Why Bali has always been at the forefront of the Slow Fashion Movement (and why it will stay there)

The Slow Fashion movement has been steadily growing since the late 2000’s and has never been as relevant and in-trend as it is now. A reaction to its alter ego Fast Fashion, championed by players such as Inditex (Zara), Uniqlo and H&M, the growth of Slow Fashion has been driven by a wide array of independent designers seeking to carve out their own niche in this broad movement.

While the movement has grown and become better defined over the years, in Bali however, the fashion scene has always been about Slow. A habit of fashion movements is to hype certain concepts as a new innovation, while in fact, the fashion eco-system in Bali has been thriving long before Slow Fashion as a concept became mainstream. Therefore, it is worthwhile to take a look again at the brands and the unique environment in which Bali fashion has thrived to appreciate its ‘new’ relevance to conscious modern-day consumers.

There are several examples worthy of mention. Kmana Concept for example, with its ultra-high-quality travel gear relies exclusively on local artisanal and family workshops. Bambusee with its strong social programs and sourcing of recycled wood for its uber cool sunglasses is another example or Haywire Jewelry, an edgy jewelry brand that sources and produces all its collections locally. Not to forget Olga Laurus which has fused traditional Indonesia Batik design techniques with modern silk design to create colorful and eye-catching collections.

But before we get into what Bali has to offer, the question remains, what is Slow Fashion anyway?

Olga Laurus

What Is Slow Fashion Anyway?

The concept of Slow Fashion is about consuming and creating fashion that has a greater consideration for the social and environmental dimensions of what you are buying. It advocates the creation of high-quality garments that are ethically manufactured using largely sustainable materials. The end-goal is the creation of a more sustainable fashion industry.

It means a different type of consumerism, focusing more on the longevity of what is produced and a greater awareness of what you have bought. As a consumer it is not about short fashion cycles, low prices and immediate gratification but its polar opposite. It is about choosing wisely.

Coined by Kate Fletcher in 2008, the concept of slow fashion is a new paradigm for the industry, one that has deep consequences to every part of the supply-chain. As she explains:  

It is built on a new set of values. It describes new purpose, new ways of distributing power and benefit, new economic models, a changing fashion culture, fewer pieces… This framework is the future of fashion.

Big fashion hubs have taken note, with New York for example taking an increased interest in supporting local design, production and manufacturing through initiatives like the CFDA Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, Manufacture New York and Makers Row. This has brought the eco-system closer to home, closer to the consumers; to support the local economy and community. 

Kmana Concept

Why Bali Fashion scene has always been at the forefront of Slow Fashion

The eco-system in Bali has been 'Slow' for many years and has been built around the skills and heritage of its local artisans, small family owned factories, conscientious designers and a greater awareness, in recent collections, of the environmental impact of the industry.

Dedication to local talents and heritage

Bali has a rich artisan history due to the intricate, time-intensive traditions in jewelry design, stonemasonry, leather working and fabric design. The commercial benefits of its fashion industry therefore, not only helps to sustain local communicates but plays an important part in keeping alive the traditions of its artisanal heritage.

Nowhere is this seen more than in its jewelry making industry. Following, the colonization of Bali by the Majapahit Empire of Java, Bali became a hub for Javanese craftsmen and the art of silver-making truly flourished. This pool of talented silversmiths and goldsmiths have transcended the years, passing on skills from generation to generation. Inspired by their rich cultural heritage, it quickly became recognized by designers who began setting up shop here in the 1970’s.

Bringing their modern design ideas to the island, Bali’s artists inadvertently become the true artists behind the jewelry design. Each item in Bali is hand-made, often using hand drawn sketches rather than sophisticated CAD design techniques. Therefore, each piece of jewelry is as much the vision of the designer as the craftsperson at work. It is a rare and unmatched collaboration between two distinct worlds.

No brand represents this creative fusion better than pioneer John Hardy. Arriving in Bali in the 1970’s from Canada, he saw Bali’s artistic heritage as an opportunity to create a sustainable business that would tread lightly on the earth. From humble beginnings and with the help of local Balinese artisans, he began producing silver collections and has over the years become one of Bali’s most recognized international brands.

The original workshop has continued to grow in the very same village it started, now employing an impressive network of over 700 local artisans. 27 of those are wax carvers who make the master mold for each item from hand-drawn sketches and oversee the production process down to the last piece. Artisans working extremely complex pieces can earn the title of master carver after approximately a decade.

The true heart of the community of gold and silversmiths is now found in the village of Celuk, around 10km south of Ubud. This small village specializes in gold and silver making and create some of the finest jewelry available that rely on traditional techniques. Filigree for example, is a technique requiring a delicate soldering of beads and threads of metal to create a design. Another technique is called jawan, which uses silver spots to texturize and create engravings. Also granulation, which is an ancient technique using even more refined speckles of metal to create a design.

