The connection Berlin-Jakarta is not necessarily an obvious one if it comes to fashion. However the creative duo Joe Lim and Bai Soemarlono, founders of the label Populo, proves that this cultural and aesthetical bridge works perfectly well. It has been 22 years since they started their label focusing on minimal and contemporary batik and high quality materials produced in both Italy and Germany. A show in Jakarta this June and the collaboration with Star Wars for Walt Disney Indonesia were their recent coup.
Their initial concept twenty something years ago was to introduce international fashion designers to Indonesia. They opened the first fashion retail concept store in Jakarta and brought Dsquared2, Neil Barrett, Kris van Assche, Y3 and Kiminori Morishita to Indonesia. The next logical step followed and Populo was born.
The name derives from the famous square in Rome, Piazza del Popolo, which means people. Joe and Bai have changed it to “Populo” referring to a word play and term “popular”. However, their defining point remains all about questioning standards: “Our idea has always been to reinvent and redefine the way we dress and how we dress”.
The label’s signature implies Batik (naturally), a specific technique of wax works applied to a piece of cloth. The process is complex: The wax is applied either by hand drawing, which requires a very skilled artisan and is very time consuming, or alternatively it is applied by hand stamping using a copper block, which is usually implemented by a male artisan. After the wax has been applied, the cloth is dyed in one color and due to the wax resist dyes these areas remain un-dyed. At the end, the wax is removed by boiling water. Each colouring remains unique as the outcome is highly dependent on craftsmanship and individual, handmade work.
While high contrasts in colour and extraordinary combinations of motives are usually part of Batik designs, Joe and Bai say, they like to work in the opposite way, either designing in more monochromatic ways or reducing the colour contrast to the maximum. “Our motives are all based on traditional Indonesian heritage, which usually have a deeper philosophical meaning”, they point out.
The entrepreneurial duo also say that people have lost the ability to judge and differentiate between Batik and non-Batik textiles and the market is flooded with screen-printed batik motive textiles from China. Hand-made original Batik can’t compete with those mass produced textiles. “This was one of the main reasons why we decided to work with Batik, in order to preserve this unique craftsmanship process” being their noble reasons.
“We wanted to design Batik, which could go along with a more international fashion taste in terms of pattern and color use, even though our inspiration is still focusing on the traditional heritage pattern of the royal courts of Java.”
What comes next? Collaboration with Star Wars for Walt Disney Indonesia. A ready-to-wear collection, inspired by Jedi and Darth Vader characters, will hit the stores soon. These two characters considered the most influential ones, representing the Good and the Bad – the Yin and the Yang – the White and the Black, which have been translated into a matching monochromatic colour concept.
Walt Disney Indonesia approached the duo last year; the Hollywood company was specifically looking for designers who could unify the idea of traditional Indonesian craftsmanship with the story of the Star Wars episodes.
And this is precisely the pathway Joe and Bai follow, their strategy being “to translate the custom made individual approach of our collection into the business policy of our international partners”.
They also would like to try to develop and produce own fabric and explore more the world of natural dying. Their future work? “Nowadays the world has an oversupply in products and there are more crucial factors for a business rather than growth. We focus on sustainability, ability to give people a good living field and not to produce products which only create more waste, the ability to help artisans and their ancient craftsmanship to survive. This is what we want to continue and support.”
Additional reporting and interview by Marissa Streibl for Platea.
Populo x Star Wars Collection:
Photos by Roni Kurniawan @ronikrnwn_mnsta, styling by Bima Wijaksana @bimawijaksana, models Joe Lim himself @populobatik and Fidya Ramadhan @fidya.ramadhan.
Portrait founders of Populo Joe Lim & Bai Soemarlono by Andy Maulana @andymaagz