From Canvas to Catwalk, An Icon’s Legacy Lives On
For two centuries Raden Saleh has influenced Indonesian painters, but this weekend he served as inspiration for nearly a dozen artists of a different stroke.
On Saturday night, 11 young fashion designers took to the stage at the National Gallery in Central Jakarta, showcasing mini-collections inspired by the Indonesian icon. The show was part of an ongoing retrospective honoring Raden Saleh that wraps up this Sunday.
From the pristine catwalk to the red carpet lined with paparazzi, the show had the typical trappings of any couture tent in Paris or New York. But, as jury member Auguste Soesastro explained minutes before the show began, the event wasn’t exactly ordinary.
“This is not about the fashion business,” said Auguste. “This is more about the artistic side of fashion and the interpretations of it.”
Indeed, rather than attempting to sell their work on Saturday night, designers were competing to see who could most creatively represent Raden Saleh through clothes. At stake was a chance to follow in his footsteps by winning a trip to Europe.
Although Raden Saleh is credited with revolutionizing the archipelago’s art scene in the mid-1800s, some scholars also regard him as Indonesia’s first fashion designer. He spent more than two decades studying in northern Europe, and upon returning to Java, he stylistically no longer knew how to fit in.
“He certainly could not walk around barefooted in a sarong and no shirt,” wrote Nadine Freischlad, a spokeswoman for the Goethe-Institut, in reference to Indonesian dress at the time. “[Therefore], Raden Saleh was forced to create his own fashion to overcome societal categories. This required courage and creativity.”
Among his creations were a navy double-buttoned jacket with a fitted collar that extended to his ears, and dark blue pants with stripes that he would substitute for a sarong.
To honor his ingenuity, the Goethe-Institut, a nonprofit that facilitates cultural exchanges between Germany and Southeast Asia, sponsored a fashion competition along with the National Gallery’s art exhibition. Contestants were instructed to submit sketches adhering to the theme, “Raden Saleh — Pioneer of Art and Fashion in Indonesia.”
“The show was done to commemorate Raden Saleh’s unique, innovative spirit,” Freischlad wrote. “And to make yet another aspect of his life more tangible.”
The call for entries opened in mid-February and lasted for about two months, according to the contest’s Facebook page. The competition was open to any amateur designer under the age of 30. More than 70 contestants entered, and 11 were chosen to display three to five outfits during the final show.
“Some of them are fashion students, some of them are graphic design students,” Auguste said. “But they all have a passion for fashion.”
As with any red carpet event, guests arrived in style. After posing for portraits, they snacked on hors d’oeurves until the lights dimmed and models mounted the runway.
From traditional to whimsical, the creations varied greatly. The first collection featured classic costumes with headdresses and heavy jackets, including a navy one that seemed to pay homage to Raden Saleh’s signature design. The second set had a theatrical quality, starring five models adorned with embellished hats and ornate walking sticks.
As the audience watched the models stroll by, they had to do more than simply observe. Once the show ended, guests were called on to vote for their favorite collection and award one lucky designer the honor of being the “fan favorite.”
But while the crowd was judging based on looks, the competition’s seven jury members had stricter standards.
“There are two criteria here: quality and presentation,” Auguste said. “After this we’ll go backstage and flip the hems and see, has this been done properly, has this been stitched properly or does it look like it’s going to fall apart after one use?”
In the end, fashion student Cynthia Kurniawan was named the fan favorite for her dramatic designs. The title included a BMW driving prize from the German automaker and sponsor.
Rini K. Konitatin, however, won top nods from the seven jurors, with navy and gold designs that featured intricate embroidery and off-white headwear. In addition to winning the competition, she will follow Raden Saleh’s footsteps to Germany this fall for Berlin Fashion Week.
And while she won’t be studying painting, by using clothing as her canvas, perhaps Rini’s European travels will influence a new generation of artists, just as Raden Saleh did nearly two centuries ago.