Behind The Seams with Chitra Subyakto

by Pingkan Palilingan
1st April 2019
Modest yet resolute, the soft-spoken Founder and Creative Director of Sejauh Mata Memandang talks about her love for textile, lessons from para-athletes and upholding principles.

Chitra Subyakto is sitting right across from me, snugged down comfortably on a bean bag, the sylphlike designer hugging both her knees. Imagine the experience of mingling next to a famed someone who talks to you candidly, it contradicts all facts that it was the first time you two meet.

The founder and creative director of Sejauh Mata Memandang has no qualms over having this interview in such a relaxed setting. We’re tucked in one quiet corner within an exhibition space that celebrates her latest collection.

Similar to her casual demeanour, Chitra’s not one with reservations either when it comes to her own style. She’s wearing an understated white sleeveless shirtdress with dotted patterns from Sejauh, a beige cardigan with tribal prints sits around her shoulders. Pattern-mixing and colour-blocking have been a certain trademark of Chitra, where she often switches up her outfits with bold pairings of contrasting motifs.

In fact, this is what brought Chitra’s first foray into the world of fashion, where she began a career as a stylist for a magazine. “I was told by Sarah Sechan and Ibu Dian Muljadi, who brought Cosmogirl to Indonesia, that I have a unique style in dressing up. Then they asked me to join the magazine as a fashion stylist,” she recalls.

“I was curious why do all batiks come in brown hues?”

After jumping into the profession, Chitra found it tough during those early years to discover local brands for her styling jobs. One job led to another, and soon she was exposed to opportunities far and wide in the entertainment industry, with styling gigs for TV commercials and films. More than once she had to design the clothing from scratch, just like she did as the costume designer for Laskar Pelangi films, creating scruffy outfits for the characters among many others.

Then, in 2014 she established her own fashion label Sejauh Mata Memandang which launched her name to popularity. Inspired by Indonesian art of batik, cultural heritage lies as the heartbeat of the label. It’s an upbringing fostered by Chitra’s parents, who used to take her on trips to local museums and candi to see traditional dance shows when they were young. “My siblings and I wondered why our friends went overseas for holiday, but we didn’t,” says Chitra.

There’s no doubt that these cultural trips had imprinted on her mind. Growing up, she becomes more cognisant of her heritage. And then, came the time when Chitra found her love in textiles. “My mother used to collect batik. As a child, I was curious why do all batiks come in brown hues? But that was until she showed me her wardrobe-ful of colourful batik textiles by designers Go Tik Swan, Iwan Tirta and Obin.”

“Wherever I went and [saw batik] I would ask, what’s the fabric like?”

Go Tik Swan’s (also recognised as Panembahan Hardjonagoro) in particular, amazed Chitra. His is an anecdote that can’t be skipped in many an interview Chitra has been in – how the culture expert-turned-batik designer first started exploring the fabric after President Soekarno tasked him to create a new kind of Indonesian batik. “Upon given the task, he studied everything about classic batik design and insert a modern touch to it by infusing vibrant colours to the textile. The colours are very bold and beautiful. I fell in love with his creations,” she explains.

Her first encounter with Go Tik Swan’s batik had definitely changed her. “Wherever I went and [saw batik] I would ask, what’s the fabric like? The texture? I began studying about textiles all over the world,” she says.

Chitra loves colours. As one of the prominent elements that drove her interest in batik, colours also exist as a major part of her brand too. Red, yellow, blue, green, and black, each fabric is dyed in natural colourings by local batik crafters. But really, it is Sejauh’s distinguishable motifs that make up the soul of the brand.

Thanks to Sejauh’s reinvention of batik, there has been a sea of change in perception towards it.

I mean, who can deny the pull of the noodle bowl patterns? And who could resist its appeal when we saw it on a scarf, draped loosely over actress Dian Sastrowardoyo’s shoulders in Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 film (which only helps boost more attraction to the accessory)? Most women who’ve seen the film would kill for that piece, including my mother and siblings.

Thanks to Sejauh’s reinvention of batik, there has been a sea of change in perception towards it: batik is no longer the “old people’s clothing”. Sejauh’s followers consist of a directory of stellar casts. It’s worn by directors Mira Lesmana and Riri Riza, actors Reza Rahadian and Eva Celia, singer Tulus, ex-Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, and many more. Indeed, the who’s who in Jakarta don Sejauh, but beyond its reputed fame, it’s the label’s philosophy that strikes a chord with most people.

Chitra’s inspiration may come from anywhere.

“Sejauh Mata Memandang is inspired by the little things that make us love Indonesia,” the website’s about page reads. The “little things” are the noodle bowls, rolling hills, bamboos, flowers, and seaweed farms (“I would sketch in my notebook whenever I find a pattern that I like”) that have come to life as dynamic patterns in Sejauh’s fabrics. Chitra’s inspiration may come from anywhere, including the half-a-century old structure in the capital city: the Semanggi interchange, or commonly known as Simpang Susun Semanggi among the locals.

“We previously collaborated with Ahok’s government, a project under his former-wife, Ibu Veronica Tan, that empowers women who live in Marunda low-cost apartment (Rusunawa) in North Jakarta,” says Chitra. Over the course of this project, Chitra trained housewives of Marunda for six months to create the hand-drawn cloverleaf-patterned batik.

