“It has been wonderful. It has been unreal. We didn’t expect to be a winner,” admits Toton Januar in his studio at Kebayoran Baru. His eponymous ready-to-wear fashion label beat brands from five countries to win the coveted Woolmark Prize for Asia in July. “At first, I thought that we only went there just for participation, because it’s the first time that Indonesian designers had been given the chance to compete and we’re from a tropical country, so naturally we don’t wear wool very much. And when our label was named as the winner, we were surprised and ecstatic. It has been a wonderful journey.
“Toton is a retelling of Indonesia’s inherent stories through fresh eyes and a new vision. It’s a contemporary womenswear brand that explores the nation’s natural beauty and diverse culture with modern reinterpretations, while deconstructing traditions for a new approach to women’s ready-to-wear.”
Australian woolgrowers were mass producing their products and wanted to promote their goods around the world in the 1930s. In 1953, a fashion award was founded to mark the achievement of designers who used wool in innovative and creative ways. This led to the modern “Woolmark Prize”, an award to the most up and coming designers using the product label. The competition has been held since the 1950s, with winners including Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld.
It was, in fact, Toton’s undeniable focus, commitment and passion for his brand that secured his place as the winner of the 2016/17 International Woolmark Prize Asia regional final. The prize included AU$50,000 (USD$ 38,000) award, personal mentor opportunities from style experts, as well as representing Asia for the Woolmark global final next January.
Toton was born in Makassar on January 3, 1978. His father died when he was 10 months old and his mother raised him alone. “My mother is my inspiration. Not only in design but also in life philosophy. She was a single mother and a super woman. What I love about her is her elegance, I think she has the quality from the inside. So, whatever she’s doing, she’s choosing, or she’s wearing, there’s always an elegance to it and it translates into my work,” says Toton.
Although he always loved art and design, growing up in a developing country made them not the best choices of career when he was young. The first option was to be a doctor or a lawyer, or anything in the “traditional” field of work. He took civil engineering as his major in university in the first year, then switched to media broadcasting at University of Indonesia, which he felt was closer to what he wanted to do. At the same time he started working for one of Indonesia’s prominent fashion designers, Taruna Kusmayadi.
After he graduated, he continued working as a fashion designer, but he felt that he needed to have a “proper” education in fashion. “In 2005 I decided to enroll in Parson’s continuing education programme fashion study. It was a better option at the time, since it would take me too long to take the Bachelor Programme. I worked as a freelance designer and continued to do so after I graduated the programme in 2007.”
It has been the dream of him to start his own label, but he didn’t have the courage to do it, since he knew it is going to be lifetime commitment and hard work. “But after I lost my mother in 2008 I realised that I should not waste any more time.”
So, with the help of his partner Haryo Balitar, he set up Toton at the beginning of 2012. In May, Toton launched his first collection at Blueprint in Singapore. Toton started the label with his love for his country in mind. “After a long time of searching for identity, I’ve realised that my country is a place I should be proud of, for its cultural, historical, and natural richness. I want to be able to translate all those into contemporary designed womenswear for modern women. Who understand and appreciate different kind of beauty and luxury, love and appreciate art and culture. They would like to feel different and special, but not necessarily be the centre of attention.”
The muse for Toton’s design will always be Indonesia. The country, the people, the culture, the arts and crafts, Indonesia is an endless source of inspiration for him. “It doesn’t always have to scream Indonesia, but the starting point will always be from my country. The world has become one big cultural ‘melting pot’.” He continues, “Indonesia is rich beyond imagination and to rework what we have in my country into modern designs is my way to promote them to the world.”
“While it is important to honour our own culture, I feel allowing it to be reworked is needed. The creative process often triggered by emotions. I am inspired by anything that moves me, may it be shapes, colours, music, words, anything. I draw a lot always based on what I feel at the moment. I guess that’s how I operate, creatively. I capture, I feel, and then let it out in the form of designs.”
Miuccia Prada, Dries Van Noten, and the late Alexander McQueen are the designers he most admires. He reveres Prada for her bold point of view that always challenges the norms and definitions of beauty. He loves how Van Noten translates cultures of the world into his subtle yet clever designs. For him, McQueen was the master of drama and romance, who could elevate fashion to something more than clothes that hang on bodies.
Toton can be found in concept stores in Singapore, New York, Tokyo, Riyadh, Jeddah, Dubai, and Jakarta. His typical followers, he says, are women in their 20s or early 30s, living in big cities, with good education, financial background, and affinity to art and culture.
“To be honest with you, I don’t believe in fashion, but I do believe in style and personal style. Fashion is something that moves fast and as a designer we have the privilege to contribute and offer ideas. Hopefully, people in general can appreciate and can implement those ideas into their stories. That what’s important to me. So, it’s not necessarily about taking fashion for granted. For me, just cotributing ideas that help women in their daily life is very important.”
“As for the future, I want to be able to expand our market worldwide, and also to improve our products and designs. To reach a bigger audience, both in Indonesia and abroad, while staying true to our own voice. “Hopefully, winning Woolmark Asia and going to the Woolmark Global Final, will give us bigger exposure. I’m excited that because of Woolmark we have more chance to use wool into our collections, since it’s a material that most Indonesians don’t appreciate. They think it’s not suitable for Indonesia’s tropical weather. It’s a very luxurious material and we are trying to translate that into our collections.”