Ba’i Soemarlono of POPULO Batik on a Brand with a Mission

Ba’i Soemarlono shares his thoughts on POPULO Batik’s 25th anniversary and what it means to be a fashion brand in this day and age.

Four years ago, we sat down for a chat with Ba’i Soemarlono and Joe Lim, the creative brains behind POPULO Batik, about elevating batik to a global scale—to bring batik to, as the ancient Romans would say, the populo. This year, as the brand celebrates its 25th anniversary, its message goes beyond the uplift of tradition and focuses on inclusivity and sustainability. This is a tale of a brand with a mission, as told by Soemarlono to DA MAN.

DAMAN: We last had the opportunity to really chat with you back in 2015. Can you share with us some of the highlights in your work since then?
Ba’i Soemarlono: As you might remember, POPULO Batik’s focus has always been to work on an international level. We wanted to bring Indonesian heritage and craftsmanship outside of Indonesia, and after 2015, each year highlighted something new to support this idea.

In the end of 2015 until early 2016 we collaborated with Walt Disney and designed for them our STARWARS collection coinciding with the launch of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It was the first time we worked together with a global company. We also shot clips for this collection with a true global approach by working together with filmmaker and visual media artist Ken-Tonio Yamamoto in Berlin and with Angga Pratama in Jakarta as we always combine the East and West backgrounds of Joe and me in our works. The fashion show we did for this collection was one of the most talked about and also the most memorable one we ever did.

“Today, delivering a relevant message is more important than the designing process itself”

In 2017, we participated at the Amazon Fashion Week in Tokyo with our PURITY collection. It was the first time we presented our work at a fashion week outside of Indonesia. The PURITY collection itself is an homage to a journey we made in 2016 when we travel to the remote lost Tibetan kingdom of Mustang in the Himalayas. This was the first collection where we brought in diversity issues into our work with a very subtle and grounded message about masculinity and femininity through colors and fabrics. We have been always trying to develop batik in a sustainable way and PURITY was another milestone as it was completely made out of natural dyed fabrics.

A year later, in 2018, we were approached by Marvel to design a collection for the launch of “Black Panther.” This movie was a statement for diversity and POPULO Batik wanted to participate in this celebration of both black culture and diversity. It was also a collection that turned the batik approach upside down. For us, batik is a technical process of wax resist dying, which doesn’t necessarily have a connection to colors and motives. So, we saw the opportunity to design invisible and non-colored batik through black on black as well white on white pieces. The message is to allow batik to be anything from traditional Javanese Sogan court batik, colorful decorative Pesisiran batik, European floral or fairytale Dutch Batiks, Islamic Bersurek Batik or any modern interpretation.

And this year, for POPULO’s 25th anniversary we collaborated with Davy Linggar for the NOW collection which is the next step of the “Black Panther” collection. While Davy designed a black on black collection, we did a white on white collection—both completely sustainable by using organic cotton and sustainable Tencel fabrics.

DA: On a more personal note, what do you consider to be your own highlights at POPULO?
I grew up amid Javanese culture, learning about Javanese music, lyrics and performing Javanese dances. It is something truly local but I was lucky to be able to be a messenger of Javanese culture abroad as I partly live in Germany and travel a lot due to our work for POPULO Batik. My Javanese roots let me stand out in the Western world and the liberal Western mindset sees batik the way we do it as something fashionable and cool. I think this is my personal highlight.

DA: How has your vision for the brand and your approach to designing for the brand evolved?
Whatever we have been doing was always conceptual. Before we design a collection, we ask ourselves about the message we want to carry. And usually our message includes a social or political component. Looking back, we believe that sustainability has become one of the most important issues for us. But it is not only a question of product and production. For POPULO Batik, it is a 360-degree approach which includes our company’s philosophy and mindset, our office culture, along with out communication and distribution policy. In the future, digitalization in combination with sustainability will bring us even more challenges.

DA: By the way, can you also tell us about what the brand has done or is planning to do to commemorate this anniversary?
Our 25th anniversary is a statement about time by looking to the past, present and future. We are launching three events under an overarching theme of YESTERDAY—NOW—TOMORROW. Last March, we started the trilogy with the YESTERDAY event where we just wanted to say “thank you’ to all our loyal customers, friends and fans who have always supported us during the last 25 years. The show was like a flashback of our previous collections. In August, we presented the NOW collection, which is a collaboration with Davy Linggar and has a strong impact on diversity and freedom. In November, we will end the trilogy and the anniversary with the TOMORROW collection where we will be collaborating with an Indonesian fashion and sports icon which would present a futuristic vision of batik with a strong emphasis on sustainability and technology.

PHOTOGRAPHY Tony Narotama / STYLING Peter Zewet / STYLING ASSISTANT Jerdi Anarchi / STYLING INTERN Salsabila Asy-Syifa, Fitria Ayunisa GROOMING Arimbi MODEL Hans Weiser/Twentyone mm, Bruno Garcia/Evra models, Location The Parama Creative Space

DA: What’s the story behind NOW?
Nowadays we live in a world of separations. Socially and politically, we are facing extremes that demand us to choose a side. Are you left or right, pro or contra, black or white, male or female, real or fake? POPULO Batik wanted to set a statement for diversity. The NOW collection, at first, seems to mirror our time. Male models appear in black pieces and female models in white. But when you take a closer look, you can see shades of colors, because on both collections different fabrics and dyeing techniques create various shades of black and white. The batik motives on the fabrics underline the shades and we mix both parts of the collection with screen printing motives. Davy uses one of his photos as a print and POPULO Batik uses the words “NOW or never.” We even emphasize diversity in the way we add the motives to the fabrics by mixing wax resist dying and screen printing. During the show, you can also see that we use some male models wearing the white-on-white pieces and one handicapped model. In general, we question the judgement of beauty.

DA: A notable fact of the NOW collection is the use of sustainable materials. Can you tell us how this is incorporated in the pieces?
The NOW collection uses organic cotton, Tencel or Lyocell and Tencel-organic cotton blends as well as silk. Cotton as a natural fiber is not really sustainable due to the huge amount of water, chemicals and pesticides it requires to grow. Organic or bio-cotton are chemical-and pesticide-free, and uses no synthetic fertilizers. The water consumption to grow organic cotton is 71-percent less compared to conventional cotton. Tencel fiber originates from renewable wood pulp, created by photosynthesis. It is also compostable and biodegradable. The efficienT production process has a low impact on the environment. Our whole batik-making process is based on sustainability as we have a pH neutral water system after the dying process for Davy’s part and no dying has been used for the white-on-white collection. For the screen-printing process, a water based-ink—instead of PVC—and raisin-based ink was used.

DA: How did your partnership with Davy Linggar come about? Also, how did you end up with the idea of each collaborator creating a different set of monochrome outfits?
We have been working frequently with Davy Linggar in the past and we share similar design aesthetics and values. Therefore, we asked him if he would be interested to collaborate with us. As I mentioned before, the idea behind NOW was a statement of diversity and freedom, so we decided to translate that into the collection by showing this diversity and freedom through monochromatic pieces and mixing techniques of applying motifs on the fabric by batik and screen printing. Both approaches should allow to widen the horizons of what batik could be.

DA: Now, you’ve been in the business for quite a long time. Do you still enjoy the process of designing as you did when you first began?
We enjoy the holistic process and today, delivering a relevant message is more important than the designing process itself. But we still enjoy the challenges of how to implement our message into the design of our collection.