“I think that life is a meditation,” remarks Obin, the fashion designer who has dedicated four decades of her life to elevating Indonesian cloth, when we sit down for a philosophical chat. She adds that life has brought her to ponder about herself and the world around her. Born as Josephine Komara, she left formal schooling at the end of her primary education. In retrospect, this circumstance gave her an edge.
“Maybe it was a good thing that I did not go through too much schooling, because most schools frame and categorise knowledge,” she says, noting that this could cause people to limit their willingness to go beyond what they have been told.
No surprise, then, that her primary advice about life is to “be curious”, an attitude which has taken her to success. In her teens, Obin taught herself, through careful observation, about the art of traditional textile making, specifically hand-woven silk fabrics or ikat. “Don’t be too afraid or self-conscious. These would kill you. Whatever potential you have, you will never fulfil them because of these two,” she says.
By the hotel boom of the 1970s, Obin had become the first Indonesian to furnish starred hotels with her raw silk upholstery. She then advanced her craft by developing techniques to weave silk, initially thick for the upholstery, into gossamer cloth. “The longer you do something, the better you become,” she notes. “As we weave every day, we were able to turn the thick ikat into thin fabrics that could be worn as clothes”.
In the 1980s, Obin had an epiphany. During one restless night, she spread out her collection of ikat and batik fabrics—two different genres of cloth—before her as the sight beautiful objects eased her mind. The idea to interweave batik prints on ikat struck her. “That became the beginning of the Indonesian batik on hand-woven silk,” she said.
She further says that the intertwining of skills in weaving and deep appreciation for heritage fabrics was critical to Bin House, her label that has set industry trends. “I believe that the result of whatever you make wholeheartedly, when combined with knowledge and skills, will be very beautiful. Once this happens, people will buy your product,” she elaborates.
By creating well-appreciated products, Obin performs her mission of preserving an integral element of Indonesia’s culture, with traditional fabrics being an indispensable part of dowries and heirlooms. She adds that traditional fabrics also exemplify the artistry of Indonesians. “Indonesians have very skilled hands,” she says.
However, changes in society threaten the future of traditional cloth. According to Obin, a greater number of youth choose to work in factories, a threat to the future of handcrafted goods. “This is why it is important for this generation of artisans to guide the young through these times,” she says.
Obin points out that she oversees roughly 1,800 workers, from dyers to weavers, all of who are permanently employed. This allows her to rigorously maintain production quality. “About 40 per cent of them have worked with me for more than 30 years, so we have built his synergy. I could tell them what motifs to make over the phone,” she added.
She further welcomed the rise of young designers who are modernising the look and feel of traditional fabrics. Her take reflected another of her philosophy. “Everybody must work in accordance to their own world and time,” she says.