Era Soekamto has become a household name in Indonesian fashion. Known for her batik designs she recently launched a new collection: Adi Manungsa, which takes the rich history of Borobudur, Ancient Mataram and Majapahit Kingdom, as inspiration. While her road to success was not a smooth one, Era kept returning to batik. It was a pleasure for Indonesia Design (iD) to talk with Era about her creative process in this exclusive interview.
PHOTOS BY Melati Danes
What made you fall in love with batik?
When I was little, my mother often told me stories about her batik collection, and I was familiar with her batik cabinet. My parents are Javanese but we lived in Bali. They’d take me to see all kinds of artworks and visit the workshops, like painting, carving, weaving, you name it. When we traveled to Jogja and Solo, we’d visit batik workshops and I would sit by an artisan to watch their process. Our house was full of Javanese traditions, from a wayang carved table to keroncong and klonengan music. Even when I studied in Singapore and tried to be really modern, Javanese tradition was thick in my blood.
I came back to Indonesia and entered the Indonesia Young Designer Contest in 1997, which I won. Then DuPont Lycra asked me to be the representative of Trend Forecasting Asia Pacific in Singapore. They sponsored my first solo fashion shows in Jakarta and Singapore. I was only in my early 20’s and I had four fashion shows in 1999. One of them was the one in Fashion Café, Jakarta, which led to IPMI, Indonesian Fashion Designer Council, to invite me as their member.
Still in 1999, my alter ego wanted to create something else and leave batik. Ichwan Toha and I founded Urban Crew, a clothing line for modern youth with a rebellious streak. But batik kept calling me. In 2000, I created an Urban Crew collection called Rejuvenescence which combined batik. It was successful. By 2006 we had established four galleries, one boutique and store-in-stores as well as a yearly fashion show. However, long story short, we had to call it quits.
Then I concentrated on my own brand, Era Soekamto, for which I made batik again. And I was busy with many projects, from teaching to making shows as an IPMI member. Before my own batik collection was even launched, I got a proposal from a prominent batik brand, Iwan Tirta Private Collections (ITPC).
Iwan Tirta, the batik maestro, passed away in 2010. Afterwards, his partner asked me to join ITPC as the creative director. It took me two years to finally accept the offer because I finally realise that it was too good of a learning opportunity to pass. In 2012 I joined ITPC and they acquired my company. Era Soekamto was still allowed to release new collections as long as it wasn’t batik to avoid a conflict of interest. In 2015 I had my first show with ITPC that presented my concept, Dewaraja. In 2020 I decided to resign and develop my own batik. And two years later I launched my first batik collection under Era Soekamto brand.
What is the basic philosophy of your batik design?
My view is firstly, to link history with the modern world. We are separated from history and our traditional culture – for example, many Indonesians don’t even know who built Borobudur. My wish is that the stories I tell through my batik can help others to learn and understand their history. To me, the philosophy is like the tree of life. When the roots are stronger, the nation will grow stronger too. I want to place humans back to the hierarchy as the extension of God. I don’t want my art to be merely an expression of anxiety because it wouldn’t serve the higher purpose.
How did the Kingdoms of Majapahit and Mataram become the inspiration for Adi Manungsa?
I love history, especially from Majapahit and ancient Mataram eras. And I wasn’t only inspired by Majapahit and ancient Mataram kingdoms, but also by the flora, fauna and mythical creature reliefs on many temples such as Borobudur, Penataran, Plaosan and other smaller ones. From my research about this I made a formula called Nusantara Wisdom. It is more about linuwih or senses and feeling, which speaks more volume than logic-based education. Then I deliver it through design, culture and interfaith dialogue. I developed the essence of this wisdom into my batik motifs or a storynomic to spread the message to others. To me, batik is more than just a fabric with drawings on it. It’s more like a walking bible.
Majapahit, established in the 12th century, had a symbol called surya majapahit with eight cardinal directions, which referred to fire, air, earth, wind, sun, moon, star and ocean, from which many stories can be developed. These cardinal directions were symbolised by gods, one of them being Baruna, the god of the sea, represented by a mythological creature, gajah mina. And gajah mina is one of the icons that you can find on Adi Manungsa batik along with the lotus symbol, which represents samsara that symbolises the cycle of life and rebirth, suffering is liberating, as well as kawung, the oldest batik motif in the world.
Was there any significant challenge in developing and launching Adi Manungsa?
I had spent nine years working with batik for Iwan Tirta. The challenge was how to create my own DNA that’s significantly different: how to be out of the box and have my own box. What’s more, we don’t have enough literature here because many of the reference books are in other countries like The Netherlands and UK.
Please tell us about the “Adi Manungsa” show in Apurva Kempinski.
In collaboration with Apurva Kempinski’s “Unity in Diversity” campaign, they gave me an opportunity to showcase my first batik collection and expand the collaboration with many other parties to extend the impact.
Rudi Dodo has designed the hotel luxuriously. It features elements of Hindu, Buddhism, Modern Java, Ancient Java, everything. I wanted to revive Ancient Java or Ancient Bali, and that included Sumatra, part of India and Central Asia. It’s much more than just gamelan music. I created the synopsis for the show. Rama Suprapto our show director, developed it further with the performers. I collaborated with traditional dance students and lecturers from Denpasar’s Indonesia Art Institute (ISI) for the dance numbers.
The show started with the motherland praying to be awakened in light. Continued with a ceremony of napasattya, which is the life cycle, the batik collection was beautifully represented. The collection that included resort wear tells the story about adi manungsa, the perfect being. An Ancient Javanese or Ancient Balinese dance followed, continued by a performance by the well-known Javanese dancer, choreographer and music ethnologist Fajar Satriadi. Then for the fashion show, we used bursting colours from all spectrums and the models were wearing classic Javanese accessories from Subeng Klasik.
For the exhibition, I collaborated with Melati Danes as the interior designer and Robby Permana from Dua Lighting for the lighting design. I had eight pieces of 7 metres long batik cloth hang down from a gebyok or a classic wooden carved door. These pieces tell the stories of the eight cardinal directions.
What is next for Adi Manungsa?
In my collaboration with Apurva Kempinski, the Adi Manungsa collection is displayed in their gallery until end of 2023, if not longer. I’ve also launched the first batik NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) with NFT Purpose. Sixty batik designs from Adi Manungsa were broken down into 111.111 NFT motifs and 50 percent of the sales will be donated to the charity SOS Village, that funds about 800 children in Indonesia. These NFT artworks are free to interpret. Anyone can reflect themselves on it or maybe appreciate more of the technology, it is totally up to them.