In a new campaign with the British Council, the 33-year-old brings the traditional Malaysian textile to the global stage
Once seen as a traditional fabric worn by the older generation, batik has seen a revival in recent years, thanks to a new wave of designers modernising the art form. One of them is KL-based Fern Chua, the self-taught batik-maker and founder of womenswear label FERN.
Known for her signature resort wear wraps and kaftans bearing contemporary prints, Fern first started dabbling in batik 10 years ago, as a way to rehabilitate her hand after a serious car accident. Falling in love with the art, she eventually launched her eponymous label in 2013. In the ensuing years, she has championed batik by engaging local artisans in her work and raising awareness through batik workshops with the Institut Kraf Negara.
The 33-year-old is now one of the six artists featured in the new Crafting Futures campaign by the British Council, which celebrates traditional crafts from around the world by spotlighting practitioners from Mexico, Thailand, Philippines, UK, Romania, and Malaysia. The campaign film, entitled Why I Make, features Fern in her studio, where viewers get a glimpse into her design process and what batik means to her.
We recently caught up with Fern, who talks about the campaign, the challenges she faces as a modern batik designer, and why preserving the art form is so important to her.
Talk to us about your new collaboration with the British Council.
I first heard about this campaign from the British Council’s Head of Arts and Creative Industries, Florence Lambert, who personally contacted me and asked if this would be something of interest to me. I proceeded to pitch and present my brand and about two weeks later, I received the good news that I was chosen for the film series.
I have always had a passion for batik. This is a great opportunity for me, not just as an artist, but also for the country to showcase what we can do for Malaysian batik and get recognition globally for the art form.
“Batik is a beautiful traditional art form that deserves preservation, to be shared with the future generations.”
What first drew you to batik?
It all started with a car accident that literally changed my life. What started out as a process for rehabilitation became an outlet for me to explore my creativity. It was very tricky starting out, since I knew very little about batik and fashion design. However, I persevered to learn the craft, studying pattern making, consulting the pioneers in the craft industry and eventually landing an opportunity to pitch my business idea to government investment arm MyCreative Ventures.
Why is conserving batik so important to you?
Batik has always been deeply rooted in many lives, and has shaped Malaysia’s heritage and culture. It is a beautiful traditional art form that deserves preservation, to be shared with the future generations. I would like to continue to move it with the times and bring it into the future.
The human touch makes all the difference too. With batik, you are creating one-of-a-kind pieces and it can be sustainably produced. I also engage with a lot of talented local batik artisans; through this, we are continuing our efforts in providing jobs for them.
Your designs are a departure from traditional batik patterns. Have you received any criticism?
For me, I still use the traditional techniques to create my patterns. However, I do reimagine batik with more contemporary looks and designs – something that is comfortable for everyday wear. I want to create pieces that suit the modern lifestyle, while still being able to preserve the art – and maybe even introduce to new generations.
Batik has different meanings to different people. This can sometimes also create stigmas which leads to a never-ending debate and critique. I choose to stick to my own beliefs – preserving the craft while modernising the design based on my own inspiration. To me, batik is more than a heritage, it is an art form. And I feel that art itself should not be confined to what is black and white.
The pandemic has been a tough time for retail. How has FERN navigated these challenges?
We are definitely engaging with our customers more online and on social media. The strategy for the brand and business has also shifted to focus more on online platforms, and more orders are now being made on our web store. It is definitely a challenging time for all retail businesses, especially smaller local ones, as many struggle to survive.
Any tips for anyone who might shy away from wearing batik in their day-to-day?
I think the best way is to use batik as an accessory to your look. Batik can add a pop of colour or pattern to your outfit. Match it with your usual basics to create a unique, standout look.
What is the best thing and the hardest thing about being a batik designer?
The best thing is seeing people appreciate my creations. It makes me so happy to see others looking confident in my pieces. The biggest challenge for me has been putting together the right team for my business. Since batik itself is a very niche market and skill, it took me a long time to find the right people for production, who understood the fundamentals of making batik and also saw eye-to-eye with my vision.