Independent fashion moves from margins to mainstream
Clothes may maketh the man, but after glancing down Bandung’s famous clothing strip, I would argue they also make the economy. Today ‘Jeans Street’, or Jalan Ciamplas, is more crowded than ever. But pitching to a youth market, which has a sensitive barometer for what is ‘in’, is not as easy as it might seem.
The mushrooming of distro, or independent fashion outlets, throughout Indonesian metropolitan centres shows that sometimes the best people to satisfy the youth market are young people themselves. But have the original reasons for distro been lost to capitalism and competition?
Collectivism and creativity
Distro is a shortening of the Indonesian word distribusi, or distribution. Generally distro differ from other youth fashion outlets by their links to the independent music industry, the age of those involved, and collective ownership styles.
In 1993, a few die-hard music fans set up a music studio in Bandung known as Reverse. This studio was also one of the first to sell international and local indie (independent) band merchandise including t-shirts, hooded jackets, cassettes and posters. A pioneer distro, Reverse mapped out the format that many independent fashion outlets were to follow.
Distro provide a vehicle for creative collective members to market and disseminate their talents. Promoting artistic licence over profit margins, distro do not source stock from factories. Instead most have their own in-house labels with all goods made in small runs. Originality and scarcity are selling points.
Cooperation marked the birth of distro, and to a certain extent it is still evident today. Lined up alongside the distro’s own merchandise are products made by friends also in the clothing game. Staffing is usually a collegiate arrangement with members working in shifts to keep overheads down. Profits are split in proportion to capital investment in the store.
Distro size and scale is as varied as the size and shape of the wallets behind them. One of the first distro I went to was Bandit. A punk hangout, Bandit was just a glass cabinet covered by a tarpaulin with two rickety benches, right next to a McDonald’s garbage skip. These days most are housed in converted garages or small shop fronts.
Distro are a contrast to Indonesia’s mall epidemic. Multi-level malls are vast expanses of bright and shiny marketing providing the shopper with a clean, air-conditioned opportunity to spend. In comparison, distro are cramped by low ceilings and are filled to the brim with merchandise stocks. Posters and stickers cover all available surfaces. Graffiti scars the walls. In Jakarta, one distro advertises its location with a burnt-out, spray-painted van parked in front of the store.
Distro originally developed from the do-it-yourself ethic of the underground music community. However, they soon evolved into a forum for exchanging news about developments in the music scene.
In the early nineties, before the internet was easily accessible, dedicated fans could only gain information from overseas through mail order. As a result, underground music news had very limited circulation. I remember the frustration when a much-awaited newsletter would be sent wayward in Indonesia’s temperamental postal system. Distro filled this void by providing a central point where information and music could be swapped and shared.
In this embryonic stage, political aspirations were rarely expressed overtly. The repressive nature of Suharto’s New Order government meant that rebellious, anti-establishment political views were best whispered, rather than yelled.
Amid the popular discontent of 1997, however, the group behind Riotic Distro broadened discussion to include politics. Riotic was the first Bandung distro to become a hub for political agitation within the punk subculture. Its publications sub-division, Riotic Papers, produced Submissive Riot, the first Bandung zine to debate social and political issues instead of purely music. Submissive Riot was followed by the equally political Harder, published by Harder distro. The Counter-Culture Collective also agitated for change, using distro networks to propagate anarchistic literature.
At the peak of the radical punk movement in Bandung between 1999 and 2000, distro served as the spot for midnight meetings to plan demonstrations and rallies as radical punks formed the aggressive frontline of demonstrations about human rights, workers rights, food subsidies and other issues. The placement of distro on main thoroughfares kept them away from neighbourhood surveillance and the control of urban village officials.
In 2003, however, distro underwent a rapid shift. One of Bandung’s clothing and accessories distro, 347, exploded onto the fashion scene. Wearing the 347 label suddenly became the funkiest trend among Bandung’s fashion conscious. It was the first time a distro had moved outside its underground niche and captured a mainstream market.
