Torajamelo: A Case for Fashion Well-Being

Sometimes chance encounters re-align our world views and experiences just right. I met Dinny Yusuf in June at the Wellbeing Summit for Social Change in Bilbao. I was struck by her passion for the work of indigenous textile makers and designers in Indonesia. Later I learned how deeply her award-winning, women-led brand TORAJAMELO resontated with the summit’s slogan: Wellbeing Inspires Welldoing. This November, I was happy to introduce Torajamelo to my MBA Fashion Management Media students at the International Fashion Academy in Paris as a case study in successful fashion PR.

While the brand now supports artisans across several islands and provinces in Indonesia, its story began in the Tana Toraja region. The name itself means “Beautiful Toraja” in the local dialect. Yusuf chose it as a pledge of allegiance to the land and the people in the brand’s origins. CEO Aparna Bhatnagar Saxena connected with IFA students to discuss the value alignment strategy focused on sustainable farm-to-closet design as well as human rights and indigenous heritage initiatives.

Is Torajamelo a fashion brand or a textile brand or an artisan community?

Since founding in 2008, we have been a lifestyle brand that is committed to preserve cultural, environmental, and social justice for indigenous communities we partner with.

What has been the brand trajectory so far?

Torajamelo is committed to preserving back-strap loom weaving while upholding competitive fashion quality of our products. We aim to raise awareness on indigenous heritage, environmental consciousness, and gender issues. We have embraced a younger consumer group of Gen Z and Millennials driving engagement and conversion to sales via TikTok and Instagram. Next, we are making a much stronger investment in our environmental goals by transitioning towards natural fibers and natural dyes in our weaving, re-working our supplier base and the overall supply chain.

What were some of the Torajamelo breakthrough milestones?

We first turned profitable in 2014, six years after our initial launch. We now work with 10 indigenous communities. Our clothes have been featured in most known publications in Indonesia and on the runways of Jakarta Fashion Week, Indonesia Fashion Week, and the World Textile Expo. We hope to present at international fashion weeks soon. Also, in our new location in South East Sulawesi, we started a regenerative agriculture project with local farmer collectives. We really wish to achieve authentic and genuine 100% plant-based farm-to-closet supply chain.

How do you balance craft preservation with contemporary style trends?

We believe to create awareness around indigenous crafts we need to make them more accessible. At the same time, we are committed to never compromise the motifs and patterns that our artisans use for the woven pieces. We want to ensure there is no cultural appropriation and violation of their heritage and that all are given their due. We pride ourselves on authenticity and traceability of our products and that drives the differentiation within the market as well. Also, we work in areas which are not always well known so we also love telling stories of these lands and people which are not told globally very often.

What is the strategy behind the different Torajamelo social media accounts?

So, @torajamelo is our storefront account. This is where we showcase our collections and drive awareness and sales. The main agenda of @torajamelo_stories is to tell the stories of our artisans, their communities, and the causes we support. When the store and stories accounts were combined, we received feedback that it created confusion on what we were trying to do and communicate and hence the differentiation. We also want to engage with the Japanese audience and launch Torajamelo in Japan in 2023, hence the addition of @torajamelo_japan.

How do you identify potential partners for Torajamelo? 

Research, more research, and research again! [Laughs] For us, value alignment is most important. Whoever we work with reflects the values we uphold. That is why, you will not often see us affiliated with the largest, biggest, or most famous names. We like to collaborate with people who believe in our causes and not “collaborate” just for money.

What does sustainability mean for your brand?

Sustainability is a long term-path we choose to embark on: continuously looking for better materials, better processes, better partners and what does ‘better’ mean. It is very tough in Indonesia as hardly any sustainable raw materials are available and cheaper, lower-quality materials are rampant. We also keep in mind that we work with handwoven textiles in faraway locations. Our cost of doing business and time to launch is much higher and longer compared to fast fashion brands and trends. We have consciously chosen a more difficult but a more fulfilling path.

What is your earliest fashion memory, personally? How did you understand the power of clothing and accessories to express ideas and identity?

My mum always liked accessorizing and getting me new clothes. My earliest fashion memory is going with her to the tailor and getting fitted for bespoke clothing when I was six years old. I believe that helped shape my thought process on how I want to present myself, and what I like and don’t like. Although now I look back at some photos and realize “Uggghhh… I wore that? I must have been craaazy” [Laughs] Over the years, I evolved into a more minimalistic style. Rather than just making “fashion statements”, I strongly believe clothing should be accessible, comfortable, and functional. We need to consume less but consume right.

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“Engaging with such distinct brands like Torajamelo helps us understand better the various layers and depths of the seemingly glamourous industry”, noted an MBA candidate Sanskriti Sarma

Onward!

Thank you to the fabulous IFA team Jean-Baptiste Andreani, Albane Forestier, and Ho-Thu Nguyen as well as the 2022 Fashion Media Management MBA cohort: Sanskriti SharmaKaushik PaiGinevra MassariPatricija Eglite, and Sarah-Jane Deeb.

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