Battle for Batik

Battle for Batik

A controversial UNESCO designation, Malaysian pride and young Indonesian designers breathe new life -- and old arguments -- into a traditional fabric
Boyonz Ilyas
Boyonz Ilyas
Edward Hutabarat's Upperground collection
Alun Alun fashion
Batik youth
Poei Oe skull bag
Geulis camisole
batik reversable bag
Geulis dress
"Glamorous Khatulistiwa" fashion show displayed the latest collections of Indonesian designer Boyonz Ilyas.

Protectionist spats have been major news in Southeast Asia this past month. One of the most intriguing is the tit for tat between Indonesia and Malaysia over rights to their shared cultural heritage.

The latest uproar began in August when a Balinese dance appeared in a promotional video for Malaysian tourism. Then came an October decision by UNESCO to recognize batik (a wax-resistant dyeing technique) as part of Indonesia’s distinct cultural heritage and the world’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage.” The decision was viewed as an insult by some Malaysians who also produce batik and who say no single country has a right to claim the method.

Batik has evolved over hundreds of years, and its many different colors and motifs reflect the areas it comes from and the wearer’s social standing. Javanese royalty often wore brown batik with philosophical patterning, while people in Java’s coastal regions wore bright-colored cloth with birds and flowers.

Traditionally, batik is worn by government employees or during formal occasions, and for years young Indonesians shunned the fabric for being too dark, heavily patterned and old-fashioned.

That began to change during a similar cultural flare-up between Malaysia and Indonesia in 2007, an event that sparked designers such as Edward Hutabarat to embark on a batik revival that resulted in a spike in sales of the fabric.

Hutabarat, who is credited with bringing a more playful, spirited flavor to batik, began to champion Indonesian national dress in the late 1990s, placing traditional batik motifs of swirling clouds and detailed hibiscus on camisoles, jackets and accessories.

“What we’re seeing now is batik that is more colorful, more wearable. It matches our style and our mood,” says Tina Sutanto, head of marketing at Alun Alun, a designer department store in Jakarta that carries many different lines of batik.

Batik is modern. It has survived. It’s very conscious of what is going on.

— Josephine ‘Obin’ Komara

“We want to bring in a contemporary style without losing the inspiration from our heritage,” Sustanto adds, describing a collection that aims to grab buyers of all ages and income levels.

While those in the fashion industry say the UNESCO recognition is likely to draw attention to the fabric from the international community, it is a host of young designers who have made the tradition more popular among a generation of jeans-wearing Indonesians.

“We’re trying to make it cool again,” says Sanchia Hamidjaja, 26, who designs leather bags with a trim and lining made from a rare and vibrant hand-drawn batik whose origins are actually partly Chinese.

The trend has moved toward mixing batik patterns with more comfortable, everyday material, such as cotton T-shirts and hoodies, says Chitra Aziza Subiyakto, creative buyer for Alun Alun’s youth department.

According to UNESCO, cultural heritage recognition “provides each bearer of such expressions a sense of identity and continuity.” But famed designer Josephine ‘Obin’ Komara says batik is not merely a product of the old world: “Batik is modern. It has survived. It’s very conscious of what is going on.”

For their part, Malaysian designers don’t expect the UNESCO recognition to affect their creations.

“We respect that Indonesia has a much longer history producing batik,” says Masrina Abdullah, a Malaysian who creates vibrant, flowing batiks by layering different colors of fabric over one another.

She defines her label, Ilham Cipta, by its abstract geometric patterns, and says branding is what really matters when it comes to making something distinct. And winning the modern battle of batik.

Where to buy batik

Ilham Cipta

Available at: HANDICRAFT No 1, 1a, 1b, Jalan Berlian 1, Taman Berlian, Batu Caves, 68100 Selangor, tel. 03-61850396 email:, Orders can be placed via e-mail.

Poei Oei

Poei Oei does not have an outlet, but all products are available through or by contacting Sanchia Hamidjaja directly. She and her partners have been running the line for a few years, but rely on word of mouth, Internet and local bazaars/exhibitions at various mall around Jakarta to develop sales.

Pamela and Lenny

Both designers sell their lines at Alun Alun, located in Grand Indonesia shopping mall in Jakarta. Grand Indonesia West Mall, Jl. M.H. Thamrin No. 1, Jakarta, Indonesia 10310, tel. 62-21-2359-0001,

Edward Hutabarat

Hutabarat's line is available at Alun Alun (same address above) and Pacific Place Mall, 1st Floor Unit 56, Jl. Jendral Sudirman, Kav. 52-53 Lot 3 & 5, Jakarta, Indonesia 12190, tel. 62-21-33-999-537,, or

Bin House

Available at Alun Alun and flagship store at Jalan Purworejo No.10, Menteng, Jakarta 10310, Indonesia, tel. +62 21 3193 4948, 3193 5941, or
There is also a Bin House store in Singapore, #02-30 Raffles Hotel Arcade, 328 North Bridge Road, Singapore 188719, tel. +65 6333 3448

Guelis production site

Orders can be made directly to this factory via their Facebook site.Komp. Green Ville Blok O No. 21, Jakarta Barat, Indonesia 11510, tel. 62-21-3242-0122, or

Sara has lived in Thailand and Cambodia and currently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. She likes to keep moving and uses these pages to write about the exciting things she learns along the way.

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