Designer Interview: Iwan Tirta’s Era Soekamto & Johannes Bima

THE PHILOSOPHY OF BATIK. Era Soekamto and Johannes Bima, the inspiring duo behind Iwan Tirta Private Collection, talk about continuing the batik maestro’s legacy with Gabriela Yosefina


Era Soekamto and Johannes Bima of Iwan Tirta Private Collection
Era Soekamto and Johannes Bima


Legendary batik maestro Iwan Tirta passed away in 2010. Fast-forward five years to the present, his legacy stands stronger than ever through Iwan Tirta Private Collection.

With an extensive background in the fashion industry, fashion designer Era Soekamto was chosen to be the brand’s creative director, alongside Johannes Bima as CEO. Together, their dynamic partnership becomes the driving force that moves the Iwan Tirta Private Collection brand forward.

Nevertheless, moving forward does not always mean forgetting the past. In case of Iwan Tirta, it is the respect to history, a deep understanding of batik and appreciation of the philosophy behind every motif that set the brand’s creations apart, thereby paving the way to a very bright future.



Gabriela Yosefina: Both of you are continuing the legacy of Iwan Tirta who was known as the maestro of batik. Can you explain about the legacy and your responsibilities within the brand?
Era Soekamto: I am now the designer and creative director of the brand, handling the designs of Iwan Tirta Private Collection. To talk about Iwan Tirta, it was an immense honor to continue his legacy. Iwan Tirta had been compiling batik motifs since the 1970s, curating and tending batik like a caretaker. We have learned that the motifs he accumulated are a form of visual communication from the local kingdoms in the past, especially in Java. Apparently, there are more than 11,000 motifs in his library, and now we become the caretakers of those valuable batik motifs.

The vision of Iwan Tirta is that the world is a stage, and from that stage we talk to our audience. It means that we have the obligation to spread the moral and spiritual message of batik to a bigger audience. We also have to understand what we are communicating and which form of communication we will use to reach the audience. For instance, the other day we came up with the concept of Dewaraja, referring to an absolute power that brings together the microcosmic and macrocosmic elements in ourselves. Additionally, we communicate this philosophy in conjunction with trend forecasting as well as market conditions. We want people to relate to this understanding that has been a part of history for such a long time.
Johannes Bima: That is precisely what makes the brand unique. I am responsible for the branding and various aspects of business. Iwan Tirta Private Collection by definition is a luxury brand, not just because of the price positioning. It is also because the products are one-of-a-kind, and even a level beyond that. Every piece has a story, has a name, and is available for one production only. This is indeed a precious legacy, and even UNESCO regards batik as an intellectual heritage.


Gabriela Yosefina: To appreciate batik requires an understanding of the making of batik. Can you elaborate on this intricate process?
Era Soekamto: There are two main reasons that make batik special. Firstly, only Javanese can create batik because they are extremely patient in drawing the complicated details. Secondly, the technique to create batik is actually a reverse. If we want to make white fabric, we close the black parts, for example. And to get a piece of plain cloth, we still have to cover it with malam (wax). Even to get a simple black shade, there  is a lot that needs to be done. The first step is to use blue, then add some red or brown hues, for instance. We are also dependent on the sun for the coloring process. So, in total, the making of one piece of batik can take from six up to eight months, depending on the size of the cloth.



“Iwan Tirta has been compiling batik motifs since the 1970s, curating and tending for batik like a caretaker”



Gabriela Yosefina: You mentioned that batik contains a wealth of historical and philosophical meanings. The process itself is already so meaningful, so how about the motifs themselves?
Era Soekamto: Our motifs are usually derived from three elements: royal wisdom, the Indonesian archipelago and acculturation. From royal wisdom, for instance, there is the poleng motif. Remember the black and white square pattern you often see covering trees in Bali? Poleng actually symbolizes dualism: There are good and bad, happy and sad moments in our life. In terms of the archipelago, we have been using lotus flowers multiple times. In yoga, for example, lotus flowers are often mentioned, and, as a matter of fact, lotus motifs have been used since the 9th century. That eventually brings us to the acculturation element: Batik does not only have Javanese motifs as there are influences from China as well.

In general, Iwan Tirta uses maharaja motifs, but it is not always about power. One of our most favorite motifs, parang, was inspired by the experience of Panembahan Senopati when he saw corals being eroded by the sea. It explains that even brute power (the rocks) can be overcome by soft power (the water). That is why the parang motif is associated with leaders: Leadership needs to have a balance of both strong and soft powers.
Johannes Bima: If I connect that idea with the branding side, that is what makes the story interesting. All of these motifs have meanings that resonate with different personalities. Therefore, we always try to personalize our approach to introduce batik. If someone is looking for batik, we ask what effect he or she wants: to be seen as a leader or to be seen as a simple person, for instance. Our hope is of course that the wearer can really feel connected to the story of the batik piece he or she has. To illustrate it better, Era has once mentioned that batik is like a name card, you cannot lend it to anyone else.


Iwan Tirta Private Collection
Outfits by Iwan Tirta Private Collection


Gabriela Yosefina: What does that mean?
Era Soekamto: I am exploring more on why batik can act like a name card. Apparently, the motif emanates energy, and there is a certain attraction that arises when someone chooses a certain motif. It cannot be counted but it can be felt.


Gabriela Yosefina: Given your understanding of the philosophy and how meaningful batik motifs are, do you also inject a sense of modernity in the design and branding?
Johannes Bima: Yes. Even though these products can be categorized as art, it does not necessarily mean that we abandon international standards. We are aware of the fact that batik and fashion should meet in the middle along these standards. Take a shirt, for example. We adjust the sizing and cutting, as well as introducing a slim fit to accommodate our customers.
Era Soekamto: We also pay attention to the research and development area, especially when it comes to new fibers and fabrics. We continually improve the quality control aspects as well.


Gabriela Yosefina: And for the first time since Iwan Tirta passed away, you planned and presented an annual show. I think that this is a great achievement and a fitting tribute to his legacy.
Era Soekamto: Yes, it has finally come full circle, in the sense that we are seeing the brand in 360 degrees now. The annual show puts the brand in a new perspective, with a more comprehensive story that allows people to understand and grasp the message better. Dewaraja (the name of the show) is derived from the Majapahit era. But we don’t want to merely look back. Instead, we want to go to the past to excel in the future. The show is about the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega—that’s the formula. To prepare it, I had to visit various sites related to Majapahit, like Cirebon and various keratons. I was aware that to create something under the name of Iwan Tirta, I have to be careful. I also have to think like a maestro, and, to be able to do that, I have a lot to catch up on. I read and researched a lot to prepare this annual show. Hopefully the next show is going to be held in 2017, given that the brainstorming process alone can take up to two years, while the development of the batik pieces themselves can take another year.

Era Soekamto and Johannes Bima
Photography Haruns Maharbina
Styling Peter Zewet
Styling assistants Triska Putri and Jay Robert Davies
Makeup and grooming Kenshie Lie
Videography Dimas Anggakara and Fickar Hajar


Outfits by Iwan Tirta Private Collection
Photography Haruns Maharbina
Styling Triska Putri
Styling assistants Jay Robert Davies
Grooming Kenshie Lie
Models Quentin Marty (21MM Model Management) and Maxime Moreau (Gustav Model Management)