In the Studio with Toton Januar

by Julius Kensan
27th May 2016
We talk to the easy-going designer, Toton Januar, on being nominated for the prestigious International Woolmark Prize as well as his relationship with the biggest influence of his life, his mother.

Toton Januar is a busy man. The interview that was requested since early January this year had to be pushed until a few months later through several phone calls and emails. But you can’t blame Toton for being a difficult man. 2016 has been a good year for the Makassar-born designer’s eponymous label.

Right after the completion of Fall/Winter 2016 collection, Toton was invited to showcase his works through a pop-up store at Fenwick of Bond Street, an independent chain of department store in London, along with four other Indonesian labels, including Peggy Hartanto and Major Minor. President Joko Widodo even popped by for a brief visit during his political trip to the UK, where the designer met and greeted the president personally. Then, on April, it was announced that the label was one of the Asia nominees for the prestigious International Woolmark Prize; an initiative by the International Wool Secretariat, which counts Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent in its impressive roster of winners.

After being ushered to the waiting room, the Operations Manager, Meita assures that the designer would be with us shortly and apologises for not able to conduct the interview in the studio due to the mess. Meanwhile, feel free to delight in the traditional snacks, she says before disappearing to the back of the room.

I consider the treats, Martabak Telor and Bika Ambon, trying to work out the most dignified way to plonk them in my mouth in case the designer walks in at the wrong timing. But no matter, in the midst of the contemplation, Toton appears in a crew neck t-shirt in an on-point shade of blue, a pair of denims cuffed slightly above the ankle and a tortoise shell frame glasses complete with an ever-ready friendly smile. “I’m sorry that we couldn’t have the interview in my studio. It’s a mess,” he says apologetically, “but I can definitely show you around after this.”

“I don’t want to dictate what kind of woman who wears Toton.”

Having accomplished so much in less than half of the year, I wonder how does he feel about achieving such results especially when the label was founded only a few years ago in 2012. “It’s scary. I haven’t really thought about it. Now that you asked, I just feel so grateful and honoured that these appreciations come from overseas. But really, I’m just trying to do my best for every collection, every season.”

Those who are acquainted with the label would understand that what the designer puts forward in his collection is obviously more than just the result of trying his best. It’s the outcome from hours of experimenting with the cuts as well as finding ways to incorporate embellishments onto the look in a fresh manner without overpowering them. To wit, the label has rolled out looks that included a cropped jacket with strong shoulders in sharp Lurik pattern in his early collection and a karate-inspired top with embellished tulle sleeves among the digital print of Batik Ayam Jago and dragon scale motifs on wide-legged trousers from his Spring collection this year.

To the fashion industry, it’s clear that women who wear Toton are those who appreciate the thoughtful marriage of tradition and modernity without sacrificing their femininity, even when it might come across as challenging to wear. But for the designer, he prefers not to impose the image of the woman.

“I’m always puzzled when someone asks me this. I don’t want to force an opinion on how someone should look. It’s back to the individual. It’s a personal thing. Everyone has the right to look the way they look. I want the pieces that I produce to become part of their story,” he replies with a friendly smile, “I don’t want to dictate what kind of woman who wears Toton. But I hope they could appreciate where the thought that constructed the piece came from.”

“I don’t think we can be fully ready for anything.”

An assistant swiftly appears, passes him a tumbler and disappears to the back. “It’s my second coffee of the day,” he admits with a laugh, “I’m still battling the jetlag.” Nonetheless, even when struggling with the onslaught of works and demands, the designer’s unlined forehead, toned arms and healthy tan shaved off a few years off his age.

Continuing where we left off, I ask if he ever felt ready when starting the label or did he actually jump into it without thinking what’s ahead. “I don’t think we can be fully ready for anything. No matter what we do, there’ll be some doubts. I think I was like 80 per cent ready. But in terms of infrastructure, it’s not. But I think it was the time and I can’t postpone it any longer. It’s the moment and it has to be done.”

Still, whether he’s prepared for it or not, luck was on his side. The label continues to progress with the aid of the co-founder, Haryo Balitar. “I have known Haryo for such a long time and he has a strong point of view, in terms of aesthetics. So I actually started on my own and he did help me but wasn’t officially part of the label yet. After we received orders from the first collection, I was overwhelmed,” he laughs. “So I went to him and asked for his help, to be part of this label.”

“I just know that she has always loved me no matter what.”

Considering success of the label, it’s an irony that fashion is something that was strongly disapproved by his family. Toton’s mother to be exact. The designer was once enrolled into Civil Engineering before dropping out. At a tender age and as the only son, Toton was raised singlehandedly by his mother after the passing of his father. As a seamstress, his mother took up job orders from neighbours in order to provide for the family. It’s given then that she would rather Toton to pursue a higher education for a much more stable career.

The designer subsequently took up Media Broadcasting in University of Indonesia as a truce. “Media Broadcasting was a compromise. I was compromising all that time because Civil Engineering was a family’s demand. I wanted to do Art but my mom disapproved saying it’s not going to put food on the table. And so, I jumped into Broadcasting course thinking I could do whatever I want once I’m done with the course.”

Still, after all that’s said and done, Toton’s mother remains as one of the biggest influences in his life. Click into the label’s official website and the first sentence of his profile begins with an ode to his mother. Spurred by the fascinating relationship with his mother, I continue to probe about what his relationship with her like.

“Even though she’s gone now, I just know that she has always loved me no matter what. And that is something that’s rare. I mean how many people can you say that they will love you this way. And it made me…” Toton trails off, looking visibly emotional. I immediately apologise for getting too personal with the question. The designer waves it off cheerfully with a smile.

“None of us play any instruments. It’s just purely singing and dancing.”

Today, the label’s studio also doubles up as the production house (the other half of production takes place in Solo, Central Java). The space is taken up by two large tables. One of them is reserved for pattern drafting. The other is occupied by his staffs who are working on embellishments, crushing shells by hands before piecing them together like a puzzle. In another separate room, the wall was filled with sketches and in the middle of it, sits his partner, Haryo Balitar.

There’s no loud music blasting from expensive speakers to fill the room. Instead, every staff works intently with focus while occasionally peppering the moment with casual chats. After a short exchange with the team, we return back to the waiting room for further chats as well as the snacks that were, unfortunately, untouched during the interview.

Toton is much more loosen up now and we continue about his younger days back in Makassar, including not talking to his mother for three months after dropping out from Civil Engineering. He also confesses to be in a five-piece boy band with his friends, where they got on a ship to Jakarta to pursue their dreams. “None of us play any instruments. It’s just purely singing and dancing.”

Intrigued, I ask what’s the name of the band. Toton hesitates for a moment and laughs sheepishly before telling me that it’s all stuff of the past now. Indeed, why dwell in the past when the future is way more promising.