British Design, Made in Indonesia

Martha in her studio DSC_0507 DSC_0508 DSC_0509 DSC_0512

Jakarta Globe, March 17, 2013

In a sun-filled studio in South Jakarta, designer Martha Ellen shows off her latest collection – finely tailored trousers, dresses and skirts in a rainbow of Balinese weaves.

London-born Ellen is not an Indonesian designer, but everything she knows about fashion she learned here in the archipelago.

“I use Indonesian textiles but then my design is very much, I’d say, British,” she says, pointing to the structured, symmetrical lines of her garments.

Still, her use of local fabrics and her in-country training have brought Ellen into the fold of the Indonesian design community, and what is now a burgeoning creative industry.

Last month Ellen made her debut at Indonesia Fashion Week, the annual gathering of the country’s top names in fashion, run by the Indonesian Fashion Designers Association (Appmi).

She showed a spring/summer collection made with stiff silk, striking black lines and the rich hues of tenun ikat , a traditional textile made using a resist dyeing process.

Balinese ikat forms the basis of Ellen’s signature style. Its inclusion is just one element of her work that owes its inspiration to Indonesia.

A new start

Ellen was working for an advertising firm in London when she first began to dream of a new life in Indonesia.

“Basically my boss said, ‘You know, you can be a director in a couple of years’ and I just thought, ‘No. I think I want to get out and try something else and actually create something,’ ” she says.

She started taking classes in fashion styling at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design while still working full-time.

As the financial situation in England deteriorated, a move to an emerging market like Indonesia looked all the more attractive.

Ellen had visited Jakarta before and been impressed by the vibrant arts community she found there. In 2009 she decided to make the big move, and enrolled in a fashion design course at the Esmod fashion school in South Jakarta.

Within a few weeks of her arrival, Ellen was recruited to help out at Jakarta Fashion Week where she was given a backstage view of the industry.

“There’s a great sense of camaraderie, that everyone wants to build Jakarta or build Indonesia into a place on the map as a fashion capital,” Ellen says.

Through Esmod, Ellen was given the opportunity to work alongside some of the biggest names in the industry and find out how they operate.

She interned in Bali with Ali Charisma, now the vice president of Appmi, who encouraged her to follow through and establish her own label.

She learned a great deal from Ali, who she says was “amazingly generous with his time,” and helped him put on a show at Hong Kong Fashion Week.

But before heading out on her own, Ellen took on another internship with Jeffry Tan, a rising fashion star with a celebrity-studded client base.

With Jeffry, Ellen worked as a brand director and learned about the business side of the industry.

“Trying to run a business when it’s not your own work, you do actually look at it more in an objective way,” she says.

With a better understanding of both design and sales, Ellen finally felt ready to establish her own label, called m.e., in 2011.

A traditional touch

Ellen is now looking to produce two lines of clothing, one casual everyday line under the name m.e., and another made-to-order line for special occasions under the name Martha Ellen.

Both lines will continue to use tenun ikat, a textile Ellen first fell in love with when she discovered it during her internship in Bali.

“Somebody asked me to make them a dress and I just went to the market to explore. I found some fabric I thought was quite cool, and it was ikat,” she says.

The motifs of the fabrics now inform Ellen’s designs — vertical streaks lend themselves to trousers, she says, while narrow lines are good for pleating.

Ellen sources ikat to order directly from its makers, requesting certain color schemes and motifs. Through a long process of binding, dyeing and hand-painting, a single piece can take months to complete.

“I think people don’t quite realize the amount of work in that it is all handmade,” she says.

In her South Jakarta studio, Ellen displays textiles for clients to choose from, in shades of rice-paddy green, ocean blue and cherry red. Her goal now is to bring the beauty of tenun ikat to the attention of the world.

“I didn’t want to be another brand that was just streetwear, or party frocks. I wanted it to be actually about the ikat,” she says.

“It would be nice to present this to the wider international market and say, ‘Look, this is what they’re making in Indonesia and it can be made into this, it can be wearable and something quite innovative’.”

Martha Ellen Studio Salon
Jl. Kemang Selatan No. 8/5B
South Jakarta
Tel. 0813 8588 0056

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