“Child of Paradise is really for anyone” In Conversation with Artist & Designer Nabila Wirakusumah

Artist Nabila Wirakusumah has never been one to stick to one medium. Speaking to Buah Zine in 2018 she said, “that’s always been my problem: trying to find that one medium.” The Indonesian, NYC-based artist has taken her multidisciplinary approach to the next level in 2020, pivoting her visual art centered brand toward a beautiful and bright fashion line that highlights fabric dyed using the batik technique that originates in Java, Indonesia. 

Scrolling back through Nabila’s IG page is a trip, seeing the progression of what would eventually become her fashion line. An artist at heart and obsessed with all things creative, Nabila names the influence of Hansraj Maharawal of Studio Hansraj and her internship with him as one of the most important productive time periods for her art career. Her early experience dipping into the fashion world as a set designer would time and again inspire the next steps in her career. Through her visual collaborations creating concert flyers for her partner, show promoter Luke McCanna, working on set design for a show she co-promoted with Luke, and creative direction in lookbooks, Nabila’s affinity for visual design is apparent. Nabila has also been extremely helpful to Grandma Sophia’s grandsons, Brendan and I. She designed the flyers for the first and third show of our very successful, critically-acclaimed improv-based therapy themed show “Do You Wanna Talk About It?” currently on hiatus due the COVID-19 pandemic.

Savage the Poet – Groovy (scenic design by Nabila)

When Nabila isn’t doing scenic design for music videos or drawing incredibly detailed anime girls, she’s working on her fashion. In fact, her beautiful drawings of these anime girls are the blueprints for her fashion designs and her characters are often wearing Batik clothing and other Indonesian garments. It’s in these drawings that Nabila found her creative way forward in fashion. Nabila tells me “[I] started to draw clothes on my illustrations that tied back to batik clothes,” further cementing her art as a kind of alchemy that incorporates her many interests including fashion, music, and visual art, all under the brand name Child of Paradise. 

Nabila’s latest fashion drop for Child of Paradise, out today, leans into her Indonesian roots. With batik as the core component, the colorful line lives up to its name “Endless Summer / Cirebon Skies.” We find bright pink, reds, purples, and other colors coming together on cozy pajamas, tank tops, and trousers. The small drop makes sense. Sourcing the batik herself from markets in Indonesia, Nabila tells me that artisans spend around three weeks dyeing each piece of fabric. The more intricate and colorful the design, the longer it takes. Once it reaches her, Nabila works alone to construct each piece. Her capabilities are even more impressive when you learn she only learned to sew earlier this calendar year. During COVID-19, Nabila has also been making chic and noticeable masks that look like nothing else on the market. With her keen eye for fashion, set design, and other artistic mediums she has yet to roll out publicly, Nabila is well on her way to becoming a powerhouse all-purpose designer. 

Illustration by Darby Oehl

Check out our interview below where we discuss her artistic beginnings and creation of Child of Paradise as well as cultural appropriation in fashion, and the need for our ancestral traditions to survive. 

GSC: Who are you and how do you identify?

Nabila: I am Nabila Wirakusumah. I am an Indonesian woman. 

GSC: Your brand is Child of Paradise. What’s the significance of the name and the message of the brand?

Nabila: Child of Paradise is really for anyone. The issue I have is that I wanted to be my own person and have agency and do all that and be free, while still honoring where I’m from in my roots. Moving through a space where that felt like such a contradiction in certain ways. I have three sisters and the three of us out of our entire family were the only ones raised outside of Indonesia. We don’t speak Indonesian very well. My mom’s idea for raising us this way was to be successful and be our own people and have more opportunities in life than our cousins did or our parents did growing up. And I think that’s a beautiful intention, but it also made us cut-off from our culture in a way that has definitely affected our mental health and our confidence. Child of Paradise was created by me to have a space to reconcile those two things that felt really at odds. 

GSC: I relate to that a lot actually. I don’t speak Spanish very well at all so I don’t feel that connection to the Puerto Rican culture side as much and it does bother me. I definitely feel like I lost that part of the culture a lot, which is probably why I lean towards the blackness of me

Nabila: Yeah, with globalization a lot of people are caught up in that contradiction. How do we honor our roots in an authentic way? When I go home I also get confronted with this messaging like, “if you’re on your period you can’t pray” or “why are you wearing that? It’s so revealing”. Little things like that, that are also fucked up. It’s like if paradise is home, paradise is also not perfect. By existing in between these spaces we can make both better. 

