The collaborative artisanal fashion label RUPAHAUS is a part of a movement of brands who are taking a slower approach to fashion by partnering up with artisans. Born from the desire of founder Stephanie to provide work to independent makers in Indonesia, RUPAHAUS aims to showcase fashion that is accessible. Hailing from Indonesia, but based in Perth, Stephanie decided she wanted to create a positive impact on the Indonesian fashion industry. We chatted with Stephanie about what it's like to work with these skilled artisans, what drove her to her current approach to fashion and what is next for slow fashion.

How hands-on are you in creating the collection yourself Stephanie? Do you create patterns, samples, prototypes etc?

So each artisan has their own skill, and I spend my personal time with them to learn a little bit deeper about what they do and how the skills work and that’s when I come in with design. So for instance, for all of our stripy collection, I work with this group of artisan women who only do stripes and they just do geometric shapes so stripes, pleats etc. When I sit down with them and spend time with them, I learn how they do their pattern, what are the limitations, so that’s why it’s collaborative work. RUPAHAUS is completely collaborative because I put in my knowledge where they put in their knowledge as well and we make something that kind of maximises the process, to actually give you a good product at the end with two combining ideas in a way.

So completely from beginning to end, it’s you working with the artisans to see what you can come up with using their skills and using your expertise of what people would like to see?

Yep exactly. We do one big production because I don’t live in Indonesia, so we have to allocate a production time when they actually do a bit of experimentation throughout the year with colours. Every time I get the chance to come to Indonesia for a little bit, I will visit them and they will show me what they did with their trials. So say they tried greens last time by mixing indigo with yellow. So we do our little experiments throughout the year when the production time is over, so they have something going on as well.

For RUPAHAUS the preservation of Indonesian culture is a key aspect of the brand. How can this be seen in your collections?

The base of the ideas of how to manufacture or produce the materials, all come from the heritage or tradition that we already have. The stripes were always there and it’s always been made in that region of where I get mine produced as well. They hold a certain status symbol, even until now they still use it for weddings or graduations. The way they produce it is still in a very traditional way, the way they use the colours. So I come in with a little bit of a modern twist that is more applicable to daily wear, rather than something that you wear for events only. That applies to the batik as well, batik has always been there, but every time we come up with a theme, I let my artisan explore a little bit more and explore a little bit outside of their comfort zone, to explore the shapes and so on. We incorporate all the traditional shapes and then push the boundaries to make it in a modern way. We still use for instance dots or little squares, which have meanings, but still have that value in the fabric of what the heritage is all about.

You work directly with the artisans to design the collections. Is this an important aspect of the identity of the brand? Is this something you intended to do from the beginning?

It was kind of the intention from the beginning because the way they work is just not suitable for something you can apply to factory-type production. These artisans are like painters or artists, they have a very quirky way of working, they have weird timing and their own pace, so you kinda have to learn their language, like how they want to do things. So it was always the intention, I never really wanted to go in the direction of producing without the stories of the artisans, because that’s the main focus of RUPAHAUS. I want their stories to be told because they should get the credits for their skills and what they receive from their ancestors. Most of the artisans are not very well educated in an academic way, but they have tons of skills and they don’t know how precious they are.

Because the artisans you work with are creatives and artists as you say, would you say that they ever go on a tangent that’s not relevant to your brand or do they understand your brand identity?

The way I work with them, I don’t own them, I’m just one of their clients. So they actually produce their own products as well and go to the markets to try and sell them. Whereas for my production, they would allocate time to produce that on the side of their market products. In terms of experiments, I’m very open to it and they’re very particular as well. It’s not like I’ll just come in with a design and tell them exactly what to do and not want to discuss with them. They would discuss with me and they would give me feedback, for instance, it’s not really nice if you have two big lines next to each other, maybe it’s nicer if it’s this way. That’s why it’s very important for our customers to understand that it’s collaborative work because their voices are within the fabric as well.

You have chosen a slower approach to your production by choosing to utilise natural dyes, hand woven textile and other artisanal techniques. Why have you made this decision and what does it mean for you?

