By: Kandice Che
Cecilia Basari and Yuli Suri were two friends living in Bali when they first made waves in the fashion industry with their sustainable, made-to-order swimwear—think beautiful, ruched shapes that are sexy, offbeat and luxe all at the same time. Now, their first foray into the world of bespoke ready-to-wear has been a resounding success, though their focus hasn't changed: they continue to experiment with sustainable, handmade designs while highlighting the local Balinese craftsmanship, which has been their compass from day one. Here, we speak with Cecilia Basari about the fashion industry, the beauty and constraints of handmade clothing and Isa Boulder’s hopes for the future.
How did the two of you meet?
I was jaded by the fashion industry after studying fashion design—whether it was the production methods and the impact on the environment, how quickly the industry churned out season after season or how on edge everyone seemed to be all the time. So as soon as I graduated, I wanted to leave that behind for a completely different discipline, which is why I moved back to Bali and decided to help out with my brother's interior design company. This is where I first met Yuli as an acquaintance.
Tell us about how the company started.
Yuli worked in the Bali garment industry for years and knew about my fashion background, so she approached me one day about starting a company with a group of really talented seamstresses who were recently let go from their jobs. The plan here was to have me lead the design while she would manage the business. Initially, I hesitated about jumping back into fashion, but I felt this bond with Yuli and knew that our strengths were complementary, so I decided to join. We started out by focusing on small, made-to-order batches of swimwear for a select few clients.
Could you explain the meaning behind the name Isa Boulder?
To be honest, there was no real purpose behind it other than the fact that we needed to give our brand a name. We wanted a name that sounded strong—hence “boulder,” like the stone—but we didn’t feel any pressure to give it a specific meaning. It needed to sound impactful but anonymous enough so that people wouldn’t associate it with any one person, whether it be Yuli or myself. So it’s good that the name came that way for us as a team, because then everyone has their own interpretation of it without it being attached to anyone in particular.
How does being based in Bali influence your approach to design?
We're pretty much in our own time zone and in our own world. There's less pressure to stick to the demands of a typical fashion season cycle, which lets us focus on our craft at our own pace. Case in point: I think our first swim collection of only six styles took almost six months to make. That's considered slow in a normal fashion industry context, but we loved every moment of that process. Also, the local craftsmen, seamstresses and manufacturers are the DNA of our brand. Without their skills, expertise and guidance, there would be no Isa Boulder.
Why is it important for you to focus on creating bespoke clothing?
When you're dealing with handmade or hand-knit items, there's this new appreciation for humankind's ability to really make something out of nothing. The way we make our clothing at Isa Boulder is 100% human—because it's our physical work, the yarn and some very rudimentary machinery. It allows us to focus on experimenting with different techniques and maximize our designs while also minimizing waste. Even though our brand's bespoke nature has its limitations when we design, we think it's a rewarding challenge for us to tackle and something that we'll definitely retain in our brand.
What do you hope someone feels when they put on one of your designs?
A sense of intimacy. We want our wearers to feel a tangible and emotional connection to our designs. It's similar to when you buy something from a vintage store and you feel an attachment to a specific piece of clothing, knowing that previous owners have loved and lived in it. So even though our clothing isn't secondhand, we think there's a similar preciousness to our handmade designs because of the human touch, skills, dedication and time put into creating that particular article of clothing. The result is that we're able to create a very wabi-sabi aesthetic, which is the Japanese concept of "beauty in the imperfect," and with that we hope that it becomes more meaningful and cherished for a long time.
After winning the hearts of fashion insiders with your swimwear, you are now repeating the same success with your new line of knitwear. Tell us about your inspiration for it.
It first started with an exploration of the Isa Boulder wearer. She's a modern woman who wants to freely express herself apart from society's norms. She's tomboyish and sexy and whatever else she wants to be at the same time, so we wanted that contrast, those real-life dualities, to come to life. We imagined how she would be active in it and how it would liberate her movements, and tried to translate that into the fabrication so that she didn't feel restricted. We worked with this yarn similar to French terry cloth, which is very tactile, so it made the perfect contrast to a risqué silhouette.
How do you continue to challenge yourselves as designers?
It’s truly a dilemma to be in the fashion business because we have to think about what we’re contributing to the world. Because, in all honesty, there’s no real need for us to design new clothes. There are enough nice, vintage garments for the entire world to wear. But as creatives and designers, it’s also an itch we have to scratch, you know? If you were a painter and had no way of painting, then there would be no outlet for you to express your thoughts or your passion.
So as our company and the demand for our pieces grow, we have to constantly think about our sustainability practices—whether that's managing production waste, finding solutions for it or educating our customers about why there are certain limitations to our designs. This is one of the reasons we want to continue to explore knit garments—because there's no waste during production when you're knitting a piece.
What do you hope the post-COVID fashion world will look like?
As makers and consumers, we hope that everyone comes to truly appreciate time: time in terms of how long it takes for a garment to be designed and made; time in terms of how long you can love and wear a piece of clothing. We hope it’ll be a world where designs won't become redundant after a season, a world where we can see the value behind the craft rather than being overwhelmed by trends.
What do you want Isa Boulder to be known for?
We want to be known as a brand that focuses on experimenting within creative constraints that are ethical and healthy for the environment, the talented human beings behind the local craftsmanship and beautiful, handmade designs.