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Malaysia's traditional batik journeys to the world fashion scene
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Decorative batik clothing has long had its place as Malaysia's official national costume. But today, the eye-catching patterns of the age-old design method have reached new places -- the catwalk, the office and the formal occasion.
Batik, a fabric dying method using wax to create patterns, originated centuries ago and was practiced throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia. Enjoyed for its fanciful designs, rich, vibrant colors and distinctive smell, the use of batik has extended over the years from clothing to everything from home furnishings and tablecloths to wall hangings the world over.
Where clothing is concerned, sarongs and casual shirts have typically been the standbys for batik. However, in a bid to change this, fashion designers have recently created fresh, universal looks by incorporating the fabric into everyday clothing.
Malaysian fashion designer Eric Tho says he "stumbled into batik."
"I started business doing batik in the east coast and realized there wasn't anything really, really Malaysian in terms of its wearability," he says.
Malaysia has attempted to promote its batik garment industry overseas by offering shirts to visiting dignitaries and VIP's. When Malaysia played host to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in 1998, leaders showed up to proceedings decked out in batik's trademark floral and swirling patterns. Actor Mel Gibson recently attended a function in Malaysia clad in a bright blue and white batik shirt.
As Western clothing becomes popular in Malaysia, the government is doing what it can to keep batik alive and has urged citizens to wear it at least once a week.
Tho, famous for his designer batik prints and hand-painted dresses, tried a different approach and decided to revive batik by incorporating it into functional, universal clothing.
"I decided there is a challenge to it. There is a market to do it in the business point of view and I think I have done right so far," he says.
Models parading his latest modern collection recently hit the catwalk to celebrate the opening of Tho's new boutique in Malaysia. His elegant designs featured subtle splashes of batik on sleeve-ends, encircling the bases of skirts and on shirtfronts.
While batik may be getting a facelift in the fashion world, the production technique remains traditional. Batik artists drip wax through a copper wax dripper called a tjanting to draw designs on cotton, rayon or silk. After the wax sets, dye is added to the fabric and when the wax is boiled off, a design is fixed.
Batik designer Noorzian Haji Ibrahim says that even though traditional methods are needed, original designs are the key to batik enjoying a full revival.
"We have to use wax, we have to use the batik dyes to create the batik look," she says. "So I think what you have seen is good enough but (what) we have to try more is to create more interesting designs and more techniques so that batik looks more interesting, more beautiful," Noorzian said.
The artists who spend hours creating the printed fabric, are confident that the results of their hard work sells.
"I like doing these designs because I know someone will buy the product," says Batik worker Siti Hajar. "That really makes me like making them."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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