I was born in Indonesia, so when I started studying fashion. I was always very interested in and very attracted to ethnic and traditional stuff. I was lucky enough to be able to see the contrast that was going on in Indonesia, so it was always my intention to be able to do it with handmade, traditional textiles. I wanted to do it for my thesis as well, but never really had the time. So it was always a little dream of mine. I never really knew whether it was gonna work, or if the artisans even still exist. So I did a little research and then I started doing this. I always knew from the beginning that it’s a slower process because the contrast was very visible to me. Like how the environment, as well as the arts and crafts, are a little bit exploited in Indonesia, by the way they’re made in mass production. Almost every time I go to the artisan’s house, you would see big massive fields of factories and their house would be in between. When I started talking to them, most of them had worked in a factory when they were younger. My stripy lurik artisan, she worked in the capital city in a weaving factory and then she got redundant. She said it wasn’t as sustainable to move into a big city as she thought. A lot of the things that they did, she didn’t agree with. Because of the social differences and status differences, they don’t feel like they have a voice to say anything about it. A lot of them said to me I’m just a little person, my voice won’t be heard. When they told me that, I already knew it was going that way because I saw the contrast from the beginning. That’s when I thought that I should start a brand that doesn’t go with the flow of what’s already there in Indonesia. I know there are other younger brands that are doing it as well and if we’re doing it together it could actually bring some change. That’s why the slower aspect is important to me. It can’t be handmade if it’s made fast, it’s kind of like contradictory.

it’s collaborative work, because their voices are within the fabric as well

So the handmade aspect is important to you as well? Do you prefer a handwoven textile over a machine woven textile?

I chose to work with the artisans. I don’t have anything against machine woven or whatever, it’s just that these artisans don’t survive on their skills. If no one is going to do anything about it, the heritage and the tradition of handwoven or batik textile will die out. A lot of them don’t really see that far yet. It’s really sad, and it’s such an eye opener when I first discovered them, like how they share their stories and how they still have so much love for what they do. They really like doing what they do, it’s just that they don’t have the platform to get out there and sell them and they don’t know how. What I wanted to do with RUPAHAUS was to create a platform where they can get recognised with their stories, and they can get credited for what they do. Rather than have a designer take the credits from them.

I feel like that does happen quite often with designer brands when they use handwoven textiles, they don’t reveal the heritage behind it.

We don’t invent new stuff at RUPAHAUS, we just use what’s already in the dictionary of the culture that we have. Like we often see the leaves, or the boxes or the dots and then we just reuse it. So we’re just using all the resources that we already got. Even with the natural dyes, it goes down through generations. Indonesia is very rich in that. All I try to do is direct them a bit, guide them in the right direction. They started by using natural dyes all over Indonesia, and when the Japanese started inventing new chemicals and they got it produced in Germany, it all kind of went through mass production. It got introduced even to the little artisans, without them knowing the whole picture, like where does the waste go, how do they take care of the environment with it, what’s the benefits and disadvantages of using this dye. They didn’t educate them fully.

Yes, these synthetic dyes trickle down to the artisans and they don’t have the knowledge to work with them.

I don’t teach them how to do natural dyes, all this knowledge comes from them. When I sit down with them and ask if they’ve done natural dyes before they’re like yeah, but we got introduced to this other dye and it’s a lot easier and we don’t have to spend so much time with it. Only 20% of the artisans would notice the impact of it, cos they think further. So the head artisans for the stripe patterns, she was one of them. She said everyone in this village can do natural dyes, but they don’t remember how to do it anymore because they can’t be bothered, it takes so much time to do it. It ended up with them being the only family who does natural dyes and everyone buys their yarns when they need to. I only wanted to limit myself to work with natural dyes, just to revive it a little bit, to make it a little bit more on demand. Now she talked to one of the government workers who visits their village every six months about this idea of doing a waste dam where they can put all the synthetic waste and recycle it. They’re building it now and it’s been two years since she talked to me about it. It’s good because she felt supported in a way because I thought the same idea was good.

How long have you had the brand?

The brand launched in September 2017, but the whole process started in 2016. March 2016, that’s when I came back home from Germany, that’s when I started going deeper with my research and started finding out where to find these artisans. I travelled there and found out about what they do.

Could you tell me a little bit about your customers? What are they like and are they interested in the stories behind the products?