GSC: What has your journey as an artist been like? Where did you start and where are you now?

Nabila: It’s been marked by a lack of self-awareness. I’ve been told I’m a very self-aware person, but in terms of my artistic journey I think everything you think is going to happen doesn’t happen that way. I was always caught between music, writing, and art as a child. For a long time I thought music was for sure going to be a thing. I thought, “I’m going to be a rock star. That’s definitely what’s going to happen,” but then I went to college and music was the thing that dropped really quickly. It became obvious to me that wasn’t happening and I didn’t even take a writing class until my senior year of college. I took it only because I got bumped from an art writing class, like writing and art history. In college in all of the art and design classes, in my head I was really being practical. I had such a weight on my shoulders of my parents being like, “We sacrificed so much. We got you into a school in America and you’re going to study design? Like really? You’re going to study design?” But making amends for that I approached by asking, “What do I need to learn to make money?” And that was my only focus for a long time. 

I took graphic design because I could see there was a need. There was an industry where I knew I could do well in, but I personally didn’t enjoy it. Well, I enjoyed it enough, but it wasn’t really my thing. And then my senior year I got an internship with Studio Hans. He’s a set designer. I consider Hans my mentor. I loved the fashion industry as a teenager, but I always thought I was not cool enough, or skinny enough. I just never thought I’d be in it. Through him I did a lot of set design in the fashion industry and it really only came out of one of my darkest moments where two years ago I was kicked out of my apartment for some roommate drama. The day I was packing up I got an email from my lawyer saying I had to leave the country or face deportation or detainment. And that was a huge turning point for me. I got home and was just like, “what the fuck.” I worked so hard to figure out how to make money in the arts and all of that was contingent on being in America. There was no way I could make it in Asia with the abundance of talent and people willing to work for nothing. I really did not know what to do. 

I invited myself to Japan to help a friend out and just started drawing again. Drawing was the first thing about art that I loved. It wasn’t about fashion design or anything. Just putting pen to paper and drawing like anime characters. From drawing again for the first time in a few years there was a visual language that I started to see. I wanted to put all of the illustrations under a brand name and I thought my name was long and hard to spell so Child of Paradise came out of that. And it’s always been the same thing as with my writing and my art. Whenever I do a creative endeavour for myself it stems from this wanting to discover a place where I could remedy that kind of contradiction I mentioned before.

photo by Litsa Sursock

GSC: When did you get into making clothes? What was the transition like from making visual art to clothes in the physical realm?

Nabila: I learned how to sew in February. I learned how to sew and made my first collection in February of this year. 

GSC: Recently.

Nabila: Yeah, it was very fast. Like I said I’ve always liked fashion. I had the Teen Vogue Handbook as a kid. I was obsessed, but I couldn’t see in the industry that they described, I didn’t know where I fit in. I was like, “Well I don’t know anything about sewing,” so I just assumed for a long time that I wouldn’t be on the clothing aspect of it. Set design I fell into accidentally, but I’m not a builder. I definitely wasn’t a photographer. I think what’s so amazing about New York is that I’m seeing people who I’ve never seen like anywhere in the world, but yet they are making space and community for themselves. New York is the kind of place where if you’re weird or wouldn’t fit in anywhere else, you will fit in here and find your community and find your people. From getting that confidence and having my tribe and friend group here, I started to think about how I wanted to manifest and started to draw clothes on my illustrations that tied back to batik clothes, that were inspired by batik clothes I would collect. 

I spent a lot of time styling Batik pieces that I found in the market and then I think in December I was back in Indonesia for the first time in a while in a market looking for batik clothes and I’m sifting through caftans and muumuus and really shapeless old people clothing because that’s what batik is for the most part and then I realized instead of doing the digging just for me I could curate a collection using batik. And that way engaging the artist in Indonesia who I really, really respect and giving them an audience in the United States. 

GSC: How does your personal style influence the clothes you make? How is it the same? How is it different?