Another beneficiary of such fashion localism can be seen in the way traditional weaving has been integrated into modern collections. This is a feature of for example Erika Peña designs who Latin inspired collections easily integrate Ikat fabrics in her collection of wrap belts. Or Kmana Concepts' use of the same as internal lining and decoration of their travel bags.

In a world where the forces of globalization are being challenged for their potentially destructive impact on local communities, Bali’s local talents and heritage have become its main beneficiaries. International designers and brands benefit from partnering with local artisans and contributing to the livelihood of local communities.

Haywire Jewelry Slow Fashion

Locally owned factories and their direct impact on the community

Balinese clothing manufacturers tend to be small, family-owned cooperatives that set their own labour and cost standards, ensuring fair-trade practices while maintaining quality craftsmanship. Most International designers will own or be a partner in a local factory, thereby keeping a close eye on quality standards while also being able to benefit the local community.

This localism was ironically strengthened with Bali’s inability to compete with other manufacturing centers such as China and Vietnam. The 1990’s saw numerous factories established in Bali trying to serve the mass-market. However, they were unable to compete on pricing and volumes and as a consequence many either closed, or they shifted their focus to higher quality, smaller batch production, serving domestic and international independent designers.

One such brand is Tulle and Batiste, a bohemian inspired womenswear brand that produces all their collections from their own factory. Employing a close-knit team and manufacturing locally has several benefits as owner Jannah Miftahul explains:

By designing and producing all styles ourselves in a controlled environment I can guarantee our team members work under the best possible working conditions, in a clean workspace, at proper working hours and with financial reimbursements very well above the average wages.

 Unlike most other labels, who have their ranges produced by third parties in undisclosed factories and locations, our factories are always open for inspection by our customers. We believe in offering full transparency.

Many brands make it their mission and unique selling point to support local communities by sticking to local cooperative and small owned firms for their production. Kmana Concept for example has a stated mission to promote local economic, social and cultural development as part of their business. The brand works with a small network of family owned workshops and cooperatives allowing it to ensure fair pay and ethical working standards and impact local communities.

Tulle and Batiste

Growing awareness of Environmental causes 

If the mantra of Slow Fashion emphasizes a soft touch on the environment, Bali has started to move in the right direction but still has some way to go. It is no secret that Indonesia’s contribution to plastic waste in the oceans is appalling and steps are being made in Bali specifically to address the issue. The awareness amongst designers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices is also picking up steam.

Lily Jean employs a zero-waste policy in its production facilities and re-uses all left over materials to create children’s clothing, scrunchies and more. Similarly, the influence of alternative more sustainable materials is also being felt in the material choices of the designers. Rimmba for example has integrated recycled nylon from Cervico Italy into its bikini designs in an effort to source more sustainable materials. While Kmana Concept relies on vegetable died leather, a tanning process which uses organic materials rather than the more industrial chrome tanning process to treat the skins. The brand is also a champion of small batch production to achieve a more sustainable production process.

Rimmba Bikini Picture

Why it will stay there

While the Slow Fashion movement continues to gain steam with eco-friendly, ethically produced brands coming of age, there is little doubt that Bali will play a key role in this; now and in the future. The island has a vibrant and established eco-system with deep roots in Balinese culture, heritage and craftmanship fused with international concepts of style, quality and design. This unique combination cannot be found anywhere else and is the reason why small, independent designers from Bali will continue to thrive in the years to come.

There are also several other reasons, besides its own inherent qualities that Bali’s independent designers will continue to be at the forefront of fashion worldwide. In a recent report by Business of Fashion and McKinsey entitled The State of Fashion 2019, it states three reasons why small is here to stay. They are: millennial preferences, digital marketing and retailer requirements for differentiation and margin. 

As the largest consumer segment worldwide, the preferences of millennials cannot be ignored. They tend to avoid large established brands and seek out new brands which they feel are more likely to meet their needs. In their fashion choices, millennials are also twice as likely as baby boomers to prefer up and coming designers rather than established ones. Digital technology has become the main platform to connect to brands offering a brand experience direct to the customers. Successful pure-play online brands have been very successful at building communities, providing access and connecting with audiences like never before.

“It’s the smaller brands that have been better at genuine innovation — and that’s what consumers want.”

For department stores and other retailers, the small brands offer the differentiation that builds traffic and margins, especially small premium brands. For example, in the US 44 percent of small-brand sales are premium, versus 34 percent for other brands, helping to boost average selling prices. Therefore small brands have become a lucrative source of revenue, margins and presence amongst a new generation of shopper. As a result, US retailers are giving small brands double their fair share of new listings.

Coming back to Bali, its fashion eco-system is based on small independent brands bringing a healthy dose of innovation, originality and creativity not seen elsewhere. With most adopting a proactive online presence while providing authentic narratives that appeal to the world’s millennial shoppers. It is therefore an exciting time to see Bali based brands reaping a growing share of the world’s fashion industry as movements like Slow Fashion shine a new light on this unique island. 


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