The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Sarah Stevenson's tutu for the National Ballet of Canada. Source: Sarah Stevenson.

Amidst the busy, noisy streets of Jakarta, is an established hub for high fashion. Prada and Gucci boutiques can be found in the city's shopping centres and Jakarta Fashion Week continues to grow along with established Indonesian designers such as Biyan and Tex Saverio, who dressed Lady Gaga in one of his gowns for Harper's Bazaar's May issue.

Nikeeta Lakhiani's label, Nikoo.
Source: Nikeeta Lakhiani.

But, high fashion is just one facet of Indonesia's growing fashion industry. High fashion often comes at equally high prices, and new designers are hungry to market creations that the younger generation can afford. One of the independent designers responding is Istituto Marangoni graduate, Nikeeta Lakhiani, 25. Lakhiani's strategy is to start small, then branch out if she has success locally. "The street style scene is a relatively new phenomenon here," she says. "There's still so much potential for growth because the younger demographic is very hungry for fast fashion: wanting to look stylish but not having to pay so much."

In her modest studio, she sketches ideas for her brand, Nikoo. Apart from receiving orders online through her website, and using social networking to promote the brand, Nikoo is run on a consignment basis with boutiques. Lakhiani also joins trade shows in Jakarta and surrounding cities which draw at least 50,000 shoppers. "Word gets around," says the young designer, "It's usually the best way to get acquainted with boutique owners that might be interested to stock our label."

While there's a gap in fashion for Jakarta's younger generation, emerging designers in other cities face very different obstacles. Across the world, almost 10,000 miles from Jakarta, Toronto is home to some of today's best Canadian designers. Arguably the country's fashion headquarters, Toronto boasts the flagship of luxury retailer Holt Renfrew and has produced well-known labels like Greta Constantine, whose fans include supermodel, Coco Rocha. With a well-established fashion scene, the city also houses most of Canada's fashion schools, producing young graduates every year hungry to make a name for themselves.

Not surprisingly, competition is cut-throat and garnering success isn't so much about filling a gap, as it is about being able to break from the pack. "You have to show you are somehow unique and you have to establish a following - something about what you do isn't following what others do," says Marilyn McNeil-Morin, the Chair of the School of Fashion Studies at George Brown College in Toronto. In addition to having well-rounded knowledge about the business aspects of the market, she says it is also important to be realistic about expectations. While many up-and-coming designers may be talented at creating what they want to wear, it's not necessarily the market new designers ought to join. "The real market is finding a population bulge. [At the moment] It's the baby boomer generation," she says. "Club-wear is great to design, but who's got money to spend?" Although this may not echo the ideals of glamourous, high fashion runways, there are more opportunities in creating "real" clothes for "real" people.

Maybe they're the illustrator, or quality control, or in sourcing. They play a role and find their fit. That's more realistic and where a lot of our students end up.

Even then, finding a gap in the industry in a city like Toronto, can be difficult, especially since it sees thousands of graduates a year. The reality is, many of the fresh faces settle down in roles designing mainstream fashion, but not necessarily ones where their name is on the label. "Students will learn they're fantastic with something like pattern drafting," says McNeil-Morin. "They're learning what they love to do. Maybe they're the illustrator, or quality control, or in sourcing. They play a role and find their fit. That's more realistic and where a lot of our students end up."

But, that's not to say there isn't room for designers who are able to put forth their creative energy, are business savvy and, on top of that, are able to make inroads into the industry.  

Sarah Stevenson started her line in 2010 after completing a Masters in Fashion and Textile Design at the European Institute of Design in Milan. Based in Toronto, she distinguishes herself by creating her own prints - a style of wearable art that doesn't just work for the catwalk, but on the street as well. "All of the prints are my own artwork," she says. "I create mostly by hand, using mixed media, watercolour, acrylic, ink and photography." Using digital printing, Stevenson then prints her works onto fabric. What started on canvas has quickly become an aesthetic Stevenson can call purely her own. As a result, she has an impressive array of accomplishments under her belt; Stevenson has shown at Toronto Fashion Week in the past few years, designed a dress in collaboration with Barbie, a tutu for the National Ballet of Canada, and has had her designs featured in FASHION and Flare magazines. Despite these successes, the young designer says she has a long road ahead, citing that she is still seeking much-needed support from investors or retailers in order to truly expand her business.

Much of the hardship may lie in the fact that many designers find their fame in established fashion meccas. "Sadly, I think [being in Toronto] is a roadblock," says Stevenson. She notes there aren't Canadian equivalents to organisations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council, which promote and sponsor talent to not only show at fashion week events, but to travel and meet with buyers across the globe. "You can have an amazing product, but if you don't have the money to promote it, it will never be seen."

Success is also relative to market size. A designer in a smaller market has more chance of being noticed, says McNeil-Morin. But it can also be a disadvantage, as making important connections is more difficult. "That's what happens with Canadian designers. It's hard to become bigger. To be carried across the border." McNeil-Morin notes designers like DSquared2 and Mark Fast, who started their careers in Toronto and have uprooted to major fashion ports in Europe. They're examples of designers who had the creative skills, but also knew the right people and were in the right place at the right time - a formula that designers themselves can't completely control. "It doesn't guarantee success to leave," she elaborates, "We have designers that have come back, or not necessarily succeeded in those markets. A lot of things have to fall into place."

Sarah Stevenson's pieces are, essentially,

wearable art.
Source: Sarah Stevenson.

Lakhiani also admits that being in Jakarta, instead of a mainstream fashion hub, makes it harder to approach the international market. She says it would be easier being based in Hong Kong, or even in Australia, as they experience more foreign traffic and are well-established economically. For the same reasons, Jakarta has its benefits; there are plenty of garment factories and labour is cheaper than in bigger cities, so it is far less financially draining for emerging designers looking to translate their sketches into wearable styles. As well as two online stores, Nikoo is now carried in one boutique shop in Jakarta and two in Bandung, Indonesia.

There doesn't seem to be a steadfast equation any one designer can follow to become a mainstay on the scene. What has emerged amidst the noise, is that there are two forces at play, believes McNeil-Morin. From the top down, people create fashion from inspiration that eventually makes its way to the street. And now, more so than ever, from the bottom up, people on the street are starting to dictate trends as well. The two meet in the middle and more often than not, they inspire each other. Once emerging designers begin to understand and navigate this changing landscape, the more they may be able to make a lasting impression on it.



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