Batik is an ancient – and highly developed – art form where dye-resistant wax is used to create delicate patterns and designs on a piece of fabric. It requires a high level of technique, skill and also artistry which often goes unappreciated. Founder of local batik label Baju by Oniatta and store owner Oniatta Effendi is changing that narrative. The former full-time educator brings us around her store Galeri Tokokita in the illustrious Kampong Gelam which is stocked with unique pieces from her brand and home to some of the most beautiful batik fabric you will find in Singapore.
It is not the first location for Galeri Tokokita – she had first opened in MOX, a co-making space in Katong, and even before that, operated through pop-ups and exclusive events. Today, the store looks over North Bridge Road and the Kampong Gelam precinct – something she feels is symbolic and humbling because it is where batik trading first started in Singapore.
Why is batik so special?
Batik is one of a kind. You can't find two pieces of the same colour, same kind, same motif and with batik, you need to see it in person – it's really about the experience which is why it is so special. We all know it to be an old heritage cloth and something that is traditional but what we're doing every day in this role is championing an ecosystem of batik makers and craftsmen who are doing this art to earn a living – it is part of their livelihood. I tell myself that with every batik that I take home, or a client takes home contributes to this ecosystem.
Tell us more about the journey of Baju by Oniatta and Galeri Tokokita.
The history of Baju began in 2016 with 12 pairs of pants. It was all I could afford at the start – I had one tailor and just enough resources and decided to launch the Utama pants which have now become quite a signature piece in my label. (The pants come with an extra flap in the front lending it an elegant silhouette – but can be worn casually with a t-shirt or spruced up with a kebaya top or blouse.)
Galeri Tokokita the physical store itself was birthed in 2019 at Katong out of necessity because I had a luggage full of batik. Because we used to function mainly as a pop-up, after the event ended people would come by the house to browse and buy batik. I set up the store when I realised it was the right time and I was also in the right headspace to be able to pursue this full-time. We were in MOX for a year and a half but in times like these, the rent doubled but lucky for us, we found this spot and have settled in.
"We all know it to be an old heritage cloth... but what we're doing every day in this role is championing an ecosystem of batik makers and craftsmen who are doing this art to earn a living – it is part of their livelihood."
Do you enjoy this more than teaching?
I do miss teaching very much but I am truly relishing the space that I have and the time that I am giving to this and it fills my heart when I see how much the brand has grown. All this would not have happened if I didn't take that leap of faith and jump out of that comfortable ship to do what started out and continues to be something challenging. I'm not business-trained or even textile-trained and everything I've learnt is from reading, having conversations with friends, batik researchers in Indonesia and textile collectors – it's always a process of sharing and learning new things which I love. I miss teaching but I think I'm in a happy place now.
How did your passion for batik start?
I have always been wearing it and I'm drawn to batik – until it became quite an obsession. While it started as a vanity – of wearing it and buying it because it's pretty – my love for batik grew deeper as I travelled more to Indonesia and got to know about the art and the makers. There was a sense of intrigue that got me talking to the makers for hours and listening to their stories, sometimes while they were working. I would buy batik from them because I genuinely liked the art and I think that's where I realised that I wanted to share these stories about them and about the batik motifs to a wider audience. With each and every one of these cloths there is a philosophy and meaning with the symbols and motifs. At the core of it, it's about the people. When we start building relationships, it becomes more than just a transaction between us and the craftsmen – and similarly, between us and the clientele. Which brings to why it's called 'Tokokita' which means 'our store' and not 'my store'.
"With each and every one of these cloths there is a philosophy and meaning with the symbols and motifs."
How did Covid-19 affect your business?
When we launched our Kasih Sayang collection in 2020 meant for Eid that year, the week after restrictions started happening as the pandemic situation escalated and we had to close the store temporarily. We had an entire collection that we didn't know what to about. I was getting anxious and my makers in Indonesia were equally anxious as well because they couldn't produce batik and the tailors could not do anything being in lockdown. But they quickly picked up that there was a demand for face masks and we got to work making masks from remnants of previous collections. The response was overwhelming and quickly sold out and soon the batik masks became quite a signature part of the label as well. What was interesting is that when restrictions eased up and people could go out more, we would get customers (who bought the masks during the circuit breaker) coming in the store wanting to see the full batik cloth that their mask was part of. Some of them would ask about the motifs and prints to learn more. In a way, the mask was a sample or teaser of the batik we have in the store.
"At the core of it, it's about the people. When we start building relationships, it becomes more than just a transaction between us and the craftsmen – and similarly, between us and the clientele."
What is a collection you are excited about?
The one collection I am excited about is from an upcoming one called Lingkaran (meaning 'circle'). The Edisi Puisi – which means poetic edition – has hidden poetry in the batiks. There's three in a set which comes in different colours and in each of these cloths, there is a hidden phrase from an entire line which reads 'aku ingin mencintaimu seperti lingkaran yang tak berujung'. Translated it means "I want to love you like a circle with no end." I love it because it's almost like a love letter – from the craftsmen to us, the wearer. Of course if you but it for your partner, it also becomes a love letter to them, from you. At the end of the day, it is all about language and that we must honour the language of the makers and creators.
What is your favourite part of the shop?
The front of the shop where the windows are is my favourite part of the shop. It is where we welcome our friends and batik lovers from all around to take a look at the collection. The spot is also where they decide most of the time what they want to bring home. On top of that, I get to enjoy this fantastic view of North Bridge Road. I never thought I'd be in the heart of the city and especially Kampong Gelam which we know was where batik had first made its entrance in Singapore due to trading.
Your favourite shops in Kampong Gelam?
Pariaman for nasi padang, Mother Dough bakery for the best sourdough and Victory for martabak. They're all in the same stretch!
"...it is all about language and that we must honour the language of the makers and creators."