Interview with Toton Januar - Javanese Embroideries


Jakarta-based designer Toton Januar set up his label TOTON in early 2012, but the young Indonesian designer is already making some waves with his designs which are characterized by a twist on traditional elements and a generous use of traditional craftsmanship, like Javanese embroidery.

Last year, TOTON’s first collection was presented Singapore’s Blueprint Trade Show in May and at Jakarta Fashion Week in November. The label has already been picked up by multi-label boutiques like Pixie Market in New York and Mythology in Singapore, and is also available online with

TOTON recently presented its new Fall Winter 2013 collection at RoomsLINK trade show in Tokyo. Blouin Artinfo discussed with the 35-year-old designer the inspiration and craftsmanship behind his latest collection.

Toton Januar

For whom do you design?

Modern women, who understand and appreciate different kinds of beauty and luxury and love and appreciate arts and different cultures; they like to feel different and special, but do not necessarily want to be the center of attention.

How would you describe your style?

A melting pot of culture, tradition, fashion, arts and crafts, all with Indonesia in mind.

What was the inspiration for your first collection, “Violent Beauty”? 

The natural beauty of Indonesia. I was fascinated by the beautiful giant pitcher plants indigenous to Borneo and Sumatra. How they thrive through predation represents a contradiction that things aren’t always what they seem. I tried to translate it into the collection by reworking what are considered traditional or ethnic (silhouettes, shapes, crafts and fabrics). Besides taking cues from the curvaceous silhouette of the flower, I also explored the dualism of the flower’s nature, the predatory beauty, and added a masculine touch in the form of menswear tailoring and contrasted it with the soft fabric and intricate embroidery.

What about your sophomore collection for FW 2013, “Shackles”?

The first collection had quite a good response and I felt under pressure for the second one. The situation reminded me of one of Indonesia's classic literary works “Belenggu” (Shackles in English) by Armijn Pane, a story about a love triangle between a man and two women, one woman representing independence and the other representing a more homely, traditional characteristics. I was attracted by this idea of two opposites, traditionalism and modernism, as a binary system.

I decided to use 'Lurik', a traditional Javanese hand woven fabric, widely used for traditional rituals. Its many stripes have different meanings in Javanese culture. But it also has a geometric feel, so it really can translate into a modern look. For the shape, I took a lot of elements from Javanese women's clothing, like the 'Kebaya' collar and the pleats in front of the skirts. I tried to mix it with something more modern and rebellious in the shape of biker jackets and biker pants, and also added some classical military elements like the shape of the pockets.

You use a lot of different embroidery techniques.

Yes. For the first collection I used an embroidery technique from an area in East Java called Tasikmalaya. Most people in Tasikmalaya are embroiderers and the skill has been passed through generations. I think they adopted the craft from Chinese people who traveled to Java a long time ago. They use small machinery but the way the machine ‘writes’ the embroidery is still guided by hand. So, they still can control the thickness and improvise on the composition of the embroidery. These human touches make every piece slightly different and unique.

For the F/W 2013 collection I still explored the Tasikmalayan technique but I’ve done it tone on tone and added one more technical aspect called ‘Kerancang’ where the embroideries form holes on the fabric. I combined it with classical rope appliqué technique. I also tried hand embroideries with threads, sequins, and metals, in the shape of a jasmine flower. Metal (Bullion) embroidery is a classical European technique adopted by Javanese people since the time of Dutch imperialism. Most of the jackets have belts and are topped with custom mother of pearl buckles.

How do you think this second collection has evolved from the first one?

I think I went further to explore Indonesia’s arts and crafts, I’m still trying to transform these into designs that feel fresh and contemporary.

In terms of accessories, I still offer collars, but with hand-embroidered flowers. I also developed new accessories with a rope necklace with large carved mother of pearl cast in resin pendants.

What does this collection say about you as a designer?

I think as a designer I am still growing and exploring my aesthetic. I never want to limit myself in terms of inspirations, but also I would like the direction to be clear and focused. It is still an exploration of ideas, a contrasting balance of shapes, materials, colors, and values.

Accessories seem to be an integral part of your collection.

The intention is really to complement the collection. I love the versatility of a good accessory; it can transform any outfit into a more stylish ensemble. For S/S 2013 the idea was to create accessories based on shirt collars and cuffs. The ‘collar’ accessories were booming and I tried to give my take on it, making it not as a traditional dress shirt collar but in a form of Mandarin collar. I wanted the collar to look exquisite and precious, but wild and dangerous at the same time. The Mandarin collar resembles a chocker and reminds me of the spiky and studded chocker worn by Punk kids. So I combined the construction of a Mandarin collar, made with silk and lined with leather and adorned it with rock crystals, stones, metal studs, and spikes. All this is done by hand.

I didn’t expect the collars to receive such a good response. Now I’ve decide to make the collars and cuffs as part of every collection, but with different explorations in shapes and adornment

One word to describe your F/W13 collection?


What inspires you in general?

Emotions, I get inspired by anything that moves me, may it be shapes, colors, music, words, anything. I draw a lot, and I rarely think about what I am going to draw. It’s also based on what I feel at the moment. I guess that is how I operate, creatively, I capture, I feel, and then let it out in the form of designs.

Do you look at fashion as an art?

Yes and No. It is art when it takes us to that fantasy, idealistic place, and lets us venture into the exotic worlds. But in reality, it is also a business and it has to sustain itself. So to find the balance between the art and commerce of fashion, that is the most difficult part a designer must face.

Best fashion memory?

I don’t know if this counts, but I’m really fond of the memory of me as a kid playing with fabric and patterns by my mom’s side when she did her work as a seamstress.

In a few words, what describes your personal style?

Classic with hints of eclectic and quirkiness. Or I would like to think so.

Favorite fashion designers?

Miuccia Prada for her bold point of view and how she always challenges the norm and definition of beauty. I love how Dries Van Noten translates cultures of the world into his subtle yet clever designs. And Alexander McQueen because he was the master of drama and romance, and he could elevate fashion to be something more than clothes that hang on bodies.

And if you could meet a late couturier?

Cristobal Balenciaga. I love how his design sense feels very forward and relevant, even to this day, but he managed to stay true to his roots and heritage.

How do you define luxury?

Luxury is quality, craftsmanship, something that makes you feel unique and special. It’s a privilege.