It’s in her nature to support female workers. When I visited her studio in Kemang, I wasn’t surprised to find a group of female staffs: some went through a neat pile of fabric of the recent collection – one of a few steps of the product quality control – while another group were busy packing the products to be sent to customers.

One of the latter is Ibu Rasni, who assisted me as I browsed through a rack of Sejauh’s previous collections. Her head was wrapped in the best-selling Noodle Bowl Scarf as a hijab, perhaps unaware of the item’s coveted status. “I’ve worked here for two years, helping at the workshop. Bu Chitra is a kind woman. She comes down to the workshop every now and then to oversee our progress,” she told me while folding an embroidered top from their new collection.

“Our desire to show the world who Indonesians are triumphed all obstacle.”

The latest Sejauh’s collection, Rintik 2018, that is based on Indonesian folk tale Timun Mas, are handmade by batik crafters in Solo and Pekalongan. “This season is a nightmare,” one of Sejauh’s staff members spoke to me about the unpredictable weather from November to December. It’s an aspect that the team couldn’t help but to surrender fully, the weather is, which is highly influential in the drying process of the textile’s natural dye. “Customers see the piece that they want and they say that they want (it in) that colour, but the result came out lighter,” he said.

Indeed, they have taken a precaution over this, by putting up a disclaimer on their website: Products may vary in colour, shapes and forms as all our loves are handmade by unique human beings. And this doesn’t stop the flow of customers from getting the latest Sejauh’s scarves. At the end of the day, those who appreciate the painstaking hand-labour process behind the collection would not succumb to petty matters such as a tad lighter shade of the products they receive.

Being soft-spoken and petite in stature, one can imagine that Chitra is rather shy. But she forges her way through the industry and would readily stand up for her beliefs. Once she was offered a promising project by a giant shampoo company and declined the proposal because she knew that the company is not environmental-friendly. ”It will always be a tough choice for a humble company like ours but we also strongly believe that the longevity of our brand must be rooted with principles,” she argues.

Her energy is equally undisputed. Last year she led a team to produce 1,500 pieces of costumes and 500 head accessories for Asian Paragames Opening Ceremony. “They are all handmade, and we had less than one and a half months to produce everything. But our desire to show the world who Indonesians are triumphed all obstacle,” she raves about the experience.

“Nothing is difficult as long as we have the will to take it on.”

“I told my team that they have no excuse whatsoever to slack on this project. If we think what we are facing as abled human beings are difficult, imagine the challenges para-athletes face. I also took my kids to see one of the games, the Men’s 50m butterfly. Imagine having to swim without limbs. This guy won! I told my kids, nothing is difficult as long as we have the will to take it on.”

Sejauh may have been running for nearly five years, yet Chitra is well aware of not exerting herself too much on work, and be mindful of what she does as well as consume. “I tried to be vegetarian, but it didn’t suit me.”

“I also enjoy yoga and pilates. But sometimes I would stay still and do nothing. Literally, do nothing. I would stay away from my phone, and just sit still,” she says. Chitra takes a break every now and then, travelling as the sine qua non for a sound mind. It’s easy to guess her favourite destination: beaches. And her latest journey was to the southernmost part of Indonesia, Rote Island in East Nusa Tenggara. “It’s an absolute beauty, you must visit Rote!” she urges me to visit the island, repeating it a few times over the course of the interview.

“I like how you can just drape a scarf over a basic top, and suddenly your outfit looks more presentable and proper. You don’t have to wear kebaya to look formal.”

It is also here, on her favourite travel destination by the beach, where the name for her label popped up. It’s her favourite line that she chants whenever she travels; by the beach she would say, “semua biru sejauh mata memandang, everything is blue as far as the eye can see” and upon the rolling hills in remote parts of Indonesia she would say, “sejauh mata memandang, everything is green as far as the eye can see.”

In its own way, Sejauh evokes the idea of wanderlust. Be it through its fashion campaigns (often backdropped by vast blue sky or white sandy beach, shots by photographer Davy Linggar) or the collection’s resort wear, whether it’s intentional or not. Lightweight, easy to style and timeless, each piece of Sejauh’s fabric can be easily transformed into a scarf, sarong or even a dress depending on the occasion.

But this doesn’t mean one can only subscribe Sejauh to tropical travel wears per se. If you style it right, voila! an evening dress that you could wear to attend a wedding reception. “I like how you can just drape a scarf over a basic top, and suddenly your outfit looks more presentable and proper. You don’t have to wear kebaya to look formal. It’s quite uncomfortable,” she says.

“I like to observe people and imagine their personality.”

When other fashion designers create with a certain type of clientele in mind, Chitra would ask to herself, what type of clothes that she would feel comfortable in? “Everyone has their own style of dressing,” she says. “I like to observe people and imagine their personality. Their characteristics, their interests, and I’d imagine what they would wear according to their personality.”

Little does she know that her design surpasses ages and styles. It caters to worldly middle-aged women and men as much as a new generation of youth who are looking for less stuffy formalwear. As we get ready to take profile shots of her, two women in early 50s request for a photograph with Chitra. Not even a minute apart after that, a 20-something woman approaches and commends Chitra on the Timun Mas collection.

Chitra is now ready to leave for another appointment. As she departs with brisk steps, the back of her shirtdress flows in subtle gracefulness. A couple of onlookers stop in their tracks and watch with fascination as the designer take her leave.