The urban sprawl of Indonesia is one steeped in rich culture and tradition. Like batik, an art form with a far-reaching association with fabric of Indonesian themes, many traditional crafts and techniques have found its way to be incorporated into the works of artists and designers. But as a contemporary designer who has witness the years of economic and political evolution of his country, Toton Januar is asking more existential questions like “What is happening?” and “What is my purpose?”
Januar, 42, was born in Makassar, the southern region of Indonesia, where he embarked on several broken paths in Military and Engineering school. Later, he switched his studies to media broadcasting in Jakarta before moving to New York to hone his skills in fashion design at Parsons New School of Design. Januar comes from a family of military soldiers. He says, “Growing up as an only child and a son, I was expected to [pursue a career] that is traditionally meant for a man.” Yet he has spent his entire childhood discovering beauty through his late mother’s work as a seamstress. Now, the designer is in his eighth year as a creative force of the Indonesian fashion realm as he continues to leave global footprints around the world (his collection is stocked in China and Japan amongst others, and sold exclusively at SocietyA for Singaporean consumers).
In designing the clothes for his eponymous label, Januar often dreams up deconstructed aspects of his culture and heritage. For Januar, it isn’t about a systematic technique but the enigma and the untold stories behind those traditions. “We can pour all the crafts, techniques, and silhouettes of a certain culture into a pot and stir it, but the outcome might not have the essence of what it’s made of,” he puts it. What triggers his creative spark the most are abstract images from a bygone era — women among densely populated markets with their sarongs haphazardly wrapped around them. “Indonesian’s traditional way of dressing is mostly eclectic,” Januar says. “It is essentially an organised [mess], yet an amazing one.”
Without the excessive use of batik or other overworked embroidery techniques, Januar has instilled a modern sensibility to his brand — built upon an uncharted sense of eclecticism — while remaining inherently Indonesian.
His creative process usually starts from getting in touch with his emotional being, saying “I always come from my own personal experience or sentiment.” Sometimes, he pins his own photographs onto his mood boards as an anchor for self-identity. Other times, his collection is built on a memory as fleeting as a dream. It was early last year when Januar felt the palpable effects of climate change and the political state of his country in his sleep. “I’ve always had this concern about environmental issues and with what’s going on at that time, the damage didn’t show any sign of slowing down,” he says. “Also, with social and political turmoil prior to Indonesia presidential election where some people intentionally clashed cultures and religions to win, somehow all these things manifest in a very surreal dream.”
It is instinctive for every great artist to find a silver lining amid a chaotic universe. And Januar’s creativity thrived. “I have this painted chaos in my mind, yet when you see certain fragments of beautiful things but they are all blown up and out of place.” He explains, “I’d like to question, express, and at the same time celebrate all the differences in Indonesian cultures and ideals.” In the end, his terrible nightmare translated into his latest Spring/Summer ’20 collection.
The results are pieces of clothing made out of clashing prints, hidden symbols and energetic silhouette yet with a subtle sense of structure and rigidity. His denim pieces are also made out of waste fabric — an initiative he started in 2017 — as he plans to slowly and carefully make his mark as a mindful brand in ethical and environmental matters. For Januar, every step he plants on the ground is fuelled by his slow-burning passion and determination to make a change. A valuable lesson he got from his mother that “there won’t be [unrewarded] efforts.” He shares, “Everything will come back to us eventually whether it’s today or ten years later.”
It is worth acknowledging that the world is ever-changing, much like the unprecedented pandemic that currently has the world on standstill. Which is why it is more important for a designer like Januar to have a connection with his cause and be honest with his ideas. Fashion has long been staking on selling a fantasy, and now it has to reckon with the complexities of reality. Januar says, “when we come out on the other side of this global pandemic, the world will not be the same again. But for me, fashion will always remain true its nature; as a solution and as a fantasy. We’ll always need both, no matter what kind of world we live in.”
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