Impossible adventures in the rag trade
If Yanis Emilia had sought a business loan with the following proposal her purse would have left the bank no heavier than when she entered:
‘Hey, I’ve got this great idea. I’m an ethnic Chinese Indonesian Protestant living in a regional city far from Jakarta. Although I’m a trained designer I’ve never been to the fashion centers of Paris, London or New York. Despite these factors - what some might consider handicaps - I want to make wedding gowns and export them to rich Muslim women in the Arab States.’
Only a plan to sell crucifixes in Mecca might have been dismissed faster.
Fortunately the young dressmaker built her business slowly so the scenario above wasn’t necessary.
After studying in Surabaya Yanis started making dresses at home in Malang for friends and relatives.
The youngest of five children she was the only one who’d inherited her mother’s dexterity with the needle. By third year in elementary school she had already sewn a uniform that could be worn without ridicule from her classmates.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Yanis said. “I feel happiest when making clothes and seeing people look beautiful.”
Dressmaking is more competitive than the World Cup; there’s no shortage of tailors in the suburbs able to let out a waist or shorten a hem – and at a pinch zip up a ball gown.
Then there’s the off-the-peg trade. Find a shopping center without dress retailers and it’s time to check your whereabouts because you’re certainly not in Indonesia. At the time of writing a nearby mall was staging a huge expo of wedding services, including a wide range of bridal wear.
Why go to a cramped home business that’s never featured in the glossy mags and risk a major embarrassment on your Most Important Day?
Yanis ignored the opposition and just kept stitching. After a few years she was employing three women and had a business title – Honest Design.
“I hope the name reflects my philosophy,” she said in her tiny lounge with a full rack of gowns along one wall.
Shoppers expecting a splendid showroom with glass walls and plastic everywhere – including the smiles – would rapidly realise Jalan Taman Sulfat is not Fifth Avenue.
“I try to have a personal relationship with my clients and I always treat them with respect. I never ignore a complaint, though these are rare.”
It’s an attitude that seems to have paid off. The rag trade is internationally notorious for attracting bitchy people forever tottering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, but Yanis, 41, doesn’t fit the stereotype.
During The Jakarta Post’s visit no personal assistants rushed to her with approvals to sign. The only sound came from sewing machines, not jangling phones or screaming staff. Said the boss: “No-one is allowed to get angry round here.”
Honest Design now employs 20 women full time producing around 20 garments a week. Her order book is full till June. Shortly she’ll be moving to bigger premises and employing up to five more staff recruited from technical high schools.
Most of her work is for women in Java, but now she’s exporting to the Middle East and has already sent 50 wedding dresses to Jeddah, the Red Sea port and second biggest city in Saudi Arabia.
Opening this market broke all the textbook rules; no advertising, no website and no visit to her customers’ homeland. But wedding gear is personal, and women tend to rely on the recommendations of friends.
“I get my work only through word of mouth,” she said. “”People know I will follow their instructions; many just say ‘we’ll leave it up to you’. I’m confident our exports will grow.”
Doing business from afar has its challenges. How do you ensure gowns fit when the customer has visited only once before flying home? And how do you communicate with women who don’t speak Indonesian?
“My wife has a great talent for sizing up measurements and understanding clients’ needs,” said her insurance agent husband Gideon. The couple have one son aged 10; together they can muster enough English to talk to their Arab customers, educated in Europe and mistresses of the international language.
Women buy their own materials or ask Honest Design to select. Some provide sketches; others leave the details to Yanis. Although Arab customers often choose black or dark blue there’s a surprising call for bright colors, modern styles and off-the shoulder dresses.
Sequins, embroidery, beads, buttons and other fripperies [or essentials if you’re a woman] are also much in demand, while the Western trend is for elegant, but simple. Yanis, who works in T-shirt and jeans - also prefers this fashion.
In one of her workrooms eight women sat on the floor decorating dresses. Through the open doorway more were sewing, ironing and draping mannequins. The third room, which doubles as a kitchen, is also used to finish garments.
Elsewhere queues of bags stuffed full of material from patrons waiting for Yanis’ attention so they can get round to marrying Mr Right – and at the same time show the world that they’re not only rich – but beautiful, at least for one day.
Her overseas clients have enough money to shop in the world’s capitals for top brand names, but they also want something that’s original.
Yanis said the price of her gowns was about half that charged for international labels. However that was not the selling point.
“Many shops don’t listen to their customers,” she said. “Trust is so important. We are always on time. I see every garment and check the quality. These factors overcome any national, ethnic and religious differences. The problem now is to maintain control as we get bigger.
“Indonesia could be a world fashion leader – we have the materials, the skills and creativity. But we must also be disciplined and provide total customer care with honesty. I can’t stress that enough.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 February 2015)