Q and A with Dinny Jusuf (Founder of Toraja Melo, Eco-Fashion Activist)

Toraja Melo story is a motivating story of social entrepreneurship where two sisters work tirelessly to promote women economic development & cultural rejuvenation through green fashion. Toraja Melo seems to be natural progression for the sisters given their careers background. The women after all have impressive track records under their belt of years promoting anti violence against women and empowering women through many venues. Devisanthi Tunas of Green Asia Force talked to the founder and finds out what is at the core of Toraja Melo and their long term mission.

GAF: How did you get started with Toraja Melo?

Dinny Jusuf (DJ): At the end of 2007, I was exhausted after working as secretary general of the National Commission on Anti Violence Against Women (KOMNAS Perempuan). Shortly after I went back to my husband’s village in Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. In 2008 with the drop of tourism I saw that almost nobody was wearing and buying the hand-woven textile of Toraja. It was then we decided to create Toraja Melo (TM). The name means ‘beautiful Toraja’ and we aim to provide opportunities for the women artisans and farmers in Toraja to achieve a better life. The mission includes providing access to education, skills training, as well access to financial institutions and market. The dream is to rejuvenate the hand-woven textile industry while improving the weavers’ life –who are all women- by designing, producing and marketing high quality products made of the hand-woven textile.

Torajanese woman artisan weaving (image credit: Toraja Melo)

Torajanese woman artisan weaving (image credit: Toraja Melo)

GAF: As we know environmental awareness has become a hot button issue for a while and such awareness has spilled over to fashion industry territory too. Green fashion movement has started to be taken more seriously. What is green fashion to you? In what ways Toraja Melo fits the bill?

DJ: Green fashion is one aspect of Toraja Melo that is a part of our continuous learning process. Other aspects are, i.e. tackling poverty, weaving techniques, transportation cost, marketing, etc. As for now for us ‘green fashion’ means that development of our fashion line from raw material to end product uses minimal electricity energy and minimizes material waste. We are also applying our own version of ‘fair-trade’ system when dealing with the weavers.

Our raw material, i.e. the textile- is hand-woven by the women using back-strap wooden loom, so it does not use electricity. Many items of our designs can be worn in different style, i.e. our sarong dress can be worn in three different ways. There is no need to buy too many items and we create less wastage. Toraja Melo also uses remnants of the hand-woven textile to produce various accessories such as necklaces, scarfs, etc. This way we create almost zero waste. Our products require minimal maintenance. Hand wash only needed and no ironing is necessary thus they use less energy to maintain.  As you can see, Toraja Melo’s sustainability effort focuses on minimal waste and energy involved thus less impact on the environment. Last but not the least, at the very core of the business Toraja Melo always work to create a positive social impact on the weavers community.

Hand weaving process (image credit: Toraja Melo)

Hand weaving process (image credit: Toraja Melo)

GAF: Do you see any future of such fashion Indonesia and how do you think the government can help to promote it?

DJ: Yes, green or sustainable fashion is actually deeply rooted in Indonesian ethnic/ tribal communities’ culture. For example, in Toraja, people used to wear bark cloth, hand-spun cotton with natural dye etc. The challenge now is how to bring the knowledge of the past into modern day-to-day life. Of course the government has the capability to help. Toraja Melo has been supported by various ministries, i.e. Ministry of Trade, Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Tourism & Creative Economy and Ministry of Cooperative and Small & Medium Enterprise. To give you some examples, the Ministry of Industry has been working to compile the information on natural dye of Indonesia. Various ministries have also been supporting the Green Fashion Movement of Indonesia Fashion Week.

GAF:  We live in an era where fast fashion is seen as the answer to fast changing trends. As fashion industry player, how does Toraja Melo stay relevant and trendy without resolving to unsustainable practice? Traditional hand woven textile is of course known to require a longer timer to produce. Has longer lead time in producing such materials posed a challenge to you in meeting ever-changing market demands?

DJ: We always try to incorporate our 5 F’s policy i.e, First Quality, Functional, Fashionable, Fixed Price and (made of) Fiber. Our products are hand-made from start to finish. We have learned to manage the long time needed to produce the hand-woven textile by taking into consideration the weavers’ life and work cycle for example there is time for planting and harvesting rice, time for family rearing, time for ceremonies and time for weaving.

Our target market is the young generation and the young at heart. We stay relevant by launching our design every year at Indonesia Fashion Week. Our design is rooted to the local culture while contemporary in style.

