MODERNIZING BATIK. How can batik look modern? Leave that to the founders of Populo Batik, Joe Lim and Ba’i Soemarlono, who talk to Gabriela Yosefina about the potential of this traditional textile
While waiting for Populo Batik founders Joe Lim and Ba’i Soemarlono, I browsed through racks of the brand’s clothes. Monochromatic batiks in blacks, navy blues, olive greens and whites came off as contemporary and modern, two adjectives rarely used in the same sentence with this traditional fabric. Interestingly, this touch of modernity is not merely due to the color combinations, as the cutting and silhouettes were clearly designed to be boxier and looser, thus giving a fresh look to the traditional motifs.
Following a long and insightful discussion, it became clear that Lim and Soemarlono fully recognized the endless potential of batik. Not only that, their taste and understanding of fashion are on par with just about any international designer, complemented by an utter appreciation for the techniques and history of batik. Throughout the conversation, Lim, who is responsible for the brand’s creative and design process, talked mainly about the inspiration behind his creations and the techniques he employed. Meanwhile, Soemarlono, who handles marketing and public relations for the business, shared his thoughts on the condition of the fashion industry and his vision for the brand. The duo have been enjoying great success in Indonesia and it seems that what we can see today is but a taste of what is to come.
Gabriela Yosefina: Can you tell us a bit about how Populo Batik began?
Joe Lim: Populo was established in 1994, and the initial idea was to bring Western fashion styles to Indonesia. We aimed to bring not only the designers’ collections to the country but also to design our own collections. However, it had nothing to do with batik at that time.
Gabriela Yosefina: What does “Populo” mean?
Joe Lim: The word actually means people, and “people” includes everyone.
Ba’i Soemarlono: Yes, it comes from the Italian word for population, people or habitat.
Gabriela Yosefina: So when was it that you first considered working with batik?
Joe Lim: It was more of a process rather than one revealing moment. In the year 2000 we had a one-time trial doing a batik collection with a German fashion designer because he was interested in it. Later on, in 2005, we started collecting various antique batiks, and it became more of a personal endeavor to get involved with the community and check out what we can find when we travel around. Finally, in 2010, we did a trip to visit batik-producing cities in Java. We took a car from Jakarta to Cirebon, Pekalongan, Semarang, Kudus, all the way to Yogyakarta and Solo. We visited all the traditional, old batik manufacturers who were at the brink of disappearance. During that time we talked to many people and found out that a lot of traditional workshops were, and still are, having problems surviving because they have to compete with printed batik manufacturers.
Gabriela Yosefina: Because printed batik is obviously much cheaper to produce.
Joe Lim: Precisely. So, at that time we were thinking, “It’s a pity if this technique disappears.” We then tried to brainstorm an idea on how we can do something and help them survive. On the other hand, we never wear batik because wherever we go, Indonesian batik is very colorful and it is not really in line with how we dress ourselves. [Laughs]
Ba’i Soemarlono: Back then, when I bought batik, I would wear it only once just for fun. Eventually we decided to create our own motif so we can wear batik, too!
Gabriela Yosefina: I think it is quite a daring move to design your own motif and ask the artisans to create something according to your taste.
Ba’i Soemarlono: It is obviously not easy. Not everyone is willing to follow our design, but luckily there are two artisans, one in Pekalongan and the other one in Yogyakarta, who are up to the challenge. [Laughs] We really appreciate these artisans because to create batik, you need to have a lot of soul and sensibility.
Joe Lim: And we have been trying to bring out this technique to people outside Indonesia. We want to promote this because batik is very special.
Gabriela Yosefina: So, in your own opinion, what are the qualities that make batik so special?
Joe Lim: There are a lot of things that make it special. One of them is the history of how batik was created in the past. At the beginning, it was done only in Java, and only royal family members did batik. Later on, the wives of the farmers would spend their time creating batik when they were not busy. Only after the harvest did they have the time to sit down under the sun and just draw. They made it for themselves. For example, when they planned to have a baby and the baby would need a batik cloth, they would start making the cloth a year before. They chose a certain motif according to the character of the kid. Hence, there are a lot of meanings and myths in the patterns; there is a history. Unfortunately, the history behind every motif, every color and how you wear them has slowly disappeared, because less and less people know about it.
Gabriela Yosefina: Can you tell me more about the motifs you used in your latest collection?
Joe Lim: We are always inspired by Indonesian traditional values and way of life, but we have made the patterns more modern. Our last runway collection is called “Morphosis,” which literally means a process of change. We used three motifs: wadasan, mega mendung and ombakan or the gringsing wave. Wadasan is inspired by corals in the sea, and is derived from the word “cadas,” which refers to rocks. Gringsing looks like snakeskin or fish scales, but ours looks more like waves so we call it the gringsing wave. The last one, mega mendung, takes the shape of clouds.
Ba’i Soemarlono: Those three motifs were prominent in Cirebon, so on the runway we put masks to cover the models’ faces, inspired by the mask dance from the region. And if you ask us why we called it “morphosis,” it is because everything looks like it is morphing. We combined batik with other fabrics such as wool and linen, yet there is no cutting or sewing on the pieces. The machine we used took the yarn from the other fabric and pulled it to the top of the other one, creating flowing, non-geometric patterns.
Gabriela Yosefina: That is an impressive technique that I have never seen before. I wonder what your next collection will be.
Joe Lim: As a lot of people have been copying our monochromatic approach, next in our agenda is to bring batik to another level, experimenting beyond motif and color. At the moment we are trying to develop completely new materials for batik, as well as new coloring methods and new distribution channels. It will be interesting because one of the main aspects of the next collection is leveling. We call the collection “High Low,” as it is about elevation in batik.
Gabriela Yosefina: What has been the most challenging part of developing Populo Batik?
Ba’i Soemarlono: There are a lot of challenges, but production is one of the trickiest parts. It is hard because maintaining a consistent level in quality is very difficult. We used to produce our collection outside Indonesia, and now that we are producing everything here, we have to adjust ourselves working with the seamstresses and tailors. We also need to brief them about mentality and how they see fashion so that they will have a better understanding of it all.
“We really appreciate these artisans, because to create batik, you need to have a lot of soul and sensibility”
Gabriela Yosefina: What do you think about the local fashion industry, especially compared to Europe’s?
Ba’i Soemarlono: In Europe, fashion weeks are for buyers, the press and exclusive clients, all of whom have a thorough understanding about fashion. Here, there are still people, who don’t necessarily have a relationship with the industry, attend the fashion weeks. It is more a form an entertainment here, while in Europe it is all about business.
Gabriela Yosefina: How do you envision Populo Batik grow in the next decade?
Joe Lim: It is difficult to say. I normally don’t have any long-term plans. I will simply try to find new ways to bring batik further, beyond what people normally think of batik. I will always endeavor to come up with new things and do things that have never been done before.
Ba’i Soemarlono: My goal is to bring batik to the next level, so that it will be more than just a cultural item, but the next fashion item.