones. Modelling is after all a business, you cannot blame agents for wanting bigger profits!
But even when models are discussed, there is some complexity. Indonesia is truly a land of contrasts. You have the very tall Indonesian models, over 5'11 - in a country of nearly 250 million  there are some people who are extremely tall, both men and women, even though the average height of Indonesian women is below that of their Euro-American counterparts. There are those of mixed parentage, with a European parent and an Indonesian one, highly praised for their fair complexion (I shall talk about the obsession with fair skin in a different post, but let me say that it is not a case of aping Caucasians, it is a traditional beauty standard) and the foreign models that have been here for several years, often with an Eastern European background,  fully integrated in Indonesian society, sometimes holding down other jobs too and perfectly fluent in Bahasa - unlike the foreign models on a short term  contract who come here quite unaware of the local culture.
Surprisingly, the age barrier which models encounter in other countries,  does not seem to exist at all. Many models continue to work in fashion well into their thirties and forties, unlike  Euro-American and Australian models, who by and large by twenty five need to look for something else to do or if determined to succeed, become 'models with a personality' and diversify.
At the fashion event I attended yesterday I met the models walking for 'Mas' Tri.  They were all beautiful, in my view, but not a single one of them was pretty in a conventional way. Their ages varied. Two of them were non-Indonesian, both stunning and already over the age of thirty. One, Natalia Gumilevskaya, came over from Russia following her partner  and was a trained MD, only she could not practise in Indonesia for a host of reasons, involving Indonesia's sycophantic beaurocracy and ended up modelling to earn a living, because of her looks - tall, slim, high cheekbones.

Five of the six models at Tri Handoko's catwalk show

The other one, mother of two, getting close to the big four, is also very beautiful, in an edgy sort of way. Her name is Selma Abidin, with a Croatian mother and an Indonesian father.
These are  interesting women, cultured, cosmopolitan, fluent in several languages, with plenty of experience and great taste.
All the models wore  'Mas' Tri's creations to perfection. I loved the choreography of the show too.
Natalia told me that over here models sometimes need to be able to move in a dance like manner, which brings modelling close to performance.
I will continue my observations in the next post. I will take a short break from blogging during JFW, then back with a vengeance, as they say.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

From Jakarta #5

Ria Juwita

Nearly a month here and things are slowly beginning to fall into place.  I have even done a little modelling:  though my look is not right for Indonesia  - that grey hair (sigh!) -  some young photographers I have met are interested in photographing me and some upcoming young designers are happy for me to wear their clothes for these shoots. So I have done a shoot with Irene Barlian, wearing Maria Ruth Fernanda's designs - she will be having a show at JFW - and have another shoot  planned with another photographer, also wearing an upcoming designer's creations. This is good for my portfolio, it makes me feel I am not cutting off ties with modelling and gives me a further insight into the world of fashion in this part of the world.
I have been active meeting designers and various creatives, including models. I am ever so lucky that my flatmate is into advertising - this morning a commercial was being shot at my place, it was very interesting indeed and truly weird to get downstairs carrying my laundry and finding a whole crew in the living room and kitchen. It was one of those moments!
But let's talk about models. I met Ria Juwita, a well known model who walked for Chanel and various other fashion houses when she lived in Paris, a couple of decades ago. Now she is head of the marketing division at Plaza Indonesia, one of the premier malls in Jakarta, where many well known European and American designers have a presence. The designers themselves do visit from time to time - Ria told me that even Victoria Beckham, designer, model and UN ambassador, has been to Plaza Indonesia and her clothes can be bought there. Ria is truly admirable: beautiful, very competent and able to speak several languages.
The silver hair look does not exist here, Indonesian glamorous women would not be seen dead sporting grey hair, it really spells decrepitude to them, so my look is definitely weird (or very caucasian perhaps? I have noticed that even men dye their hair over here). However, the good news is that senior models are very active here and they can be seen in roles that are normally taken by much younger models in Europe and America. Somehow this resonates with what Grey Models is attempting to do.
Ria Juwita
Take Ria for example. She has a most demanding job at Plaza Indonesia yet she continues to model . In her modelling work she is not stereotyped as a granny or an older model, she is just a model and can be seen in shoots portraying an elegant and glamorous woman, as she indeed is.
To me this is a novelty, I am so used to the typecasting that occurs in the UK and the rest of Europe/America.
I have a few exciting meetings planned, including an interview with Sarita Thaib. I can't wait.
Meanwhile I am exploring this city and learning to appreciate its hidden treasures. If only it were a little less chaotic, traffic wise, I could really enjoy being here!

Monday, 5 October 2015

From Jakarta #4

Jakarta Old City, Fatahillah Square, photo by me

I have finally acclimatised and am learning to negotiate Jakarta, a sprawling mega city. I am meeting designers,  fashion commentators, photographers and models too, it is all quite exciting.
One of the most interesting things for me was to find out that the September issue of Dewi magazine had on its cover 50 plus  year old Sarita Thaib, who came back to modelling specially for this issue on 'timeless style' and fashion for all ages (cantik & gaya di usia 20, 30, 40),  -  I am reminded here of The Guardian All Ages .

