At just 22 years old, fashion designer Dian Pelangi has been earmarked the unofficial poster girl for the introduction of Indonesian Islamic fashion to the world.
Bright-eyed, fast-talking and vision-driven, in person Dian Pelangi is not the eyes-downcast figure she affects in photos.
She is one of few pioneer fashion designers credited with turning typically shapeless and subdued-toned Islamic dress on its head — at her debut show at Jakarta Fashion Week, no less. Dian was 18 at the time, a newly-minted design graduate from French fashion school ESMOD.
At the show, her African-inspired get-ups, accessorized with batik turbans and necklaces with gumball-sized beads were made from billowy chiffon and silk cloth color-splashed in the literal sense with punchy tie-dyes, known as jumputan. The cloth is created using a resist-dyeing technique where each color is applied in succession.
In Dian’s Palembang hometown, jumputan is known as kain pelangi or rainbow cloth, hence, the appellation for her label, Dian Pelangi — now her professional nickname — originally started by her parents the year their eldest child was born.
“This is a family business. So my mother, father, siblings and husband and I are all involved in Dian Pelangi,” the young designer, whose real name is Dian Wahyu Utami, said in an interview at her Kemang boutique.
The clash of yellow, magenta, royal blue and blood-red segueing into one another in watercolor-like gradations fading to white is the designer’s trademark.
“We chose ‘sailor’ colors that are identified by blue, red, yellow and green and blended with white,” Dian says of her nautical-inspired Sailorita 2013 collection, which recently graced the runway.
However, her recent “breakthrough” fashion show at Gandaria City’s Skenoo Exhibition Hall may have been the swan song for her flagship design.
“I feel that tie-dye is really booming as it is now available in so many colors. I’ve used everything from shocking colors to pastels […] But now we have to move on to the next trend,” she said.
Simultaneously a trend-setter and a trend-observer, Dian’s popularity is owed to her precociousness regarding the tastes of her market balanced with fearless self-styling in her ability to transform an abaya (a loose-fitting ankle-length dress worn by Muslim women) using look-at-me colors, subtly-shimmering brocades and rhinestone detail while preserving the modest cut.
“Sometimes, as designers, we can be idealistic. We want to use our own trademark and let our personality shine without regard for our customer’s tastes,” Dian says.
“My trick as a fashion designer is to be able to do push-and-pull marketing. I have to push my character, my personality and the signature style of Dian Pelangi, but I have to pull from the tastes of the people, what types of clothes they like and what is trending.”
Dian believes adaptability to local cultures in terms of understanding the colors and cuts they prefer can be reconciled with the use of traditional Indonesian textiles. It may be this pragmatic outlook that has enabled Dian to crack the international fashion scene.
She joins a phalanx of local designers who are striving to adapt traditional Indonesian textiles such as songket (woven cloth embroidered with thread dipped in molten gold or silver), tenun and batik formerly reserved for weddings and ceremonies into prêt-a-porter garments.
As such, every stitch of fabric Dian uses is her own, modified from the original. For instance, songket is made using lighter threads as the original is heavy, itchy, and immensely expensive due to its being made from thread dipped in molten gold or silver and carries a philosophy that forbids it from being cut or worn casually.
“If you cut a songket to make a piece of clothing the Palembangese people will be angry because it’s their tradition,” explained Dian.
Together with her father, she devised a new way to create songket using a weaving machine.
“This way we are able to adjust the cloth to make it wearable, to prevent the colors from running, to make it machine-washable and easy to care for […] The fabric is thinner so that people don’t feel hot wearing it.”
The songket can then be wrought into cropped blazers, jackets and long dresses. The batik cloth she uses, depicting abstract flora in resplendent aqua blues, mustard yellows, violets and wine reds, is also homemade, and these she juxtaposes with geometric tenun motifs to make U- and V-neck zippered blazers and cropped jackets with wide lapels and large buttons, resulting in an ethnic look with a bold, city-slicker cut.
Her fidelity to using traditional textiles is not compromised by the fact that she gets most of her inspiration from her travels.
“I love to travel and to delve into the culture of a particular country or city. Just recently I was in Paris and I was inspired by the autumn flowers there. So I translated [the flower] into a collection called Ramadhan Rose.”
Indeed, the pleated, gathered hems and pastel violets, pinks and yellows on cream-colored chiffon and cotton presented at her recent fashion show hearkened to flower petals both in terms of coloration and their gently rippling quality when the wearer moved.
Dian’s rapport with fashion began in childhood from living in a house perpetually thronged by the craftsmen and seamstresses employed by her mother and father.
“Because the Dian Pelangi label had operated since I was a small child, I felt like I was given a responsibility […] so since I was a little girl I’d been taught how to serve customers, I learned how to make clothes. I learned how to draw and how to sew. And when I reached adulthood it never occurred to me to pursue any other field.”
Her efforts to “go international” is not the self-aggrandizing dream of so many local singers, actors and fashion designers but forms part of a larger vision of dispelling discrimination toward wearers of hijab caused by the predominant donning of dark monotones that may give an impression of unfriendliness or inapproachability.
“I think that if Islamic fashion can gain traction in America, it will change people’s perceptions of Islam and Islamic fashion. Just like what happened in Indonesia. In the past, here in Indonesia hijab was rare […] but since Islamic fashion has become prevalent everywhere and there is a ‘hijabers’ community, that has changed people’s perceptions of Islamic fashion and Islam. I hope the same change will happen in the USA someday.”
Having held fashion shows in London, Paris, Germany, Holland, Melbourne, Dubai, Cairo, Kuwait and Jordan, to name a few, Dian is already more than halfway there.
Unfazed by having to juggle a perennial five to tenfold bloat in demand during Ramadhan fasting month, Dian explained that the recent debut of Dian Pelangi’s seven brands is in line with ambitions for the brand to become a one-stop shopping label for men and women, including non-wearers of the hijab.
“I also hope that Dian Pelangi will no longer be thought of as a new Islamic fashion brand. In the past five years, hijab has received more attention, as has Islamic fashion, but people still think of Dian Pelangi as a new brand that has just come out even though it has been around for 22 years. You could say we are senior players in the field of Islamic fashion.”