Yes, definitely. We’ve been attending a lot of design markets that are available here in Australia. We’ve been getting a lot of good feedback about how people are really interested in how things are made, which is something I really wanted the customers to be very conscious about. With the amount of fast fashion right now, is just too over the top, that I think every single voice of somebody who is interested, actually counts as something that’s important to me. It’s good because I tried to make RUPAHAUS very accessible to a lot of people and not just to fashionable people but to corporate people, or anyone to feel comfortable wearing it. I would say 60-70% of our customers already have a very conscious mindset, so they actually know how to shop consciously. The 30% are the people who return into being conscious because they got to know the brand a bit better.

So they just kind of see the product, like it, hear the story behind it and…

Yeah and we always do a bit of an exhibition as well, I bring a lot of raw materials with me and photos of the artisans everytime we do a market. A lot of people are very interested and they get very… not amazed, but intrigued. Even amongst my group of friends, a lot of them are interested in the products and how they’re made. You’ll be amazed at how many people are not very well educated about how clothes are made.

Very true! They think it’s a machine making everything.

It’s interesting because it automatically adds up in my head because I’m from there, but I wouldn’t notice it unless I actually started talking to people about it. They would ask really silly questions like oh so you need a pattern maker to actually cut a shirt and I’m like yes. It’s funny because I never really noticed it before.

People are getting to know the process a little bit more, like a lot of people know about how synthetic dyes run into rivers and you know the colour of the season.

That happens in Indonesia as well. I tell pretty much everyone that I talk to about it.

What do you think is the next step for the slow fashion movement or where do you see it going?

I wish it would spread out a little bit and replace the mass production that we have right now. That’s like one of our goals, there’s a long way to go, but I’m pretty sure if we do it with other brands with very similar visions then I’m pretty sure we can reach that, one way or another. It takes longer, but it’s good because I have noticed a big change in the last three years of how people think about clothes. People are a bit more aware and conscious about what’s going on because I think it’s being talked about so much through social media and the news. It’s not just fashion, water pollution and plastic pollution is everywhere now, it’s kind of the trend. I wouldn’t want it to just be a trend though. If we use it in a very smart way, it can make a huge impact in the future in how things are done.

I think fashion brands can take advantage of the momentum in a sense, and link all the hot topics and discussion to the clothing industry and how that’s related to how they’re trying to make the world better.

I think it’s like you said, the education level is still very low. It’s not that many people in comparison to the people that still shop fast fashion. Obviously with fast fashion, when there is demand, they will supply. We kind of have to stop that cycle and replace it with a slower fashion movement, with a different mentality towards clothing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t shop anymore, you just have to shop consciously.

Changing people’s mindsets about the way they shop is the most difficult step in my eyes because they’re so used to it.

Yeah, it’s always a fresh breath of air when I see these people at the market because it’s probably just a niche, but it’s still like these people exist and you just have to keep empowering them.

Where would you like to be with RUPAHAUS in 10 years?

I would love to see it growing worldwide. Worldwide in the sense that it’s reachable to a lot of people. Obviously, we wanna grow in terms of business, but it was never my intention to turn it into anything mass produced. I would always want to keep it very personal and handmade, cos those are the focuses that we have.

This question seems to be difficult to a lot of brands because while they want to grow and spread the word, they don’t necessarily wanna grow so big that they can’t keep the handmade aspect of it.

Completely, because that’s gonna change the image of the whole brand. I thought about it because someone asked me this question when we were just having a gathering and he was saying like what if someone comes in with a sum of money and they wanna buy RUPAHAUS off you and wanna make it into a big mass produced thing and I was like no. I would rather just let RUPAHAUS die out. To be able to provide a sustainable profession for these artisans would be one of our goals, having a workshop for them. I would always wanna keep it very flexible, the way they live right now. They’re not dictated by just doing for RUPAHAUS, they can still be creative and create their own thing. That’s why I like to call them partners because we work together collaboratively. Not necessarily like I’m on top of them and they’re under me. They still have the freedom to do whatever they want.

it was never my intention to mass produce. I'll always want to keep it personal and handmade

Written by Jennie Barck

Photos from RUPAHAUS