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Since its inception, Isa Boulder has continually pushed Balinese craftsmanship and challenged definitions of ‘sexy’ and sustainability from the inside out.
After graduating from her CSM womenswear BA, Jakarta-born Cecilia ‘Lia’ Basari moved to Bali and was soon introduced to Yuli Suri, an experienced hand in Bali’s garment production scene. As the pair became friends and began to explore the island’s craft community, a local production company began laying off staff and they decided to take on the seamstress and launched Isa Boulder. For spring/summer 20, isa Boulder began as an unconventional line of “awkwardly sexy” ruched satin swimwear that face-slapped the male gaze, quickly established cult status and took over our Instagram feeds. “When we design, there is almost this rebellious streak and intention to design against what men would typically find sexy,” Lia explained during its launch. “To subvert that archetype and hopefully confuse them with it to emphasize the point that sometimes women would like the power of feeling sexy not for the benefit of men, but for ourselves.”
Then, driven by their shared pursuit of sustainability, the label expanded into knitwear for autumn/winter 20 and focussed their signature subversive nature on challenging preconceived notions of what yarn can be. As they applied the finishing touches to their spring/summer 21 collection, the two friends and co-founders talked Aljadid through their symbiotic relationship with the community, their desire to protect traditional craft, and wish to empower women to feel good for themselves.
Firstly where are you, how are you and what have my questions interrupted you from?
We are based in Bali, Indonesia and are in the midst of finishing up our spring/summer 21 collection so it’s more than slightly chaotic in our studio at the moment.
Sorry to interrupt, we promise to be quick. Firstly, what would you say was the overriding catalyst for launching Isa Boulder? Are we correct in saying that it was driven by a desire to build something that utilised the unemployed, or undervalued, seamstresses that you knew?
It’s not purely as altruistic as that. But we were fortunate that it was the right moment at the right time, and everything aligned for us to start this small venture being able to find a way to support each other and grow as a company. There is an unbreakable bond because we credit everyone’s role in ensuring that everything runs smoothly and everyone wants what is best for the company simply because we love our colleagues and we’re eager to go to work to see them everyday (at least for the foreseeable future).
That’s rare! Upon founding the label you agreed to keep the label based entirely in Bali. Firstly, how has keeping the brand local influenced and enhanced your work?
It is quite difficult to imagine producing overseas – besides being very controlling and precise about our work, we enjoy working very closely with our knit technicians and our own production team for swimwear. One of the joys of working with them is the intimate relationship we build by joking around and sharing the hardship of the hectic sampling and production schedule. This process continually allows us to learn from them and it heavily informs our design because we can experiment with new techniques and solve production problems in an immediate manner.
Can you tell us a little about how this influences your work, both day-to-day and beyond?
All of us in the team feel a great sense of hope and satisfaction that we managed to receive such positive feedback towards our work, and that we all pulled each other through the toughest of times. Especially during a pandemic, we are super grateful that we can still continue to provide work for other partnering local manufacturers on top of ensuring that our in-house team is still surviving.
What would you say are the common misconceptions around the ‘Made in Indonesia’ label and how you’re challenging them? And the strongest truths?
Some people assume that items made in Indonesia are somehow supposed to be cheaper or of poorer quality than that of items made in other countries, maybe due to the history of mass production. However, we do hope to prove that real luxury lies in time and craft, and a person’s skillset and artistry is much more valuable than diamond encrusted fabric or some fancy new offering technology comes up with.
For us at Aljadid, the label is a powerful repositioning of craft. We love your simple Insta bio; "Hardcore Handmades." How conscious are you of continually challenging the stereotypes of both craft and conscious design?
Due to the advancements of technology, we as consumers are so used to things being “polished” or looking perfect but clothing is one thing that is still not completely taken over by machineries. There is still this human touch aspect to it that is so precious and worth treasuring. When we say Hardcore Handmades, it doesn’t only refer to our more risqué influences or silhouettes but also the fact that we are very serious and passionate about showcasing the talents of the local artisans, whose skills we admire, and they are literally the backbone of our brand. Craftsmanship is what makes a human most human, because we work with our hands, and as a result we don’t lose a sense of who we are and our limitations. It is in this “imperfection” and intimacy of the human touch which makes handmade items the most beautiful.
You’ve previously described the Isa Boulder aesthetic as “awkwardly sexy”, which puts it perfectly. Why has it always been important to you to broaden the definition of “sexy”? How would you like to continue to challenge patriarchal standards of female beauty?
Being awkwardly sexy is definitely more relatable and exciting because it has a sense of vulnerability which we’re sure all females at one point have experienced and instead of it being a weakness, it is actually what makes us more interesting and human. Before we can erase the patriarchal standards of female beauty, we as women first have to lead the way by not caring about what men think of how we dress, and be able to take risks and insist on our own aesthetics and prioritise what makes us feel good.
Two years since the label's inception, what would you say have been the biggest lessons learned from working as a team?
Going through hard and uncertain times together allow us to appreciate the other times when our hard work shows some kind of result, and this bond is also what has become the driving force for our desire to succeed collectively.
And from running a sustainable and ethical label?
There are always creative new ways of improving production methods and making them more efficient. By championing local production, we do feel that extra sense of pride that we are able to proudly call our items made in Indonesia as we feel that our items can rival the best of them.
Finally, what excites you most about tomorrow?
As we grow as a company and see a growing demand for our products, we feel a great sense of responsibility and excitement about being able to bring a bigger production demand and work for our local community who has been greatly affected by the pandemic.