Growing up, I have always been fascinated with the traditional clothing of different cultures. I believe that apart from being more than just a piece of apparel for you to look good in, it pays homage to the heritage of the culture as well. A perfect example is Batik, a traditional textile originating from the island of Java, which is now seeing a resurgence and is now more frequently seen in contemporary fashion.
Although Batik has its own unique history and craftsmanship, it is not easy to start up a label in Singapore, where the retail industry is highly competitive. Batik might have returned, but in this perpetual changing landscape of fashion, nothing is sure to stay.
This curiosity about the sustainability of Batik led me to an interview with Oniatta Effendi, the owner of Baju by Oniatta. More than just Batik, I was in awe of how Oniatta has seamlessly transitioned from doing theatre and being an educator, to a dedicated professional in the field of Batik.
As I took my first steps into the store, the collection of alluring batik apparels lining up by the side was a sight to marvel. “Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” greeted Oniatta with a beaming smile as she stood up from her workspace before proceeding to the interview.
Don Teo: When did Baju by Oniatta start?
Oniatta Effendi: I have been working on Baju by Oniatta as a side business since 2016 when I was still teaching full-time. Pop-up events for Baju are held every few months on weekends, where setting up of these pop-ups were done on Fridays. It was a way to grow the business and there will often be a long queue of people heading down to purchase my products which made me enjoy doing this business. It isn’t until now that I have dedicated myself to doing this full time.
D: What made you decide to focus on the Batik business all of a sudden?
O: I left teaching as I initially had plans to move abroad, but it did not pan out. That was when I realised Baju had been with me all this while and the unconditional love that I gave it made me decide to grow the business. I had a lot of doubt as I did not know how to make it better or if I should continue conducting pop-up sales which are tedious to set up and tear down. I’ve also had to entertain phone calls from customers on days after the pop-up sales. I realised then that it’s becoming very home-based, so why not make the best use out of it?
D: What was the biggest challenge that you faced when you first decided to do this business full-time?
O: I think more than anything else, what stopped me from pursuing this full-time was fear and the fact that I was so crippled by the regularity of knowing that, as a teacher, my days began at 8.30 A.M. and ended at 5 P.M. It shocked my family too. My mother joked that I was a university graduate yet I am about to make a living by selling batik. *laughs* I am actually beginning to find the regularity as a retailer but I am hoping that things will not be too routine.
D: How would you best describe what makes Baju stand out from the other batik labels in Singapore right now?
O: My fabric selections are sourced during my travels and I also personally design the ready to wear pieces. The fabrics are all hand stamped or hand-drawn without the use of digital prints. I am very concerned about the technique and how it is coming from an ecosystem of people who are tirelessly putting their stories on a piece of fabric. I think it is really about honouring the traditions and processes in making it which sets it apart from other younger businesses that resort to print.
I wanted this space to be more than just transactional. It should be where people can come and appreciate Batik as an art. To me, having this gallery is already a big win because I get to place some of my prized pieces such as the vintage wraps where people can take a look and appreciate Batik.
D: If you could turn back time, what would you have done differently?
O: I would probably be stuck in a comfortable spectrum of doing well in school. Then again, I would not want to turn back and change anything as I like the risks that I have taken. I might fail, but that’s the best thing that can happen if I want to grow. Failure lets me see how to develop things and ideas further and what needs to be adjusted from there. It’s all about learning, and that is something I hold on to even when I work with my students. We should not be afraid of failing.
D: Do you expect success from your children in their academics just like how it was expected of you were young?
O: I think what I tell my children daily is to do their best in everything that they do, be it in exams or otherwise. I have children who are all very different from each other and I don’t have a definite way of telling my kids how or what they want to do as long as they perform to the best of their ability. However, results cannot lie and in this landscape that we live in right now it is very bleak; I lost two students to suicide in a span of six weeks. Every time you lose a student, you cannot help but feel that that could have been your kid.
The whole measurement of success and failure is just a daily conversation that we have, but more importantly, you have to enjoy what you do. Even learning needs to be enjoyable, and that’s something so difficult because learning isn’t made enjoyable in school anymore. It has become such torture and pain, especially with tuitions and enrichment classes doled out to kids as young as five.
D: You have helped several underprivileged communities in the past, most notably the applied theatre session with the boy’s home. How has this changed the way you looked at the evolving role of the arts in rehabilitation?
O: Every time I finish an applied theatre session, I have to decompress. There are a lot of narratives from underprivileged and marginalized communities that I have to take in. Some of them include boys without the support of family members and they are dislocated from what we have come to know and understand as normal. I see these people that I helped with as regular youths, who just happen to find themselves in a misadventure that got them into this place. They’re actually highly intelligent, but you have to learn how to engage with them and put aside all your judgments.
D: What was the drive that pushed you to help such communities?
O: Applied work has been with me for about 10 to 12 years and working with the community allows me to bring my skills in using drama to different groups of participants. Over the years, I have developed my repertoire and it all started with that set of skills that I wanted to use to connect with people and allow them to use the same skills to develop theirs in reflection.
D: As someone with such a storied career that spans TV, Theatre, teaching, and now retail, what advice can you give someone young like me about perseverance?
O: I think it all boils down to your conviction and that belief of what you want to do. Time will not stop nor will it rewind, so just go do it. It is a crazy pace that we’re going through in life right now and there have been many missed opportunities in life that I personally have let by.
I was going to do my Masters in Warwick but I got married instead. I certainly don’t regret it because of the children that I have, but I still wonder what would life have been like if I had gone to the UK. I sometimes wonder about people who are obsessed with planning for retirement. Why bother talking about retirement planning when at some point in time, tue retirement plan has to start with something, somewhere. If this is something that you want to generate income for your older years, then that’s something you need to start doing now. You can’t just be driven by money though—it has to fill you in the heart. Unlike money, that feeling of purpose and passion cannot be bought, borrowed or stolen. That connection you have with the things that you do, with the people and the relationships built, that’s what’s important.
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