Indonesia may be the undisputed king of batik – the traditional art of decorating fabric using wax and dye – but neighbouring Malaysia is embracing this versatile, time-honoured technique with increasing enthusiasm.
Batik fabric, known for its vivid colours and intricate animal and floral motifs, originated hundreds of years ago in maritime Southeast Asia – or Nusantara as the area is sometimes known.
Today, a number of small designers who work almost exclusively with the technique have popped up across Kuala Lumpur – putting a modern twist on a textile that is most commonly seen in Malaysia at weddings, as well as in more casual social settings on occasion.
Raz Bahari launched her brand Brava Batik in August. She now sells three main dress designs, each one reversible.
Because her summery designs do not adhere to strict Islamic dress codes, most of her customers are Westerners or ethnic Indians and Chinese – rather than Muslims, who form the majority of Malaysia’s population. But the positive response she has received so far has been encouraging, she says, and she plans to branch out into outerwear soon.
Although the bulk of designers in Malaysia still rely heavily on Indonesian batik patterns – replete with animal motifs and intricate geometry – a notable handful are pushing for heavier use of home-grown designs, which place more emphasis on flora instead of fauna.
This difference in technique is the source of a long simmering rivalry: in 2009, the two nations bickered so vehemently about who had rightful ownership over batik that Malaysia’s defence minister felt it necessary to declare that war was not, in fact, imminent. In the end, Unesco awarded bragging rights – via an entry on its list of intangible cultural heritage – to Indonesia, but Malaysians have insisted ever since that such recognition does not detract from their own nation’s distinct batik styles.
In the Malaysian states of Terengganu and Kelantan, for instance, vibrant, abstract, nature-inspired patterns are popular, although fabrics carrying these are not as easy to source as the more plentiful Indonesian designs.
“My brand Brava Batik works with batik from Indonesia, as it is very famous and easy to find. Although I make dresses using batik from Terengganu and Kelantan, it is difficult to find a good continuous supply,” said Raz.
“However, I prefer working with Malaysian batik. It’s more vibrant, more colourful. Indonesian batik uses more earth tones.”
Raz, who was trained as an engineer and previously worked as a chef, doesn’t have a physical shop. Instead, she operates out of her home – using social media to sell and interact with customers, as well as hosting the occasional pop-up store at art markets and bazaars.
“I can sell up to 10 or 15 dresses per bazaar, which is very encouraging. I would love to make this a full-time endeavour, and try to make batik part of everyday life. In Indonesia it is an everyday fabric, [but] here it is underutilised,” she said.
Freddy Jimmy, the designer behind clothing brand Furedi KL, is similarly pushing for a modern-day batik resurgence. Like Raz, he doesn’t have a bricks-and-mortar store just yet – instead, he runs a small kiosk in a shopping centre just outside the capital, hosts pop-ups at bazaars and publicises his wares via Instagram.
He sells batik shirts, skirts and blouses of his own design, while also making handbags and purses using reclaimed vintage fabrics. His bestseller? The slim-fit batik shirts.
“It’s difficult to source high-quality Malaysian batik in bulk. At one point I acquired some from Sarawak, but I soon discovered it wasn’t authentic. But from next year I will be sourcing more from Terengganu, I love the colours and feel they would really suit men’s shirts,” said Freddy, whose customers are mainly in their twenties and thirties.
“Batik is heritage. Each pattern, each piece tells its own story and holds an inherent classiness. To me, it holds a certain ‘energy’ when you wear it,” he said.
“Older people still love batik, but there’s definitely lots of interest from younger groups. I want to show people that batik is a fashion that can be worn for any occasion. Hopefully batik will be transformed into a lifestyle item, something widely accepted and worn by Malaysians and the rest of the world too.”
And it isn’t just clothing that’s getting a batik makeover, either: accessories are also following suit.
Purse designer Yulina Baharuddin is focusing on batik with her commercial venture Mimpi Matamoon, which makes clutches, bags and purses.
She believes that the versatility of batik, when combined with a dash of innovation and modern technology, can make it a lasting fixture in an otherwise fickle fashion landscape.
“Advanced computer-aided design programs will make for more interesting batik designs and advances in fabric production technology will also ensure fresh interest in batik in the future,” she said.
“There is a tendency to associate batik with things past and the ‘old days’, but young and emerging designers are constantly experimenting and using batik in their offerings to the public. In short, modernisation is a boost to batik, rather than an impediment.”
Leela Mohd Ali, CEO of batik preservation foundation and charity Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia, is aware of the attempts being made to inject new life into the traditional fabric – and the problems being faced by many small entrepreneurs who are leading the charge.
“More and more people are wearing batik creatively, turning the fabric into daily wearables. But we are also aware many work from kiosks or online, and have no real business background or training,” she said, calling on the government to offer more help.
“There must also be more efforts to help and support the cottage industries in areas like Terengganu and Kelantan who produce hand-drawn or hand-stamped batik. Often designers say they cannot find a steady stock of batik [from] Terengganu, this is because of the rains that the area often sees – with such bad weather, dyes do not dry. We must encourage local crafts and also understand local problems, and be more constructive in helping these businesses.”
Pauline Fan, creative director at cultural organisation Pusaka, attributes the recent upsurge in interest to a younger generation more willing than before to support traditional and artisanal products.
“Heritage textiles like batik are benefiting from this new interest. Perhaps it has something to do with people getting bored of a marketplace [that is] over-saturated with high street fashion from the West or Korea,” said Fan.
“Local artisans and fashion designers are embracing their roots, and turning to heritage for inspiration. Hopefully officialdom starts to embrace the subtle elegance of our traditional batik motifs too.”
Although batik is not widely worn in boardrooms or government offices – with many still favouring Western-style formal dress, or traditional baju melayu attire – some bodies have been working to keep the fabric relevant and popular, such as Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia, which holds regular batik-making workshops and awareness events.
The Penang state government also recently hosted BatikFest 2018, aimed at sparking more interest in the traditional art form among young people. The turnout was positive enough that the government agreed to make it an annual event.
BatikFest founder and organiser Nisa Kasnoon said that while the event still has a long way to go, interest in the fabric is on the rise.
“Youngsters are now very keen to wear batik, but they do not want batik that is too conventional or appears outdated,” she said.
“There is a trend [among] young people [of] attending weddings or gatherings and wearing batik proudly. A contemporary element will give batik more impact, and fit in with the tastes of the younger generation while still preserving our culture. I really like this batik revolution.”
Assemblywoman Syerleena Abdul Rashid of Penang’s Seri Delima constituency, where BatikFest was held, said that she felt “honoured” to be a part of the event.
“Batik is part of Malaysian culture, and it would be a crying shame to let such a beautiful heritage disappear. Of course, there’s always competition with neighbouring countries, but Malaysian batik is unique and under-appreciated. Batik is more than fabric, it is the details, the patterns and most of all, the people who make it. It details our history, our Malaysian story and who we are.”