The crew behind 347 were from upper middle-class families and had more capital at their disposal than most of their forerunners. This capital, and a clever combination of marketing, attractive packaging, high quality design, good fabrics and screen printing, was 347’s strength. Very quickly its products matched those of international street and surf wear brands, although without the prohibitive price tag.
Taking millions of rupiah a day, the store soon became well-known throughout Indonesia. 347 has even penetrated markets abroad. Hot on the heels of 347’s success, distro began appearing throughout Indonesia – in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Malang, Semarang, Surabaya, Bali, Makassar, Medan and Lampung. There are now over 200 distro in Bandung alone.
This success means that distro are no longer hidden from mainstream view. Where once they were a place for underground music sub-cultures and the politically disenfranchised to share ideas away from the scrutiny of society, they now vie for strategic space close to city centres, shopping malls, high schools, and universities. It is not uncommon for a distro to be a popular after-school hangout.
In Bandung, distro are even beginning to out-compete the city’s famous fashion outlets for the youth fashion market. Foreign labels are now being shunned in favour of locally designed and produced clothing and accessories.
Distro über cool is not limited to clothing. What’s ‘in’ is broad in definition and covers everything from clothes and accessories to cassettes, CDs and posters. Any respectable distro offers a selection of all of the above, but with affordable prices that mock the efforts of their large-scale competitors.
Continuing links to the underground music scene mean that these days many of the larger distro have a department that produces music. This scenario provides a means for independent bands to release music, while at the same time avoid the drawbacks of the commercially-orientated recording industry. In an elegant symbiosis, the resulting album is then sold through the distro networks. Key indie labels that have grown from distro include Riotic Records (from Riotic distro) and Flatspils (from 347 distro).
This cooperation can also extend to band merchandise. Bands will request distro to design and sell band t-shirts. In return, band members will wear distro-designed t-shirts during gigs.
Yet the increased popularity of distro has resulted in a shift in the orientation of many distro from an ideological one to commercial one. In recent times, entrepreneurially-minded individuals have also set up distro as profit-making enterprises rather than creative collectives. Distro now market their t-shirts, wallets and backpacks to the fashion-conscious. They have also lost the political potency that characterised early distro. Instead of facilitating revolutionary meetings, distro are more likely to use their strategic placement to host Saturday night street-side gatherings.
With increased competition, less flexible and imaginative distro failed. The survivors are more commercially savvy and have learnt the importance of self-promotion. Distro now hand out free items such as stickers, badges, and posters at concerts and gigs. At a recent hip-hop gig in one of Bandung’s sports halls, I became the proud owner of three new key rings, all from newly established distro.
Many distro also advertise in the larger, more widely distributed glossy independent print media publications such as Ripple Mag, Suave, and D!!Side. Some of the larger distro are even sponsoring timeslots on local radio, holding quizzes and hosting local indie bands.
Some elements of the original collective ideology of distro remain, such as information sharing and fostering local music. Many websites are devoted to information and tips on setting up a distro or fashion label. Distro-run forums and blogs (web-based diaries) are used for networking and advertising other distro and labels. Forum members can also post information about gigs and events that their store has organised.
Costs of success
From humble beginnings, distro are making a significant impact on the youth fashion industry. But has this success come at a cost? When 347 first became successful, many of the people behind distro collectives explained to me they felt the distro scene had been ‘sold out’. They felt the original anti-capitalist push behind distro had been betrayed.
Indeed, discussion of fashion, promotion and sales now dominate the conversations held over distro counters, discussions that used to focus on political ideology and mechanisms for social change. Political resistance is almost entirely absent from the distro of today.
Yet despite recent changes to distro and ownership styles, they continue to be created by young people for young people. The design and sale of goods provide a creative outlet for young designers, and allow young shoppers to determine, create and exhibit their take on fashion. They also provide an opportunity for local bands to gain a foothold in the notoriously cutthroat music industry. Distro undoubtedly remain a meaningful place for the creation and direction of Indonesia’s youth culture.
Uttu (email@example.com) is a fervent pop culture aficionado. He runs a distro in Bandung.