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So, did everyone have a good Idul Fitri break? For most of us, the gatherings and reunions have been attended, the cookie jars have been emptied and the festive garb has been sent to the dry-cleaners.
New clothes to celebrate Idul Fitri is nothing new, and many embrace the spirit further by observing religious dress codes, at least partly, during the festival period. Though more for comfort than religion, I favor a tunic and loose pants, Pakistani shalwar-kameez style, that I usually mixed and matched from off-rack selections. Then two years ago, I entered a Muslim fashion shop by chance.
Indonesian Muslim fashion has come a long way, baby. Gone are the shapeless muumuus and dowdy veils. Most of the clothes sport sufficient structure to hold their form while loose or flowing enough to avoid emphasizing the wearer’s silhouette, in accordance with scripture. Materials are sourced from silk to cotton, in every color under the sun. The styles have started to adapt from global trends that, if worn without veils, may pass as regular clothes. No wonder more and younger Indonesian women have taken up the hijab lately because with the choices here, they don’t have to end up looking like frumpy grannies.
I’m no hijaber, the term the newly fledged fashion-conscious, Muslim-attired, women’s groups in Indonesia have coined for themselves, yet I respect any grown woman’s private decision to dress herself according to her beliefs. More than that, the fashionista in me always adores pretty frocks just as my business mind always acknowledges any promising potential.
Apparently I’m not alone in this. Shafira, Indonesia’s most prominent Muslim fashion brand, stated proudly during the last Jakarta Fashion Week that they’d make it to Europe this year. At the recent third annual Indonesian Islamic Fashion Fair’s talk show, a couple of fashion designer associations, hand in hand with the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, boldly announced a target to make Indonesia the mecca for Islamic fashion in 2020. Now, national pride aside, is this realistic?
Let’s talk about production first. Back in the 1980s my mother worked for the garment arm of a local conglomerate. The company, and many of its ilk, manufactured ready-to-wear clothing for foreign labels. The labels brought designs and, to a certain extent, materials; the local companies supplied an affordable workforce and abundant space. And it was a match made in heaven for a couple of decades, until cheaper labor became available in nearby countries. At that time the Indonesian garment industry had an opportunity to step up, invest in higher-tech facilities and skilled labor to offer value-added products, but that momentum was foolishly passed up by both short-term minded industry players and the government. The tragic state of the Parisian couture business showed how the power lies in the ready-to-wear market, which needs on-the-clock production and standardized quality to flourish. Can the Indonesian garment industry now return to its former glory to support local Muslim fashion designers?
This brings us to creative force. Indonesia has ample native resources to inspire the plethora of high-spirited designers and handy artisans. The locally-made hijab that I wore to Mecca twice for umrah always garnered compliments from the women I bumped into along the way. A group of girls even stopped me once to ask me where I got my gorgeous, ornamented, stretch, slip-on hijab from and upon finding out the origin, offered a generous sum to buy it off my head instead.
But again, continuity is the key for any industry fancying itself as being the world leader in eight years. The global fashion business nowadays demands two full seasons (fall-winter and spring-summer) plus a shorter, yet increasingly profitable, Cruise season in between. Indonesia’s fashion industry has successfully run a respectable annual fashion week for the past four years, in which Muslim fashion shows earned a full show day last year, but has yet to manage biannual cycles. New talents have always emerged, yet few have survived in the long run, and even fewer have successfully penetrated foreign markets.
The potential is tantalizing. Wealthy Gulf women are longtime buyers of made-to-order Prada caftans and Chanel gowns, but the global Muslim population goes well beyond the Arab world and includes young, outgoing, fashion-literate women, with disposable income to match.
Even a specialized modeling agency opened in New York last year to cater to the bulging demand of so-called Islamic lifestyle advertisements. This is a serious market that, if tapped and conquered, could allow the Indonesian fashion market to grow exponentially with all its trickle-down effects, resuscitating the domestic garment industry and providing real incentives for traditional artisans to sustain their crafts.
And serious business potential calls for serious business plans beyond the adrenaline rush of having churned out the latest “It” trend. Market research, production and infrastructure reviews, labor and management skill assessments — a lot of number crunching and multi-party groundwork to cover a detailed, milestone-dotted, actual roadmap counting down to 2020, a roadmap that I hope exists. The kind of roadmap that binds and prevails irrespective of changes in government administration or the internal dynamics of the fashion industry.
In the meantime, I’ll do my supporting part. If you see a girl pairing navy leggings with a flowing, knee-length, cute cardigan of rainbow stripes, that may just be me wearing my latest Muslim fashion find sans veil. Come over and say “hi!” and I’ll let you inspect the cardigan personally. If you’re really nice, daahlink, I’ll even whisper the designer’s contact details.
Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer and consultant, with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.