Finding the Cutting Edge of Fashion in Indonesia

The Graduate Quarterly profiles anthropology graduate student and Fulbright fellow Brent Luvaas.

Theyre aware of whats going on in Europe and Japan and these other centers of fashion before Americans are.

Published in Fall 2008, Graduate Quarterly

When Brent Luvaas spent 1996–97 in Indonesia as an exchange student from UC Santa Cruz, Yogyakarta had only "one coffee shop inside this exclusive little mall, and the only people who went there were rich, and they were the only ones with cell phones." When he returned last year as a Fulbright fellow, "every corner had a coffee shop, more people could afford to go, and everyone had a cell phone, even some of the guys pulling rickshaws."

Youth culture had changed, too. In 1996, Brent says, young Indonesians "had our leftovers"—a local band, for example, played covers of British and American pop songs. Returning to Yogyakarta, he found that the culture had "really exploded in diversity. All these young people had begun using the newly available media resources, particularly the Internet, to start clothing labels, record labels, and to participate in a much more active way in the production of media."

To Brent, the most striking feature of the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement was distro, a local term for distribution outlets, youth-owned shops where they sell clothing, music, and magazines they’ve created. These shops "have become the main resource that young people use to learn about music and fashion, to develop their own style," Brent said. "Young people themselves have taken over the production of youth style."

Clothing is made in relatively small batches, perhaps 80 items in a particular design, distributed in 10 cities. That means makers can see something on the Web, and using tools like Photoshop, produce the merchandise virtually overnight. The strategy is also rooted in "an ideology of things being unique and expressive of individual style," Brent says. "You never have to run into someone who has the same T-shirt." An indication of the designers’ sophistication is the frequent parody of international brands. A company called 347, for example, writes its brand name on top of the Nike swoosh. Another company has "the Lacoste alligator turned upside down eating their brand name," he says.

Being a graduate student in anthropology, of course, Brent’s interest goes beyond the style to the substantive impact on the larger society. "All of the stuff I’m talking about has to do with the new Indonesian middle class," he says, and with their widespread access to the Internet. Using the Internet is "simply not affordable to the vast majority of Indonesians," Brent says. The 40 cents an hour for Web access is a big bite of the typical $2-a-day budget among the lower classes. And although locally produced clothing is far cheaper than imported goods—for example, about $6 or $7 for a 347 T-shirt compared to Nike’s $25—that cost is still a barrier to many. Brent has also noted that political dialogue is much freer than during his last visit, and Islam is more of a presence. Some of the young women entrepreneurs wear headscarves with their T-shirts and jeans.

Seeing "how youth style and consumer patterns were related to class dynamics" was Brent’s goal when he applied for his Fulbright, but after observing the vibrant changes under way among young people, his focus gradually shifted away from consumption to an emphasis on young peoples’ own contributions to the production of style.

Brent says youth in Indonesia have now edged out their Los Angeles counterparts in terms of their fashion savvy. Items like personally decorated tennis shoes and brightly colored hoodies showed up first in Indonesia, he says, and self-altered skinny jeans were just going out of fashion when he arrived in Indonesia, while they "were really the rage here during the same period."

Indonesians aren’t inventing these styles, Brent says. "I just think that they’re aware of what’s going on in Europe and Japan and these other centers of fashion before Americans are."

Published: Thursday, April 09, 2009