- Buyer's Guide
Exploring Indonesian Leather Craft With Voyej
The van rolls to a stop. The road we arrived on had long since shed the steady stream of motorcycles. Instead it’s walked by Javanese farmers carrying green masses of vegetation on their heads. The hills sharply rising around us block any service to our cell phones. The rural outskirts of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. An area still heavily doused in Javanese culture and admittedly slightly foreign for a bunch of urban guys from Jakarta.
Stepping into the bright morning sun alongside me are the guys from Voyej, a young Jakarta based leather goods company. The deep mahogany of their leather boots and crisp raw denim jeans stand out against the loose batik cloth and faded flip flops of the farmers passing by. Behind black glasses, the clever eyes of Ara and Yoshi, part of the Voyej crew, take one last glance at their iPhones before giving into the rurality of Central Java.
Though the culture of the area may be foreign to these guys from Jakarta, they are perfectly fluent in the art of leather work which this area is famous for. Speaking this language allows them to draw on the traditional Javanese craftsmanship to produce some of the best modern leather works in all of Indonesia for a global market. But it’s not the well-made leather works Voyej is exporting that has brought me to Jogja. It’s what’s in their designs and what this is symbolic of for the wider Indonesian carry scene.
Over the last 10 years this fledgling scene had been producing some excellent goods but had been importing their fundamental style from Americana, primarily workwear. What’s made Voyej unique is that they are steering a course in the Indonesian carry scene to reinterpret the local, traditional craft across Java, and export this distinctly Indonesian style to a global market. Judging by their meteoric rise, their creativity in this regard has been highly regarded.
For many in Indonesia’s young carry scene who are nearly all based in Jakarta, Bandung or Surabaya (the NYC, San Francisco, L.A. of Java) Yogyakarta remains the source from which the artistic handiwork flows. We’ve arrived with a pile of CAD sketches for five new Voyej products – two wallets, a keychain, camera strap and laptop sleeve. Taking these modern digital lines, the skilled hands of the Javanese artisans will slowly work them into the handsome vegetable-tanned leather goods for which Voyej is known.
“What’s made Voyej unique is that they are steering a course in the Indonesian carry scene to reinterpret the local, traditional craft across Java, and export this distinctly Indonesian style to a global market.”
The five products have been designed to commemorate Voyej’s five-year anniversary. Leather works designed to express the personal style of each of the five founding friends. Roughly five years ago these five university friends found themselves deep into the online denim forum Darahkubiru (my blood is blue). A forum that is widely considered as the womb of the entire Indonesian carry scene and is still required reading if you’re anyone in the Indonesian denim, leather or even boot scene.
On Darahkubiru the group was initially inspired by the early company Koko wallets. When Koko folded the five friends saw an opportunity, took it, and haven’t looked back. Voyej now sources material from across Indonesia, leather from the States and sells their goods worldwide. But it’s still in the worn grooves of tradition, deep in Yogyakarta that the Voyej leather takes shape. And it’s these same grooves that the Indonesian carry scene is returning to.
“For many in Indonesia’s young carry scene who are nearly all based in Jakarta, Bandung or Surabaya (the NYC, San Francisco, L.A. of Java) Yogyakarta remains the source from which the artistic handiwork flows.”
As Ara and Yoshi are whisked away to discuss the finer points of stitching for a new wallet, I wander up to the staunch facade of the workshop. It’s a nondescript building that would not merit a second glance. But as I follow Mbak Murni up the stairs, a soft spoken but amiable woman wearing an elegant black hijab, my senses are instantly aroused. Aroused in a reserved Javanese manner. First my ears. The soft contact of bare footsteps along the shop floor quickly mixes with the pronounced staccato of the sewing machines as they merge thread with leather. Next my nose. The heady aroma of recently tanned vegetable leather is mellowed out by the fresh rain cascading outside. Inhaling deeply, I’m led up a staircase to the shop floor.
Leather goods shine from every table – wallets, long wallets, watch straps, belts, all the components of a well-dressed man and some serious EDC laid out before us. Mbak Murni darts from table to table, pointing out the details of each product. The Carryologist in me drools a little. The leather goods are all in a distinct Voyej style. Thick hand stitching complemented by delicately machine-stitched lines. Heavy brass hardware embellishes thick slabs of leather, often hitched with a solid leather chain. To be sure there’s a cover of Americana but beneath it the Indonesian design and Javanese handiwork are unmistakable.
“To be sure there’s a cover of Americana but beneath it the Indonesian design and Javanese handiwork are unmistakable.”
The Voyej workshop is fascinating. It’s a place where the young, urban Voyej team brimming with leather goods designs for a global market can come and sit beneath a traditional Javanese Joglo with the artisans. Sitting down, Yoshi pulls out a lighter and ignites a slim kretek cigarette for one such weary artisan. Between the warm crackle of the kretek cigarette they launch into a humorous discussion, shooting shit in one sentence and discussing leatherworking the next. Despite the homogenizing effects of globalization, I can’t help but notice that Indonesia’s aspiring carry brands are working with traditional artisans more than ever. It’s an impressive relationship that has resulted in a renewed emphasis on traditional craft and allowed Voyej to reimagine modern Indonesian style in their leather goods.
Responding to my admiration of this relationship, Ara is quick to point out that this relationship runs through the entire Indonesian carry scene. Not just between craftsmen and designers, but between customers and the carry companies, “My whatsapp is constantly buzzing with people asking questions about our products, what color I recommend, even general style recommendations. The entire scene from Jogja to Jakarta is really just one big family.” In this scene, it’s no longer just about knowing the story and narrative of a brand, but knowing the brand on a more personal level. Wanting to resonate with the cultural design and identity they’re cultivating.
A week later I’m back with the Voyej crew at their Jakarta store located deep in the hip neighborhood of Dharmawangsa, where the selection of barber shops and coffee shops would give Brooklyn a run for its money. As Ara and Yoshi walk me through previous, current and future Voyej leather works the transformation from the purely Americana and workwear aesthetic to a distinctly Indonesian style is pronounced. Pronounced and beautifully creative.
“In this scene, it’s no longer just about knowing the story and narrative of a brand, but knowing the brand on a more personal level. Wanting to resonate with the cultural design and identity they’re cultivating.”
I watch an order of wallets being prepared to be shipped to Europe. I swear I catch a wiff of Javanese kretek tobacco on the leather, an apt symbol of the underlying modern Indonesian style that Voyej has developed and successfully managed to export to a global audience. By all indications, the Indonesian carry scene with Voyej at the helm is coming into its own.