'Scaling' the heights of fashion
The Jakarta Post
At Pari Radja's flagship store, an international buyer is scanning leather items encased in glass. Her fingers dance past purses airbrushed in all the colors of the rainbow, maroon-white batik 'cap' wares and wallets coated with tiger prints and jersey cow splotches, to settle on the company's classic stingray skin billfolds.
'This all used to be considered trash,' says Pari Radja proprietor Mufthar Khoir, pointing at the pimpled and shimmering fish-skinned accessories. 'Ten years ago, sting ray pelts sold for Rp 10,000 [85 US cents] a piece.' Now they fetch Rp 100,000. And Mufthar is getting commissioned by the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry to test out tanning tuna, tilapia and even pufferfish.
'Indonesia used to export lots of raw material,' says Maman Hermawan, the sub-head of the ministry's non-consumable division, who is charged with managing a grab bag of industries including fish pellets, emulsions used for organic farming in Japan and ocean-derived crafts like sea shell curtains. 'Now we are trying to encourage industries to do added value work.'
In 2012, Indonesia exported 2 million kilograms of fish skin worth $2.5 million, according to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS). To expand on the material available, the fisheries ministry has sent tanners such as Mufthar to run 'field training' in remote locations with big ports, including Belitung and Banten, so that fishermen learn best practices for fish skinning.
A nation of islands, Indonesia is well placed to expand its fish leather industry. There is a lot of fish available, both wild-caught and (increasingly) farmed.
More importantly, the archipelago has a rich heritage of leatherworking extending as far back as its history of wayang shadow puppets. To stock master-puppeteers with the 80 to 130 buffalo-hide puppets they needed per show, carvers perfected procedures for curing skins.
To tint their creations, the leatherworkers refined measurements of obscure concoctions including fishbone (for gluing gold pigment); burned bone (white) and soot (black).
Akin to his forefathers, Mufthar too has a painstaking 28-step curing procedure for his stingray skins.
He starts by soaking the pelts in preserving solutions for up to three months. Then he transfers the hides to automated tanning drums where they churn continuously for 10 days, with breaks to add potions that make the skins thin and supple. Afterwards, the pelts air-dry in the shade for two days.
Finally, they are brought to a workshop above Pari Radja's showroom, where they are banged, trimmed and sewn into shoes or wallets.
And though their methods were cloaked in secrecy, tanners from centuries before likely used similar procedures to touch up fish leathers.
Medieval Japanese samurai prized the rough texture of stingray skin for creating the perfect sword hilt grip. Louis XV reportedly wrapped his snuffboxes in shagreen, as the French call ray skin. In the last twenty years, Norwegian and Portuguese companies have started to make high-end lines of salmon skin bikinis.
Unknown to Indonesia 10 years ago, the material now lines hotel walls and mall store shelves. 'I've been seeing stingray everywhere,' says Jakarta-based shoe designer and fashion maven Marista Santividya who says she's keen to do her part in 'promoting and making palatable local products', such as the nascent carp and catfish leather industries.
Though Marista advises judicious use of the material ' 'if you are making a pull pump wedge, fish skin would look disgusting but it's fine if you're just using it for trim.' ' She never uses pink ('that just is not right, it looks so fishy!').
Jensi Sartin, chairman of Reef Check Indonesia, says that in the fish leather industry, as with all wild capture industries, careful attention should be paid to sustainability.
'Our government sees the growth of this industry as a positive thing because it increases the economic value of marine ecosystem,' says Jensi. However, he cautions, 'there is no research that focuses specifically on stingrays yet the animal's populations are categorized as sustainable in government data.'
He added that fishing pressure varies by region in Indonesia; and in developing the industry, businesses should work with local authorities to monitor the sustainability of the stingray stock.
'In the face of climate change, we should carefully use and manage these delicate ecosystems, to ensure we don't disrupt their balance but rather strengthen their resilience,' says Jensi.
Despite the debate, there is no guarantee that the fish leather industry will take off. So far, Mufthar of Pari Radja, says the market doesn't seem interested in skins other than stingray.
'I actually really liked the tilapia and catfish products but people weren't interested,' he says. 'They said it was too scaly, too ticklish.'
' PHOTOS BY MELATI KAYE
The writer is a Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative fellow for fisheries.
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