Contemporary style of Toraja Melo (image credit: Toraja Melo)

Contemporary style of Toraja Melo (image credit: Toraja Melo)

GAF: Toraja Melo has been around since 2008 how has the business benefitted the life of weavers and their family? Has becoming a weaver now considered as a sustainable career for women in Toraja and East Flore especially in the areas where you do your work in?

DJ:  Our tagline is Community-Quality-Compassion. We work with the Communities; we produce Quality items and strive to give Quality service. We also always try to work based on Compassion.   In Toraja we work with 6 clusters of weavers totaling around 150 women. Some of them have never woven before. By learning to weave they are able to earn a living. Now many of them earn a regular income by selling their weaving to Toraja Melo and other buyers. Many young girls are now taking up weaving to pay for their education. Some women even returned to their villages after being migrant workers in other islands or Malaysia to work as weaver to support their family. Most of these weavers are actually the sole bread winner of their families as their husbands hold irregularly jobs as farmer laborers or builders. We are very happy that after more than five years more Torajanese now proudly wear their traditional hand-woven textile. A Torajanese regent even instructed his civil staffs to start wearing it weekly after attending our fashion show in Jakarta. As the tourism started to pick up again, we see increasing interest in traditional textile from foreign and domestic tourists.

GAF: What projects do you have planned for this year and what is your long term plan for Toraja Melo?

DJ: For the last few years several weavers community have approached us and asked to be ‘Torajameloized’ or ‘diTorajaMelokan’. Those were the exact terms that they used. Needless to say we feel much honored.

Last year Toraja Melo forged a partnership with PEKKA (Pengembangan Perempuan Kepala Keluarga) an organization that seeks to empower female headed households. PEKKA has been working in ‘community organizing’ since 2002 and it has 20,000 members in 19 provinces. We also since 2012 partnered with Biru Terong initiative to document the life of weavers through films and photographs. Together we have a synergized effort in promoting hand-woven textile where each of us focus on our respective area of expertise, i.e, PEKKA in community organizing, Biru Terong in documentation and Toraja Melo in desigh-product- marketing. In January 2015 we started to develop new clusters of weavers in Mamasa in West Sulawesi. Later in the year, we will work with weavers from East Flores islands of Lembata and Adonara.

GAF: Lastly, we would like to as a more personal question as you are actively promoting green fashion movement how do you walk the talk?

DJ: Fashion wise, I only wear Toraja Melo products…from head-to-toe…ha ha.

We are working toward our dream to have a community based cotton farm because actually Indonesia does not really have local raw material supplies for cotton and silk.

FOUNDERS:

Dinny Jusuf (image credit: Toraja Melo)

Dinny Jusuf (image credit: Toraja Melo)

Dinny Jusuf is married to Torajanese man and initiated the company and foundation of her concern about dying weaving culture. Dinny previously worked in Citibank as a banker. She also set up a training consultancy business. She also served as secretary general of Komnas Perempuan. In 1998 Dinny co-founded Suara Ibu Peduli (The Voice of Concerned Mothers) an association of poor urban women which runs education and micro-finance programs.

Nina Jusuf (image credit: Toraja Melo)

Nina Jusuf (image credit: Toraja Melo)

Nina Jusuf has a fashion design degree from The Academic of Art University in San Francisco. She has been actively promoting against domestic violence since 1992 and she served as executive director of San Francisco Women Againts Rape. Nina co-founded the National Organization of Asian Pacific Islanders Ending Sexual Violence (on women) USA. As a Capacitar International trainer, Nina facilitates sustaining activism workshops for Human Rights Defenders and NGO staff in the US, Indonesian and other countries.

In their joined quest for a better life for women, Dinny as CEO is in charge of finance, fund raising and marketing while Nina as COO takes care of design, production and operations.

AWARDS:

On 6 March 2013 Dinny Jusuf received ‘Indonesian Women of Change’ Award  under the trade and investment category from the US Ambassador to Indonesia as part of the celebration of International Women’s Day.

In July 2013 Toraja Melo head-to-toe design by Nina Jusuf received “The Best Creation Award’ by Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI). It was chosen among 100 small and medium enterprises.

On 7 November 2014, APEC’s Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy has officially recognized Toraja Melo as one of “50 Leading Companies for Women in APEC”.

Thank you Toraja Melo for talking with us.

More information on Toraja Melo can be found on their website

Also check out their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram account: TorajaMelo

 

About the author

Devisanthi Tunas is the co-founder of www.greenasiaforce.com, an online platform which promotes sustainability awareness and green building solutions in tropical context. She is a Singapore based architect.