Archiving Our Vast Cultural Heritage for The World to See

We’re very bad at archiving our work– myself included.

Senior fashion designer Didi Budiardjo said that to me when I paid homage to his exhibition at Museum Tekstil Jakarta recently. Fashion designers overseas are accustomed to present well-curated exhibitions at plenty of great museums that have long welcome fashion as an integral part of art, but sadly that’s not the case here.

When Didi decided to showcase his 25-year body of work he couldn’t find a suitable art curator, let alone fashion exhibition curator, that he had to turn to an art director. Yet for a pioneer fashion exhibition at museums prepared by skeletal crew, Didi Budiardjo’s “Pilgrimage” pulled it off. The installations were conceptual and featured within contexts that let his designs shone beyond the sum of their gorgeous parts. It’s a delightful presentation for anyone, a must for textile enthusiasts and any fashionista worth her shoes collection. Initially planned for less than two weeks, the exhibition is extended until the 1st of February due to warm public response.

But Didi was correct on how Indonesian fashion community has been achingly poor at archiving its journey, while rich and accessible archives are pivotal in teaching the next generation and preserving the industry’s collective works for the world. The aforementioned Museum Tekstil, just like most museums in Indonesia, features heritage riches that are neither attractively installed nor induced much learning. Batik museums in Pekalongan, curated by textile expert Asmoro Damais, and in Solo, managed by Danar Hadi family, try their best—but as much as I salute their efforts I wonder if they’re sustainable in the long run.

Digitalized news and social media accounts of designers, who’ve come onto Instagram by the hordes in recent years, help to increase awareness for Indonesian fashion and art students, but is far from the level of research capacity of affordable books, robust libraries, well-archived fashion houses and well-equipped museums their student counterparts enjoy overseas. Must mention that some of the great books on fashion published overseas in recent years went beyond the clothes to analyzing the growing business behind it—stock price reviews, global expansion plans and boardroom dramas included.

Seems like a handful of market players have also recognized this gap and tried to fill it. Textile expert Asmoro Damais have penned well-researched literatures on traditional Indonesian fabrics, a few of weaving communities like Toraja Melo began to record their quickly disappearing heritage, and even some renowned batik makers and serious heritage fabric collectors put out their collections in writing. Unfortunately these books are still in coffee table book format that, however lovely, come pricey and limited.

In fashion, perhaps the best books by far were the ones published by the late Iwan Tirta. Didi Budiardjo attempted to archive by holding the exhibition while another senior designer, Biyan Wanaatmadja, launched a book around the same time. It is a highly-stylized volume that opens well with an insightful interview of how young Biyan started his 30-year career by enrolling in a Dusseldorf school specialized in arguably fashion’s most crucial skill, pattern-making, and how his white peacock pets provide a serene start of each working day. I only wish that he’d included designs further back than 2008—would’ve happily loaned off some of his 1990s evening gowns from my closet if that’d been a help, in fact.

After these baby steps, what’s next? I’m dreaming of a centralized, massive archive of Indonesian fashion and heritage textile from generations ago complete with detailed inscriptions, high-res pictures and designers’ interviews that are accessible online for everyone. Will the availability of these enable cheating instead of ignite inspirations for lazy designers? Potentially. But since the archive is an open source to everyone, then everyone will be able to catch the cheaters, too.

Beyond education and heritage preservation, it’ll make a great tool for cultural branding. The world has increasingly casted their tasteful glance at our heritage, marked this month by Best National Costume win at Miss Universe pageant, Hermès tea set printed in our traditional handwoven ikat and Marks & Spencer’s limited edition blouse in Megamendung batik.

Despite complaints from some Indonesian fashion fans, Marks & Spencer had every right to label it “Made in Turkey” because that was possibly where the apparel was physically produced, regardless of the material’s country of origin (International Trade 101, sista). If the richness of our heritage and contemporary creations are already known or easily accessible, even if global brands have to produce and label the garments elsewhere the fashion world will be knowledgeable enough to know that the prints or techniques are derived from Indonesia’s vast cultural vault just as meander carving is instantly recognizable as Greek and paisley pattern as Indian. That is a much more effective and sustainable effort to do by the fashion community as a whole, instead of individually berating Marks & Spencer on their social media accounts and demanding them to change the blouse’s label.

There, my two cents. Thoughts, Indonesian fashion community? The newly-formed Creative Economy Body, what say you? I’ll help.

As published:

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