The Yak spoke with Ajit Khatai, ceo of Uluwatu handmade Balinese lace – the 50-year-old true Bali legacy fashion brand – about life in Bali, the journey so far and the future for the brand.
How has Bali been for you?
Been here since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. I think one word for life here would be: healing.
What does Uluwatu Handmade Balinese Lace mean to you?
Magical and challenging on so many levels. A fashion business in Bali. A brand that’s core skill-set is lace. Only two colours (white and black) to the range planning. Tourists as primary customer. Language barrier. An immensely talented pool, which is aging.
How is it that sophistication and simplicity exists seamlessly in Uluwatu Lace? We know it’s not easy. How do you manage to achieve it?
It looks easy, because ours is a story of Bali. We carry the soul of everything that’s beautiful here. By layering simplicity over and over, we are able to create sophistication. Our pursuit is perfection. Our founder Ni Made Jati focussed on love for creating great designs. She was inspired by modern women who are independent and rebellious. Over the years, we have redefined this modern woman. I think these three elements, Bali, Simplicity and Perfection are our secrets.
How did the brand start…
In the 1970s it seemed a good business proposition. Bali had an abundance of lace skills. An influx of foreigners was allowing exploration of new silhouettes (before lace was predominately used on Kebayas). Our founder saw the possibilities. Those were times when Bali was getting started on its lasting reputation of being heaven; of secret idyllic beaches where seekers and hippies found the surf, sand and beads, and loads of sunshine to tan their skin. She adapted the lace to the new world, from airy over layers to breezy gowns for the evening fire. The Bohemian spirit has been alive ever since.
Uniquely, the Uluwatu Lace brand is cemented deeply in Bali’s history and colonial past. Can you briefly tell us more…
No-one starts out to make history. Our journey gave us two rights: time and place. Bali’s lace tradition of krawang or Lobang is a rich living craft. Earliest evidence showing its use is in the 10CE, during the end of the Majapahit reign. Almost 1,000 odd years of existence. There is an unsubstantiated belief that Kerawang is the classic crochet lace of Northern Europe. Said to be carried by missionaries who travelled with the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The timeline could be anywhere around 1600CE. But the real impact can be attributed to after 1796, when the VOC was abolished and the Dutch government gained control over Indonesia, which continued until 1941.
And then there was the modern journey…
Yes. Somewhere around mid ’70s, Kebaya was getting its space as a classic apparel which was introduced as modesty. Lace got incorporated into the Kebaya. We have been trying to perfect the art form ever since then. This evolved into the temple culture, to exactly the same clothing culture we witness in Bali today. We have managed to transform it into something desirable globally. Breaking the limitations of design was the tipping point. With just two colors, white and black, it was a sure recipe for disaster. The fact that we are still here is something bigger than a miracle. But here we are…
Why white and black?
Our journey was for excellence. I suppose we reached this point naturally. It is difficult to reason why in a 50-year journey. An intelligent guess is, white was preferred due to the tropical climate and black was easy to handle. In the early years, consistent yarns in colors was not an easy proposition. Whatever the reason, we are memorable because of the two colours.
How many people are involved in making your designs?
Our family is around 500 individuals. More than three quarters of this number are involved in the design creation and the rest are in support operations. Each person in our ecosystem is a lifelong partner to creation of these exclusive designs.
What makes this brand click?
Love and Bali. You immerse in this paradise. In return the paradise diktats that you respond with honesty. That’s what we give. We do not dilute our principles to suit business obligations. Our products are made in the old fashioned way. We have steered clear of shortcuts. Each and every piece is made in the same traditional method of bamboo hoops and slow needle whirring to make the lace. Love has its own karmic journey. Maybe it’s the love that’s responding back.
What are the attitudes in fashion changing over the decades? Where is fashion’s future for designs with your niche?
Look at the fashion around the world. Lace and crochet are consistent. Lace is here to stay. That speaks loads on the future of lace in fashion. It’s a classic embellishment in fashion. Women love it. It’s not going away anytime soon. We are a lace brand. We need one purchase to happen in a thousand in our market to stay in business. That’s a simple logic for excellence. We have to keep creating the most simple, sophisticated designs with the same passion. Great designs don’t need volume. We are content right now.
What does high thread count mean to you and why is it important to your company?
Yarn is the key. Our yarn goes through immense stress, which makes it absolutely essential to have a unique tensile strength, which is stable in the lace making process, avoiding brittleness. We have conjured up a specific blend of rayon yarns to achieve this over the years. It stays unbroken for the longest stretch of action. That brings the unique sheen to our lace.
How has the Covid Pandemic affected your brand?
It’s been a kind of blessing in disguise. We found time for course correction. Our focus diverted from sales to being janitors (cleaning up the brand). We found scope to refine our skills. Created a data-bank of designs. Refined the skills that had been acquired over 50 years. We updated software and improved processes. Basically we did a lot of clean-up. We had to ensure our designs remain heirloom pieces. Creating possibilities of engagement to lace designs. We conceptualized a Balinese Lace Museum and initiated the process of getting nominated as a heritage craft. It was a long list.
Which design will be your all-time superstar creation? Is there a story in its creation?
We love almost all our ’70s designs. The decade when chic, colour and pool parties were the epitome. The age of revolution … styles that clicked. Then we were busy making something revolutionary to be loved. We got our foothold in fashion in the ’70s.
How are you involved in the creative community in Bali?
As the flag bearer of Balinese Lace Fashion, we are the finest on the block. Both the founder and myself are pretty much very private people. Our direct visible engagement remains slower than we would like. However, we engage with artists, graphic artists, photographers, musicians and actors. We love to be the support to young creative talents.
What are the current design projects at Uluwatu Lace?
This year we are engaging in a lot of very interesting projects … I like to call in non-invasive cross-innovation, where we identify non-parallel creative techniques to come together in an organic symbiotic visual extravagance. Our designers are busy rejecting designs to arrive at acceptable designs. For example, imagine trying to combine lighter Endek fabric with Balinese lace. Both techniques cannot overpower each other. The balance of weight, colour and flow is an absolutely challenging experience.
Which particular Indonesian / international celebrities could wear your designs and embody what they mean?
For us, Happy Salma is the epitome of what Uluwatu Lace is supposed to mean. She is the purity of how our design should be expressed. In the case of Hollywood, I would love our designs on Alicia Vikander. Her athletic features and Grecian expression are timeless. And of course, Priyanka Jonas Chopra’s dusky exoticism. If they are reading this … we love you!
What’s next for Uluwatu Lace?
Short-Term: make our mark on the Paris, New York, London and Tokyo fashion scenes. Medium Term: Get listed in UNESCO heritage craft category. Long Term: hopefully keep creating inspiring designs. We have a goal to make the brand 100% sustainable with minimum carbon footprint. Engage with blockchain technology to track the impact of our brand. We also hope to have a community fingerprint, where we go beyond our business obligations and leave lasting imprints within the community that defines us.