Nabila:  I had this issue when I made my first collection. I came back to New York with all of the stuff and I was showing Luke and kept trying to sell him the clothes I made because I didn’t want to lose them. Like I need to sell them, I can’t keep everything, but like if my boyfriend buys it I will still be able to wear it. So it all definitely has my style and I would wear every single one of these pieces. I am trying to find batik that is wearable by the diaspora and not just older Indonesian people in Indonesia. 

GSC: You use batik fabric in all of your pieces. Could you tell us a little about this fabric and its significance to you. 

Nabila: Batik is designated as a UNESCO heritage craft. It’s this ancient technique that originated in Indonesia. There’s a few types. Batik Menulis is the one that I mostly used. It means to write or draw. That’s the one where you hand draw the motifs in wax and dip it in ink and dye it in stages. The more colors and the more layers the more expensive. The wax would originally be on the white part and then they’ll add more and do it in stages. It’s a really complex method of creating textiles, especially the hard drawn ones. I’ve also used batik chop in some of my pieces like the masks and those are stamped. They use copper stamps Batik has always been in my life. I remember doing workshops as a kid where we would go to Cirebon, Bandung, and Jogja. These are all towns across Java. I would sit with a Batik artist and learn how to do it. I feel like craftsmen across East Asia and market places all over the world are my heroes. The stuff that they make for literally nothing is such a painstaking process. The results are so beautiful and I think really overlooked in favor of machine printed textiles which I find really boring and they don’t have the personalities and intricacies in even some of the, I guess you’d call them faults or imperfections that I think make a piece more huma. 

Batik is also important in Indonesia in that families collect, like a lot of older people will collect batik throughout their lives and pass them on to their family. They do that with different kinds of textiles as well. Like where my mom is from specializes in Suntiang which is basically brocade weaving using a traditional loom that they’ve created. They do that with Suntiang, they do that with batik. I grew up with my grandmother having a glass case of gorgeous fabrics and then she’d give some to my dad. I’ve always been aware of it, but it’s been so precocious and kinda reserved for button up shirts to wear at batik Fridays at the office instead of casual Fridays, but I’ve always loved wearing it as my everyday clothes. 

photo by Litsa Sursock

GSC: That’s pretty dope that they took you when you were young in school to these different cultural artist spots. I’m from the Bronx. We made Hip-Hop, but they aren’t taking us to studios or to be around Hip-Hop artists. 

Nabila: But it’s weird right? Cause that’s always been shown to us, but I always had this feeling that indigeneous cultures are put behind museum glass. We are studying them, we are interacting with them, but we’re also told not to touch them. I think that the discussion about cultural appropriation is a very important one, but I think it gets simplified too much and people don’t want to have nuanced discussions about it so then it becomes flattened and people become afraid to touch traditions. But in order for traditions to survive and not be homogenized by globalism and capitalism we need to keep engaging with them. Keep practicing them and holding them with importance and not just keeping them behind some museum glass in the hand of white collectors. It should be the actual Indonesian children or the kids from the Bronx. Making sure that they are reckoning with their legacy. Tangibly interacting with that legacy. 

GSC: You’ve called out major fast fashion retailers and other fashion posts on Instagram (Réalisation Par) for appropriating indingeious culture and styles such as batik. What has been the response to these call outs online? 

Nabila: That one I did not get much of a response from, but there was another one this summer with this magazine called GLAMCULT. So my issue with them came from this French stylist that I had worked with at a job while I was doing my set design stuff in New York and who I thought was cool posted a photo of this Chinese girl in a photoshoot in Australia. She was wearing Gucci pajamas and this crown from my mom’s village Minangkabau. The context was just really weird. I was like one this is a bad photo to be perfectly honest and then two what is the connection between Gucci silk pajamas and then this? The other thing that really pissed me off is that in the magazine when they reposted the photo they talked about how the inspiration for it was this Japanese photographer and Japanese culture. I was floored because not only is that a complete mischaracterization of the piece, but also the Japanese colonized us. Their occupation only lasted two years, but millions of people died so I was like this is so insulting. And it sucked because first I called out the stylist. I had known her and I had commented on her page, “hey I worked with you, I think you’re cool, but this is cultural appropriation and this is not really okay.” She didn’t respond. She just deleted my comment and blocked me, but I had a really great discussion with whoever ran the GLAMCULT Instagram page. They apologized. They asked if I wanted the piece taken down or amended. I said, “I’d rather you keep it up for transparency’s sake, but clearly amend it and say ‘this is what was wrong about it’ so it can be a teachable moment”. 

