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(EXCLUSIVE) Q&A: Sebastian Gunawan

Sebastian Gunawan talks about his latest achievement: showing two collections at Paris Couture Week. 

Sebastian Gunawan

Sebastian gunawan and John Galliano are continents apart, but great minds do think alike. They have both been inspired by the same “muse”: Luisa Casati, an Italian heiress and patron of the arts in early 20th-century Europe. This “crazy avant-garde lady” had the physique of Kate Moss, the sartorial bravery of the late Isabella Blow and the eccentricity of Yoko Ono - and her legacy has inspired Gunawan’s latest couture work.

Twenty looks from his fall 2016 collection were shown during the prestigious Paris Couture Week in July. This well-deserved opportunity for
the Indonesian fashion designer was facilitated by the Asian Couture Federation (ACF), of which Gunawan was invited to become an elite member in 2013. At the same event, Gunawan showed a ready-to-wear collection that will be sold exclusively on Couturissimo, a webstore initiated by ACF.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the positive press response we received,” says Gunawan, whose wife, Cristina Panarese, is also his creative partner. “No doubt, showing in Paris is intimidating because Parisians are known to be very hard to please. And I put pressure on myself to show that Indonesian designers can be on par with international names. But I found that the Parisians are fair. They give honest opinions, and I do appreciate that.”

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sitting in his well-appointed office with its polished wood interior, Gunawan reminisces about the pressure he felt before and during his Paris debut. “The schedule is really strict. If your show runs long, the fashion press will just walk out of it. Knowing this, all of the Asian designers, including Guo Pei (best known for designing Rihanna’s trailing yellow gown at the 2015 Met Ball), showed only 20 to 30 pieces each.”

Would he do another Paris show, then? “I would, if I could. But I’m not sweating over it. To be able to show overseas, especially in Paris, is an experience I shall always cherish. It’s my pride as a designer. But I am fully aware that our customer base is here in Indonesia, so my focus would always be here,” he says. “I did not set a selling target for my couture collection after the Paris show, because to obtain my couture creations overseas customers would have to go through quite a long process - and it does cost a lot.”

To create a gown that mimics a Russian ballerina’s costume, Gunawan has put together Chantilly laces of different shades and sequins in different shapes, to the point that one can only see a solid fabric with multi-textures and colours. There is no stitch in sight, even though there are actually a lot of them in the gown. Suddenly, what the designer means by the term “couture patchwork” makes a lot of sense.

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

The fall 2016 2016 collection is a departure from the evening gowns that Gunawan is famed for. A Sebastian Gunawan dress is usually characterised by solid colours, mostly in classic shades, and intricate lace detailing. Instead, the new collection sees the designer steps out of his comfort zone and works with bright colours and combine them in a dress. While the Victorian influence is still apparent in structure, the new collection offers a variety of silhouettes – from a cocktail dress with full skirt to a ball gown with A-line hem. As a whole, the
collection shows Gunawan’s sartorial innovation without diminishing the brand identity he has built during the last quarter of a century.

“The collection as a whole is inspired by Russian ballet from the 19th century – the extravagant, almost costume-like outfits that the performers wore,” Gunawan explains. “And then there is Luisa Casati. She does not blend into the background, instead stands out in the crowd. She has wild emotions in her, and she expresses them through the things she wears and does. She’s a crazy personality perhaps, but it’s an inspiring kind of craziness.”

Listening to Gunawan talk about his designs is like listening to a very passionate child. His enthusiasm is clear through the many hand gestures he uses while describing Casati. He is so excited he is practically gushing. In hindsight, it is easy to forget that he has been a designer for 24 years, not five.

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

“My team and I, we’re always working. We always have a plan. Nowadays, we’re preparing for the upcoming shows – Sebastian Red (his ready-to-wear line) in September and Sebastian Gunawan in November,” he says. “In November, people would be able to see the
entire fall 2016 collection, some of which had been shown in Paris. We are also opening a standalone boutique for Sebastian Sposa, our
designer bridal collection.”

His lifelong passion for fashion, started when he was still a young boy admiring his mother and sister while dressing up, encourages him
to step into the online territory. His ready-to-wear collection that was first shown in Paris is now available online via Couturissimo. The feedback, according to the designer, has been surprisingly positive. There, his dresses sell for about US$400 each.

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Sebastian Gunawan fall 2016

Some couturiers might opt out of designing ready-to-wear collections, but not Gunawan. He believes that he can get the best of both worlds, if he puts his mind to it. “My wife and I have been designing both couture and ready-to-wear collections for a long time. Besides
Sebastian Gunawan, we have Sebastian Red, Votum and Sposa,” he explains. “I think the ability to juggle the two partly comes from
the socio-economic condition in Indonesia. Being a designer in a developing country means you have to be able to work within budgets, for example to penetrate into department stores, besides creating couture collections. Years of training and experience surviving in the Indonesian fashion industry have taught me about this.”

Read the full story in the September Issue of Prestige Indonesia.