When we think about batik, it conjures up images of vividly coloured fabrics peppered with flowers and butterflies, or of our grandmothers pottering about the house with a batik sarong tightly wound around her waist. Some might even joke about it being the unofficial casual wear for official events or point out the friendly rivalry with Indonesian batik. However, there’s so much more to batik than we think.
By definition, batik is a technique of hand-dyeing fabrics that uses wax as a dye repellent to cover parts of a design, or the name of the fabric made using this technique. It is widely acknowledged to be of Javanese origin, with the word “batik” itself thought to be the amalgamation of the Javanese words amba (to write) and titik (dot). Due to the close trade and cultural exchanges in the Malay Archipelago, the intricate textile art form found its way to the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, where it blossomed into an art of its own.
Spurred by a deep love for this traditional craft, our local designers have been doing their utmost best to display its glory to the world. One of the biggest champions of Malaysian batik is Ruzz Gahara, which first hit the global spotlight in 2013 with a successful presentation at Who’s Next Paris. Since then, its stunning designs have been splashed across the pages of British Vogue and the UK’s Tatler Magazine, as well as being highlighted in the Passage to Malaysia documentary by Travel and Living Channel (TLC). That’s not all though: the house is often inundated with invitations to conduct talks and workshops on batik around the world, including a two-week workshop at the privileged Politecnico Di Milano, the oldest public university in Milan.
Founders Nik Faiz and Hanifi Triff Thamid are truly ecstatic over the recognition Ruzz Gahara has received from the international fashion scene. “Ruzz Gahara is about empowering the next generation of master artisans from rural Malaysia. The creative potential of local talents is immense and we see something that is perceived as a small industry in the past can be galvanised to take over the world of fashion,” they explain. “Batik can definitely share the runway with other artisanal fabrics like French lace. In fact, the current trend in high fashion is leaning towards prints and colours instead of plain fabrics. It’s just a matter of bringing Malaysian batik to the forefront.”
Ruzz Gahara is not alone in the campaign to invigorate Malaysian batik. A young lass by the name of Fern Chua has been playing her part through FERN, a design house that celebrates and rediscovers the aesthetic elegance of this fabric art form. “I feel that many of my peers and the younger generation perceive batik as prints seen on traditional sarong, not as hand-painted art pieces.” After a life-changing accident introduced her to batik, Chua aspired to inject a ‘cool factor’ in wearing batik and started FERN, where a fresh spin is given on traditional motifs in line with current fashion trends.
Immersing herself in the world of batik, Chua travelled to the east coast to witness the process with her very own eyes, experimenting with different cuttings and reading to understand the textile art’s colourful history. Her research soon led her to Ruzz Gahara and the two collaborated on a capsule collection, participated in trade shows in Paris and Taipei, followed by another collection presented at KL Fashion Week.“FERN’s core values are to fuse the old and the new together by combining traditional techniques with a modern twist, inspired by nature and my love for abstract prints. Hence, the tagline ‘The New Batik’,” explains Chua. “The beauty of batik is that each piece is unique and, as they are hand-painted, each has its own story to tell,” she reflects. “Batik is an artwork, a masterpiece that one wears instead of hanging up on the wall.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Ong Swee Lyn, founder of Batik Tree, an organisation that serves as a retailer and advocate of batik. “As batik is handmade, the beauty lies in its imperfection. You will never be able to find another exact piece because each will have its own unique flaw, reflecting a special beauty of its own. No two pieces of batik are identical.” While celebrating Malaysian batik in the international scene is commendable, the art and craft form needs love from home too. Ong was moved to set up Batik Tree after learning the plight of batik craftsmen in Kuala Terengganu. “They were facing tough times due to the declining demand for handmade batik. I realised the hard work and stories of our craftsmen need to be told or our batik will eventually disappear. Besides, if we as Malaysians don’t do anything to preserve our cultural heritage, who will?” questions Ong. “The appreciation has to start with us Malaysians before we can proudly claim our national heritage on the international front.”
It’s not been an easy journey as Ong once shared the distinct lack of interest for Malaysian handmade batik in favour of cheaper digital prints and batik pieces from Indonesia. “Our local craftsmen would love to carry on the trade, but declining demand is discouraging, while the batik making process can be tedious. Each piece – depending on the intricacy of the design – goes through numerous waxing application, dyeing and washing cycles. The entire process can take from three days to a week to complete,” shares Ong. However, Batik Tree is shedding a light on these challenges through the power of social media. “We show not only the fabrics but also the process itself. Here, we highlight challenges that our craftsmen go through in creating a single piece of batik, as well as a wealth of information to help identify an authentic piece of handmade batik. For us, it’s not just about selling batik, but inspiring one to appreciate batik and all the hard work that goes into its creation.”
It’s a long road to giving Malaysian batik the recognition it deserves, but it’s undeniable that valiant efforts are in place to help the craft blossom. With a shared love, pride and hope for our national heritage, the art of batik will continue colouring the lives of Malaysians. As Fern Chua astutely observes: “As Malaysians, it is about embracing our heritage and bring a piece of our past into the future of fashion and art.” It’s time for batik to bloom.