I also connected it with my mom’s village which I brought up before. My mom is from the largest matriarchal village in the entire world. So the family assets get passed down to the eldest daughter, who is my mom. My grandmother had a heart attack a few years ago, but she’s okay, but she decided to give my mom her bequeathments early and in doing that my mom found these gorgeous textiles. This is not batik, that is the Suntiang one, the brocade weaving. The quality was nothing she’d ever see before. This was really, really stunning and she decided she wanted to collect more of the pieces and learn about the process and she found out that it’s almost extinct. The only people still making this was a Swiss couple. The husband was an architect and he reversed engineered the loom from archival photos which was really amazing, but I told GLAMCULT that I want it to be clear that this is not just some ancient artifact from this long lost civilization. This is a real life community that has crafts and has this heritage that should be preserved and in order to make it worth preserving we have to highlight the fact that they still exist and we need to give proper respect and tell people where this headpiece is coming from. And I was telling them my mom is now working with that Swiss architect to help them revive the piece, but these crafts are under threat of extinction. On their website UNESCO talks a lot about how sustainability goes hand in hand with maintaining this cultural heritage. Globalization has this homogenizing effect that creates a lot of discontent and makes people feel displaced. It creates a lack of connection to your past and that leads to mental health issues. It’s important that when we think about sustainability we also think about sustaining our diversity and these individual crafts that don’t fit in neatly under the umbrella of capitalism where everything needs to be made cheaply and quickly. 

photo by Litsa Sursock

GSC: How do you think major fashion brands or other fashion industry influencers should or should not incorporate traditional styles or methods into their products?

Nabila: I think it’s about intention. Like if Réalisation Par uses the word batik and their stuff is printed by machine in China, if you’re going to engage with something cultural in order for it to benefit the community it’s about doing your research and doing your homework. Where is this coming from? Who is supplying the craft? How are you crediting them? What’s the intention there? It’s cool that there’s so much emphasis on being woke and social justice culture and that’s important, but I also think because it’s social media with the topic of cultural appropriation people aren’t able to have nuanced conversations or engage with it at more than just the surface level. I hope people can find artists who would be truly tied to the craft that they would be engaging with. And not just doing it for clout.

GSC: Clout is a disease. How long does each piece take to make? 

Nabila: It depends. The fabric themselves can take about three weeks to do one pattern and I am not at the point yet where I am designing the patterns myself. I am going to the market and talking to the artists and I am buying pieces that they made. I’ve been pretty amazed and lucky with the motifs that I’m using. It’s called Megamendung. It’s the clouds. That has always been my favorite and I think it works so well in a contemporary context and this is without input from me being like, “I want it to be Indonesian, but modern appealing to this more Western audience.” I haven’t had to guide them through that because this pattern already has such universal appeal. That process for the fabric is painstaking, but then when it gets to me I can make a crop top in like four hours. The shirts are a little more complicated and the dresses, but yeah four hour with a crop top and a tie back. 

Megamendung

GSC: You’re Indonesian, grew up in Thailand and Hong Kong, and now live in New York. Where do you feel most at home? 

Nabila: I don’t know. I’m trying to work on being present more in therapy. I notice this really bad habit where I will miss the place or feel more at home wherever I wasn’t and that’s really not a good head space to be in. I think it’s so relative. I would say New York in a certain way mostly because New Yorkers are a whole breed of their own and anyone can kinda fit in here and make their home, but that being said I had such a struggle with it a year ago. My grandfather got sick. I called my parents, checked in to see how he was doing, and he was in the ICU. He had been in the ICU several times before, but I just had a bad feeling. I called them at 9AM. They told me not to come. By noon I had bought a ticket and I left the house at 3PM and he died while I was flying over. So it’s like I feel at home in certain places, but there’s always this threat that someone I love might need me on the other side of the world and I think that never lets you fully relax. 

GSC: Have you done any fashion collaborations? Are you interested in doing any in the future? 

