Back to Batik

26 February 2016

Meet the young Malaysian designers giving new twists to the technique and pattern of batik.


Most artisans would panic if they see cracks in their work. But not Fern Chua.

The young batik designer bends over a large swathe of silk in her studio. The silk, covered in layers of dried wax, crunches and crackles in her grip. Cracks appear like jagged snowflakes, covering the length of fabric.

This technique of creating a batik pattern, known as “cracking”, will later transform into an intricate marbling effect, after another layer of dye is applied. It’s just one of a few techniques that Fern favours in her designs for her label, FERN: The New Batik.

Batik, the craft of creating patterns on fabric with wax and dye, has been practiced in Southeast Asia for centuries. These days, we’re most likely to see batik being worn for festivities like weddings and Hari Raya gatherings.

Fern Chua is one of a few Malaysian artisans and designers who are embracing batik as part of a contemporary aesthetic. Rather than seeing batik as something to be worn only for traditional occasions, these designers are integrating the craft of batik into today’s fashion.

FERN: The New Batik, produces dresses, scarves and other apparel. Fern takes inspiration from a range of sources. Her Spring/Summer 2016 collection, for example, is inspired by seashells; while an earlier collection was inspired by Japanese snowfall. The label’s palettes tend toward earthy tones, and the patterns are often subtle, with no two pieces exactly the same.

“Young people often think of batik as just a motif and not a technique,” says Fern, citing the common floral motifs seen on traditional wear. She points out that people often mistake digitally printed designs as batik even though batik is defined by the process of using wax on fabric.

Each piece of batik created by FERN takes between one to three days to finish, with the entire process of dyeing and waxing done by hand.

Fern’s interest in batik started when she learned to sew. Previously, she had been working in public relations, but a hand injury forced her to rethink her career and dreams. While she was recovering, she decided to become an apprentice with a local seamstress. Then one day, she sewed herself a dress using batik cloth sourced from Central Market.

“I just thought, there’s so much that can be done with batik,” says Fern.

With her newfound knowledge of sewing, Fern then set out to learn all she could about batik. She travelled along Malaysia’s East coast, learning from artisans in Terengganu and Kelantan. Back in Kuala Lumpur, she met the batik community at Institut Kraf Negara.

In 2013, Fern got a boost when she won a Fashion Pitch competition run by MyCreative Ventures. The prize was a loan for RM500,000 which enabled her to launch operations for her fashion line. She now has her own studio in Rawang. FERN collections have been shown at Malaysia Fashion Week as well as shows in Shanghai and Singapore.

It was a Kelantanese designer, Ruzz Gahara, who first gave Fern her introduction to the craft of batik. This resulted in a collaboration between FERN and Ruzz Gahara to design two capsule collections in 2013 and 2014.

Ruzz Gahara is a Malaysian label known for elegant designs that showcase the stunning versatility of batik. As well as showing on the runway in Southeast Asia, Ruzz Gahara has gained exposure from shows and expos in Paris, Milan and New York.

“Overseas, there’s an appreciation for things which are handmade and unique,” says Fern, who thinks that Malaysians are slower to appreciate batik here because of the saturation of international luxury brands.

The founders of Cantum, another homegrown company, are also keen to see more Malaysians embrace batik. Cantum was founded by sisters Ili Aqilah Effendi and Ili Nadirah Effendi back in 2014. “We wanted to foster a love for batik among the younger generation,” they explain.

Cantum designs and produces accessories, such as bags, which include batik elements. The batik fabric is sourced from Indonesia but each product is designed and handmade by the sisters in Kuala Lumpur.

Cantum’s products are sold online, as well as in bazaars such as Art For Grabs. Recently, Cantum was part of an ASEAN showcase of local creative fashion brands. By using batik in affordable items like tote bags, Cantum aims to attract young people to appreciate the fabric – especially those who might not otherwise wear it.

Like any other tradition, batik can only be sustained through the efforts of people who see its beauty and potential. While the artisans may pass the craft down the generations, it’s up to designers to find a fresh take on the fabric. Like layers of colour on a piece of silk, the designs of FERN, Ruzz Gahara and Cantum create an imprint of the past on the future.

By Ling Low

Photos of Cantum products courtesy of Cantum



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