Sarita Thaib on the cover of Dewi 
Dewi magazine is one of the most important glossies in Indonesia, now part of the Femina Group and as such involved in the organisational side of  Jakarta Fashion Week . It is a veritable fashion bible, with a median readership of women over the age of 30, thus comparable to Elle (the latter is originally French but now sold worldwide, including China).
So being on the cover of Dewi is a major recognition for any model of any age.
As elsewhere, women in Indonesia over the age of forty are extremely active and visible, and pay attention to style and a fashion that suits them.  Indonesia is very diverse and has a growing middle class; several Indonesian fashion designers are aware of this diversity and design for women of all ages.  A good example is a designer such as Carmanita, who told me over lunch that when she makes clothes, she thinks of what she would like to wear herself and designs accordingly.  Her clients tend to be middle class women over the age of thirty but her creations are for all ages, including children,  and can be adapted to suit all ages. She does not design for mass consumption, her creations are all in limited editions.
Handpainted designs at Carmanita's atelier, Jakarta

It was indeed very forward of Dewi to have a mature model on its cover, the only other recent cover with a senior model I can think of was Iman for  Vanity Fair, Italian edition, August issue.

Imam on the cover of Vanity Fair Italy
There is a short 'behind the scenes' film on Youtube,  with an interview with Sarita. It is in Indonesian, naturally, but even without knowing the language the images convey the message of an elegant, glamorous woman with great personal style and commitment.
In the UK the September issue of Hunger magazine carried a spread with 'golden age models' wearing Prada, - so honoured to have been included - thus  there is a sort of synchronicity here.
I came to Indonesia believing that here fashion only addressed  the very young. I was very wrong.
It is so refreshing to find that 'agelessness' in the sense of ageless elegance,  and mature beauty are also celebrated.
The Jakarta Post, an English language newspaper with a Sunday supplement, carried an article by Willy Wilson a couple of weeks ago in which Iris Apfel, Madonna and Sarita Thaib are discussed in connection with the idea of an age appropriate fashion. Wilson thinks that 'age appropriate'  is not quite the way to describe the personal style of these older women who make a statement through what they wear.
They are all very different, of course. Sarita Thaib, for example, would not choose to wear what Madonna -  the face of Versace, at age 56 - does. But then Madonna is in showbiz and has always been known for being irreverent.
Sarita Thaib has started her own line of pret à porter clothing, very elegant, somewhat 'androgynous'  - her words - and not aimed at any particular age group.
With the recent inclusion at LFW of older models on the catwalk - both of them from Grey, we can thus see that fashion is finally acknowledging its older consumers.

Friday, 2 October 2015

From Jakarta #3

Photographer: Irene Barlian
Meet Irene Barlian, a young female photographer based in Jakarta. Her passion is documentary and travel photography and she has already won serious competitions.  Her work is being exhibited internationally. She is also a fashion photographer and takes on commercial work, especially food photography.
She was born in the same year I first came to Indonesia, 1989, and I really like this coincidence.
Irene and I will be working together on a shoot, and I cannot wait for it to happen and for the images.
Meanwhile please see her photography on her websites, she really does have very interesting and somewhat unusual images.
Talking with Irene over lunch  I got to know about a number of issues concerning photographers and also the fashion world here in Indonesia. Young artists like Irene have to struggle for sponsorship - as indeed is the case elsewhere. Apart from photographing, Irene does her own PR and management, hunting for commissions, which is time consuming.

Photographer: Irene Barlian
We talked about fashion and the insecurities engendered by having designers preferring non-Indonesian models to showcase their work in order to be  of international standard. 'Indonesian women' says Irene 'have different bodies, so to see ourselves represented by women built differently from us can make us feel somewhat uneasy about our looks'. It is also the case that diversity of age and ethnicity - Indonesia is made up of different ethnicities - is not truly represented. 'But we know it is a fiction [meaning fashion]' she says, 'and we can take it in our stride'  even though the clothes are ultimately for Indonesian consumers.
Irene also mentioned how so much travel photography about Indonesia is by European and American male photographers. It does reflect a different viewpoint, and  she is trying to redress the balance through her own work.
From Irene I learnt to look at shopping malls as places to socialise and walk around. In a city like Jakarta where walking  is not really possible, malls are a place to go to, just as in London, Paris or New York one would go for a walk in a fashionable district, window shopping. 'Malls are places where you can meet friends, window shop, use wifi and recharge your phone, if necessary' says Irene. 'I photograph people in malls, it's a version of street photography'. Indeed.
I will be meeting designers next week. We are approaching Jakarta Fashion Week, which will take place from 24th to 30th October. I look forward to  more encounters in my effort to gain an understanding of fashion in Asia.