Nabila: I have not yet. I would love to do that. 

GSC: in 2018 you provided creative direction and set design for “Neon Jungle” at Trans-Pecos. How did that experience and live music in particular shape how you create fashion?

Nabila: I feel like the set design industry gave me a strong work ethic and taught me things that I will take beyond. I think I’m able to do so much of this by myself because of that experience. I worked with an incredible photographer for the photos for my new collection, but I didn’t need to worry about a set designer or whatever because I was like I could come up with something. My experience with Hans helped me build that set and to think about the bigger picture. I’m not so focused on the clothes or the set or one thing. I can see the bigger picture because of all the jobs that I did with Hans which were huge and very intense and intimidating jobs. 

GSC: I feel like it’s pretty wild that you started making clothes this year. Started doing art not that long ago. You’re like this brand new artist that’s so advanced. 

Nabila: I’ve always been drawing. I feel like I didn’t know where the stuff that I was interested in was leading to, but then it all kind of materialized in the last two years. It feels as out of nowhere in some ways, but in other ways it’s always been leading up to this. 

GSC: I feel like it’s the same with all the stuff that I do. I used to just write in notebooks in middle school and high school like poems and tiny ass short stories. People are like, “oh you write a lot now,” and I’ve always kind of done it, but now I present it in ways for people to digest. It’s not just for me anymore.

Nabila: You know where to direct it which I think comes from a sense of self. I just didn’t know what to do with all of the stuff that I liked doing. I was like, “what am I going to draw except like a cute anime girl?” And now growing up and thinking about what I’m depressed about or whatever I have something to draw for. 

GSC: What is your vision for the future of Child of Paradise? What are your brand goals, if any? 

Nabila: I don’t see it as just a clothing brand. I think that‘s definitely been the focus of this year so far, but I have my illustrations and beyond illustrations I would love to do more events. I was talking to a friend and they asked, “do you see this as a lifestyle brand?” And I feel like lifestyle brands kind of have this gross hierarchical thing that comes from exclusivity which I don’t want Child of Paradise to have. So I thought about it and I see it more as a community brand and it’s starting. I’ve met so many incredible people. I felt so alone growing up. I was always the only Indonesian. I feel like I’m always grouped in with the Asians here, but when you’re in Asia the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean on one hand and then you have a few South Asians and then you have mostly your white people and then South East Asians is a very specific niche and I was always the only one, but now because of Child of Paradise and the work I’ve been doing I’ve met so many people all over the world who support my work and also feel the same way about reconciling the two halves of their identities so I would love for it to be more of a community space. One of my biggest dreams would be to set up a studio in Indonesia and directly work with the batik artists and learn from them and have it be a shared space of creativity and support. I also think that would be a great way to further social issues in Indonesia and be like, “you can have access to all these benefits and I’ll pay you fairly, but in exchange I need people to be aware that if you’re a woman I’m going to support your education and having a separate bank account from your husband so that you have agency. And I’m also going to support every kind of gender idea or sexual preference or whatever. There’s so many little things in Indonesia that could be fixed just by compassion and holding space for. That sort of thing. Big dreams in the future. 

photo by Litsa Sursock

GSC: How have you been taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Nabila: I feel really like to have access to healthcare now which I didnt a year ago. I was here when the pandemic was declared a pandemic. I was freaking out about the fact that I did not have health insurance and I managed to fly home. I’ve been in therapy since I was sixteen so I was kind of aware that things were going to get dicey. Check in with someone. I think having a professional to check-in with has been really great. I also think having people who hold you accountable is important. Friends who don’t want to see you continue with your bad habits is important. On top of that physical movement and being outdoors is really helpful for me. I lived a block from the beach in Hong Kong. So I would feel stressed out and I would swim in the ocean every morning or go paddle board and that was a huge relief. I think taking time to do things that are really for me, for my body that feel good physically has been huge. 

Follow Nabila on IG and Twitter, head over to her store to check out her latest Child of Paradise fashion drop out today, peep the video below to learn about the centuries old Indonesian tradition of Batik. Photo at the top of the article by Litsa Sursock.

Batik of Java: A Centuries Old Tradition
photo by Litsa Sursock

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