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Toton Januar On Why Fashion 'Isn't A Business For Sissies'

You need thick skin to make it in the fashion industry.
Photo by VICE Indonesia staff

Indonesian fashion designer Toton Januar creates playfully androgynous clothes that challenge gender norms and encapsulate his views on this wonderfully mixed-up nation.

"I want to translate what I feel and what I see about Indonesia," he said of his designs. "Just like most Indonesians, I'm not entirely pribumi. We have Chinese blood. Arab blood. I myself have Chinese blood from my great, great grandmother.


"That's what I'm trying to bring to my collection, to highlight the cultural mix of Indonesia and talk about how we're all supposed to be more inclusive."

Toton's eponymous women's wear line has turned heads worldwide. He won for the prestigious 2016/17 International Woolmark Prize for the Asia region alongside South Korea's MÜNN. But fashion wasn't always in the cards for Toton. He started his education as a engineer, before switching careers despite his mother's concerns that he would end up a starving artist.

We sat down with Toton as part of VICE Indonesia's collaboration with AXE on gender norms titled "Break The Stereo," and talked about how being raised by a single mom shaped his views on women, masculinity, and fashion.

VICE Indonesia: When did you know you wanted to be a fashion designer?
Toton Januar: The world of fashion kept calling out to me. When I was young, I had many dreams. I wanted to be an astronaut, a pilot, an architect, and more. Interestingly enough, whatever I was doing, I always ended up drawing a woman. I don't know why. Once I wanted to be an artist, but my mom didn't let me. Even when I finally came across the world of fashion, my mom said no. But the calling was so strong. I think this is my destiny. I just couldn't lie and deny it anymore. That's how it happened.

How did your mom react?
It wasn't easy. I was born in an era when boys were expected to pursue a career in fields associated with their gender. After high school, I was expected to study engineering, or medicine, or law. I studied engineering for one year but my heart just wasn't there, so I dropped out. After that, I negotiated with my parents and asked for their permission to pursue the arts. They gave me the typical response: arts won't bring you money. Looking at how things are now, obviously that's not a true statement. So I tried to find a middle ground.


I was studying broadcasting at the University of Indonesia. After I graduated, I was still unsure whether I wanted to pursue a career in broadcasting or to move-on to something else. Thankfully, during my university years, I was working part-time as a model and that opened my eyes to the world of fashion. That's where I felt most comfortable. My artistic nature had found its outlet.

It wasn't pure arts but it also wasn't pure business. We had to be able to communicate with the public through our work. We have to persuade the public to buy into our ideas. We also need to be creative and come up with new ideas to inspire people. After two years, finally my mom found out that I was working in the fashion industry. She objected at first, but I tried to prove that what I was doing was a worthwhile life choice.

Is there anything you know today that you wish you knew then?
If I could give my younger self any advice, I would tell him not to worry about things that he already knew. That's all. There was often so much noise coming from all directions and we end up being confused about what we want. I admire young people these days. A lot of high schoolers or even younger kids already know who they are and what they want to do. Lots of them are also very aware of their own gender. That's amazing. In my generation, that sort of thing was unheard of.

What's the stereotype of masculinity in like Indonesia?
The definition of masculinity in Indonesia has changed a lot. Nowadays, people are more open toward differences. Hopefully, this will become the new culture. Back then when I was an adolescent, any small differences could become a social issue. Now people are more accepting, more inclusive and more understanding. For example, if a man dresses more eccentric, like wearing a skirt, a culotte or paints his nails, he's not automatically judged by certain stereotypes. It was very different when I was growing up. If you deviated a bit, people would call you weird or morbid.


So do you think the negative stereotypes of men working in fashion in this country are gone?
The stereotypes still exist. I have been fighting those stereotypes, not only how people see me, but also how I perceive myself. I try to challenge my own perception of myself against what I actually want.

Every profession requires hard work. People outside of the fashion industry might say, it's tougher to be an engineer than to be a fashion designer. However this is not true. We have a saying in the industry that goes: fashion is not a business for sissies.

In fashion, we work 24 hours a day, seven days a week trying to come up with ideas for our business. And sometimes people don't respond well to your ideas. We have to be strong and ready to face rejection. Perhaps that's what people miss when thinking about the fashion industry. Fashion is not only about the clothes. It's a reflection of the society. Whatever happens to the society will affect the industry directly.

Why do people here think of fashion industry as a woman's world?
People see fashion as being feminine because it has to do with beauty. We try to create something beautiful. But for me, I always try to redefine the word 'beauty.' Even masculinity can be considered beautiful now. That's what I try to do as a designer. The world of fashion does deal a lot with fabric and women, but business-wise, fashion is not for the faint of heart. It's a really tough world.

Did your time studying engineering affect your designs at all?
After high school, I studied civil engineering at University Hassanudin. That was one hell of an experience since engineering students were probably the epitome of 'masculine' men. It was a masculine field that attracted a lot of men. But when people ask why I deviated so far from engineering, I can honestly say that what I'm doing now is not that different.

Both engineering and fashion design are about constructing something. Mathematics are involved and it's all about creating something. However, while engineering aims to create, say, a port, I aim to create a jacket, a coat, or a dress. In a way, the sensibilities are similar. We think about function but also aesthetics.

You were raised by women. How did this affect your views on masculinity and gender?
It had a big impact on me. Since I was raised by women, I saw gender a bit differently than most Indonesians. My mom never got re-married, so I never had a father figure. From when I was young, I saw women as the head of the family. So, for me, it's not weird to see a strong woman, but apparently this is still odd for most people here. In a way, I am blessed. I couldn't imagine being raised in a different environment. I wouldn't have been able to see things the way I do now.