When it comes to Indonesian fashion, one name stands out: Biyan Wanaatmadja, or simply Biyan. Mr Wanaatmadja is not only one of the archipelago’s most in-demand designers, he’s probably its most successful. His label, established in 1984, was once retailed in Singapore through the now-defunct Link. Recently, it’s available on Net-A-Porter, and the prices show how far he has come. A floor-length silk evening dress with a beaded/embroidered bodice retails for S$2,196.
Biyan on Net-A-Porter is testament to the Indonesian’s design strength and saleability. His are not breakthrough styles, but they do not stand poorer against the Continental names stocked by the e-commerce site. A beaded top with raglan sleeves is teamed with Stella McCartney pants and the pairing is as natural and convincing as anything you’ll see on Alexa Chung. What Mr Wanaatmadja has done with his label is a fine balancing act: a penchant for beading and embroidery on lightweight fabrics, a decorative finesse that can be traced to his Surabaya roots, and simple, modern shapes that will not stick out in a woman’s present-day wardrobe.
Sebastian Gunawan, on the contrary, does not primarily provide for such a wardrobe. To be sure, these are not ready-to-wear. Like so many of his couture compatriots who love to bead and embroider with abandon, Mr Gunawan depends almost solely on surface adornment to express himself. In fact, his embellishments appear to be the only thing he can bank on. At Fashion Week, it was hard to see the breadth of his ability beyond the sparkly encrustation. As he showed mostly evening/party dresses, it was as clear as the crystals he used that Mr Gunawan designed for the woman who dreams, she who, even after girlhood, floats into reverie of a royal wedding. As the dresses glided past, one could visualise Mia Thermopolis, heir to the throne of Genovia, choosing a gown for the Independence Day Ball. The Princess Dairies franchise could have found a new costume designer.
This ethereal woman to Mr Gunawan was his “modern muse” even when she loved the details you’d mostly find on a Barbara Cartland heroine: sweetheart necklines, miniscule capped sleeves, gathered peplums, flouncy tiered skirts, and hip-enhancing fish tails. It was romantic, no doubt, and it was possible to be wholeheartedly absorbed in the fantasy, and many women in the audience appeared to be. The men, too, for these were what trophy wives should wear, muse or not. But it was not the modern romanticism of Romeo Gigli or, to pick a more current name, Alexander McQueen.
To the less starry-eyed, Mr Gunawan stuck to a clichéd idea of couture, preferring the silhouettes and shapes of another age. An open-tulip skirt embroidered on the underside, the waisted jacket with Watteau pleats at the back, the body-conscious gown with cowl drape in the rear: these revealed a confident hand, but when he moved from the traditional to the classical, such as the gown with the panniered skirt, his deftness was as shaky as the distended hips.
For couture craftsmanship, there was, oddly, an over-reliance on skin-coloured tulle to hold together necklines and fall-away sleeves, to prevent plunging Vs from splaying or to prop up shapes that cannot, by themselves, cling to the body. Even a bustier had to be held up by a tulle foundation. This was disconcerting because Mr Gunawan utilised a rather sophisticated, not, what he called, “simple” design language. A princess, no matter how forward-thinking, still needs her modesty.
Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now through 19 October