Insider: Ikat Indonesia Designer and Founder Didiet Maulana Talks About the Joys of Empowering Traditional Ikat Weavers

MODERN HERITAGE. Designer and founder of Ikat Indonesia Didiet Maulana tells Gabriela Yosefina about the turning point in his life and the joys of empowering traditional ikat weavers

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Didiet Maulana in his workshop and store

A famous quote from John F. Kennedy reads, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In a very style-conscious way, Didiet Maulana does precisely that through his fashion brand Ikat Indonesia. He reinvents traditional textiles and works them into intriguing pieces that are able to transition smoothly into modern men’s wardrobes. Through this process, he simultaneously empowers local weavers by educating them about trends while also voicing their struggles to the government. Entering only his fourth year in the fashion business, he has already dressed a handful of prominent Indonesian personalities, from his muses Nicholas Saputra, Mike Lewis and Izabel Jahja, to other celebrities—and most notably, the ministers attending 2013 APEC meeting. With both menswear and womenswear, Ikat Indonesia has indeed a very bright future with international expansion and further textile exploration on the horizon.

Gabriela Yosefina: Hi Didiet, Ikat Indonesia’s rapid ascension has been truly captivating to watch. Did you ever envision such success early on?
Didiet Maulana: Although I had previously been developing a concept for women and men’s ready-towear lines, Ikat Indonesia was first launched on July 29, 2011, with only a spring/summer collection for women. Hype and intrigue were soon built around the collection, thanks to the support from my inner circle of friends; we also received very positive responses from the media. Following this, the demand for full menswear pieces continued to increase and so in early 2012, my team and I created a special collection for men. Indonesian actor Nicholas Saputra was my first muse for the men’s line. I think one factor that continues to drive the success of the menswear collection is the fact that even though ikat clothes for men are abundant, none are particularly designed for young adults. Therefore, when I created cardigans, tank tops, shorts and fedora hat, it was a very fresh development that people welcomed. For the first collection, there was even a pair of moccasins with tassels that were created from ikat.

GY: Your background is in architecture, so how did you end up in fashion?
DM: Despite having a passionate interest in fashion, I didn’t have enough courage to take a major in fashion design when studying. I don’t regret studying architecture though, because I love drawing and technical design, so architecture was a perfect meeting point of the two. Nevertheless, I have never actually worked as an architect; instead, I was in television production and fashion retail for around ten years in total. It was when I began to handle the marketing and communication of the fashion retailer I was working for, when I touched the ikat textile and watched a fashion show, that a light bulb went on in my head. I was instantly reminded of my long-abandoned life goal: to combine modernity and heritage through fashion design.

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Didiet with his two muses wearing the “mentari” collection

GY: Which life lessons helped inform you in developing your own brand today?
DM: From architecture, I had the mindset that if you draw something, you have to know how to build it. Life is not only about having a dream but also about knowing how to transform that dream into a tangible product that people can touch, use, or wear. Then, during my previous tenure at the fashion retail company, I learned about creating a brand. To have a reputable brand, it takes solid teamwork and discipline. Also, details matter—from the story behind the collection, to communicating with people, to understanding the characteristics of Asian consumers.

GY: Out of all materials available, why did you choose ikat specifically?
DM: Simply because I see the potential of ikat as an exotic material. During the year 2010 to 2011, for instance, there was an increasing use of the textile on international runway collections where they had sourced the fabric from Western Asia. Another major trigger for me was when batik, a fabric of Indonesian heritage, was claimed by another country. It made me realize that I didn’t want to see Indonesia’s younger generation taking what we have for granted. With ikat, I predicted that it would be the next big thing after batik, so I decided to explore it. The word “ikat” actually has a real significance because in Indonesian, the word means “to bind.” So it serves as a constant reminder that I am bound to utilizing the traditional textiles we have and commit myself to preserving local fashion.

GY: Do you find it challenging, working with ikat?
DM: Initially I did, though I believe I’m getting better at it! The fabric is quite thick and has quite a rough texture; it’s unlike any other fabric I’ve worked with in the past. However, I consider that its uniqueness. To highlight ikat’s one-of-a-kind quality and take advantage of its characteristics, my designs mostly involve the use of structural shapes. Additionally, I collaborate with the local weavers to create a “new ikat” that is softer than the usual fabric, by incorporating silk and cotton, as well as more diverse color palettes.

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Maulana’s muses for Ikat Indonesia, Mike Lewis and Izabel Jahja in pieces made of lurik

GY: Can you tell us more about your experience working with the traditional weavers?
DM: To begin with, I worked with a lot of traditional weavers in Yogyakarta, Palembang, Klaten, Padang and Makassar. All of the weavers have similar characteristics in that you have to become well acquainted with them first, to make them feel comfortable working with you. Therefore, I treat them as more than just vendors; I interact with them as if they are my partners. Staying with them for at least a week at a time, I try to maximize the experience and explore many possibilities together with them. Not only that, I present to them on what is currently in demand, particularly regarding the latest color combinations. Now they understand what turquoise is, and the classifications of many different shades of blue, such as midnight, electric or navy. In return, they share their weaving techniques and experiences with me.

GY: Another important part of your design venture is the muses you work with. How do you choose them and how do they assist you creatively?
DM: The thing that strikes me about Nicholas Saputra and now Mike Lewis is the breath of modernity portrayed by the two of them. Additionally, they have this integrity and focus on whatever they pursue—Nicholas with his movie career and Mike with his modeling as well as acting. Their attitude is precisely the kind of message I want to share with the younger generation: to do what they love and be focused on whatever they are aiming for.

Consequently, I am into their style. Every time I meet them, I feel this jolt of creativity that urges me to grab a piece of paper and start drawing. Their style continually evolves and to me, that is what a muse is all about. They are the people who inspire you. They can even be an old Hollywood movie star, such as Paul Newman. For my women’s collection, I am musing Izabel Jahja who has been a really good friend of mine for the past fifteen years. She, too, focuses on her crafts and has a great love for Indonesia combined with an international mindset.

GY: And what about your specific focus when designing for men?
DM: When I design for men, I create something I want to wear. This way is easier for me and I also find it gets the best results. Additionally, I reach out to my friends to understand style-specific demand and the progressive changes in menswear today.