Aspiring ethical fashion brand Batik Tree is bent on reviving the batik craft
For Ong Swee Lyn, batik has always been a part of her life. The entrepreneurial lady, who is a descendant of the Baba Nyonya people from Penang, saw a lot of batik during her formative years. “I grew up watching the matriarchs of the family don them on a daily basis and even use them for other things, such as fabric for babies’ cradles because it is breathable. They wore them as sarongs, they also used batik as bedspreads,” she recalls.
“It was always at the back of my mind, but it was only last year when I met this particular batik designer, that things came together. She’s a mother of five and comes up with the ideas and lets the batik craftsmen explore. I had never seen these kinds of designs and I decided that we could work together. With my background in PR, I thought with my experience in telling stories, I could help her,” she tells Fashionably Kind in a recent interview.
Ong created the Batik Tree brand in September 2016 to market and sell Terengganu batik and has not looked back ever since. What are the elements of Terengganu batik that are different from the mainstream kind? “They use more floral patterns, there are no animals or insects. The craftsmen are Muslims and in the Muslim faith, you can’t have animal patterns on fabrics. That’s why you don’t see butterflies on prints, unlike in Indonesia. In Indonesian batik, you see phoenixes for instance, but you don’t see that on Malaysian fabrics,” Ong explains.
What day-to-day challenges does she face? “There are a lot of challenges involved, firstly, it is a dying industry. People are not buying batik anymore, they find it expensive because they do not understand all the work that goes into it. My designer could only sell it from her home in Terengganu, we talked about it and I realised that we had not seen these types of designs in KL or elsewhere in Malaysia. And the feedback we got from people was the same.
“I decided it was time to bring this culture back, bring the industry back. After all, it is a cultural heritage, we should do something about it. So then I met the batik craftsmen, we spent time in their cottage industry in Terengganu and I understood why producing batik has become difficult. It’s a very time-consuming and tedious process, so it’s expensive. All our raw materials—the cloth, the dyes—everything is imported, because Malaysia doesn’t manufacture any of them.”
An additional challenge is the batik blocks. “Making the blocks to print the batik is every expensive, because you need to make them from copper. But because of rising costs our craftsmen have started to use aluminium, but the resulting prints are not as refined.”
Locals are also reluctant to take up the craft. “Young people do not want to take up the craft anymore, out of five craftsmen, each has one helper who is a young man and the other craftsmen are also in their 50s. If we don’t do something about this, in another 10 years we are going to completely lose this trade. There are only a handful (of craftsmen) left in Terengganu, and even fewer left in Kelantan.”
There is also a disconnect between the traditional craftsmen and consumers. “The craftsmen are not fully aware of what consumers want, which is why they should take a trip to KL and see what the trends are. Sometimes if you take a look at the bigger retailers to get an idea of what the younger generation will buy, then from that basis you can create prints that the younger generation would want to wear. That is the goal we are trying to achieve. I do take photos when I walk around shops and send them to the designer and craftsmen in Terengganu for inspiration. We even show them colour palettes, the colours that sell very well are the pinks and purples. We realised that there is a market for this type of batik, we just need to reach the right people and help our craftsmen by selling more. Because they see the worth of making batik when there is a demand.”
Ong says she would like to see more Malaysians wearing batik; not just wearing it, but using it as cushion covers, lampshades, throws, tablecloths, table runners. “Foreigners like to use it for home décor, instead of wearing it. Locals think batik is only for sarongs, but it is really up to your imagination. Which is why we’re turning the fabric into bags, bookmarks and placemats.”
“Batik is very subjective, it spans a very huge spectrum of consumer tastes. In fact, we believe we don’t have enough for the men here. So we are trying to get men to wear more batik as well. One piece of batik can be used to make multiple shirts or mix materials to create one shirt.”
Despite the challenges, there are customers who value what Batik Tree has to offer. “I had a customer who bought batik fabric to sew into a cheongsam for her wedding. Which is why we carry cotton fabric. Many people ask us why we don’t do silk; it’s because we want people to wear it daily, and not just relegate batik to one-time usage. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork and can be worn daily,” she says of batik.
What are some of the unreasonable expectations customers sometimes have? “The fact that they want the prints to be perfect. Pricing is another issue. There are some who complain about the prices, without understanding the actual value.
“We also realise that batik is a very niche market. Because it still has a traditional element, there are many people who still don’t like it; to them it is very conservative. Which is why we’re trying to modernise batik, but still retain the essence of its tradition.”
Is making the Batik Tree brand ethical a long-term plan? “At the moment, we have a steeper battle, which is trying to revive the interest in batik. As much as I would like to be able to go down that route, for now we try to not waste—every fabric that we make we try to utilise fully. Going the ethical route is something we would like to do further down the road. Right now we’re well aware of our products’ suppliers and the supply chain,” Ong says.
What are her goals for the business itself? “Our target market is people who appreciate art and crafts, and eventually I would like us to be not just popping up every now and then at bazaars, but if we could have a retail outlet or studio, that would make more sense for us.”
“For now, you can buy online from us via our Facebook page. But essentially when you buy batik you have to see it with your own eyes, nothing is like looking at it yourself. So we want people to come to our studio and say ‘hey, I am looking for a specific piece, but I don’t know what I want’. We can then show them all the pieces and let them take their pick, and even for us to be able to give them ideas on what they can do with it. The added value is for us to help customers picture how the piece can be made into a panel dress or whatever the customers want,” she explains.
“Eventually we would like to create more home décor and household products, we are exploring using batik in interior design,” she says, adding that she wants their designs to remain true to Malaysian heritage.