Samudra Hartanto Chats Art & Design
Bella, Nina and Marisa wearing collection Twenty One: Respair

From his birth place in East Java, Indonesia, and high school in Australia, Samudra Hartanto finally found himself in London. The year was 1990, and the world of design was going through an evolution: From John Galliano to Alexander McQueen and the bombshell supermodels that were Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, modern design took the world by storm — and the epicenter was London.

Samudra had arrived to study fashion at the London College of Fashion, a passion he had felt called to pursue since his younger years spent poring over his mother's fashion magazines. It was there that Samudra met fellow fashion student Maxine Trowbridge and the two became fast friends.

Samudra and Max would continue their friendship long after their university studies ended: Samudra even designed and made the getaway outfit Max wore upon departing from her first wedding to her honeymoon. A pale gold satin, A-line mini skirt, and coordinating jacket, a silhouette reminiscent of the style of Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler. While the two have stayed in touch, despite oceans separating them physically, it is now — more than three decades later — that the duo has reunited professionally for the first time. Together, combining their penchant for design, Samudra and Max envisioned and created the debut collection for Eve & Max. As co-creative director for Collection Twenty One: Respair, Samudra lent his impeccable tailoring and technical abilities to a roster of 12 looks that are all at once elegant and intentionally designed for a sustainable future.

After decades working as a designer for fashion houses, the likes of Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Jean Paul Gaultier, Samudra's collaboration with Eve & Max serves as a welcome bit of serenity for the designer — and marks a chance for him to weave a sense of conscious beauty into fashion.

We recently caught up with Samudra, currently based in Paris, to talk about his journey from East Java to Paris' most renowned catwalks. What we discover is a designer in the truest sense of the word: one whose hard work and passion have guided him to hold a respect for craftsmanship, detail and aesthetic in the highest regard.

Samudra Hartanto in Paris, photo credit Ranier Torrado

Tell me about your Indonesian upbringing. Did your childhood inform your interest in fashion and design?
I was born in East Java. When I was growing up, my earliest experiences with fashion and clothing were through my mother. At one point, my father traveled abroad, and when he returned, he brought my mother clothes and foreign magazines. To me, it was something that felt so exotic. The magazines were my earliest introduction to fashion. Of course, I didn't read English. I didn't speak English. I [eventually] learned at school, but I was just looking at the pictures from the beginning to the end. It was so exotic to me: the foreign language, the pictures; it was amazing and so eye-opening.

Isn't it incredible how a few magazines sparked what would eventually become your career?
It was my window to the world. And looking back, there was no Internet, no foreign magazines. As I grew older, there were more and more foreign magazines in town, but they were at least three months behind because Java is so far away. To me, it was really something. When I watched the news, it was not really to watch the news, but I was waiting for the end because there was always something afterwards relating to fashion or art. It was a glimpse into something more exciting to me. The newspaper would have small black-and-white pictures. I remember images of Yves Saint Laurent's latest collection in Paris — and from that newspaper-quality photo, it made me wonder and aspire to work in fashion.

You eventually pursued your dream and moved to London, where you attended the London College of Fashion and then the Royal College of Art.
My parents wanted us to have a better education, so they sent us to study in Australia. After I graduated [high school], my parents allowed me to choose fashion, which was a fantastic opportunity. I wanted to go to London because the fashion school sounded amazing. When I arrived, it was like I was living in a fashion magazine. Certainly, there were all of these big designer names around. And while I couldn't meet them, I could go to the stores to see their creations. It was like a dream come true for me.

You and Max Trowbridge, founder of Eve & Max, met at university?
With Maxine, we connected almost immediately. We would have lunch together in the canteen, and we would sit together. I still remember my time in London with her. Now, I have another chance to work with her. Being invited to be part of her project, I'm grateful for that. We don't see each other a lot, but our relationship is strong. When I arrived in London, I felt like she welcomed me. Although it was a long time ago, it's something I don't forget. There's something genuine about that.

London in the '90s was quite a time for fashion. It was a new era.
It was when Alexander McQueen had just started. It was early, early McQueen. John Galliano was very well known. At the time, I can remember Honor Frasier, Stella Tenant. The models were these aristocratic girls, but then you also had Kate Moss. Being a designer in London at that time was about being young — but being young didn't mean that you didn't look at history. John Galliano and Alexander McQueen are two great designers, and they never forget the past. They look to the past to create something new.

Who influenced you as a young designer?
At the time, I didn't understand what McQueen was doing, but I was lucky enough to see two of his shows in London. There was something about the technique as the foundation of his work — the tailoring. He takes the old tradition and plays with it. To me, London is still like that. London is not afraid of the past, and the young people still embrace it. That was inspiring to me.

You were at Louis Vuitton for six years, working as a women's and accessories designer under then creative director Marc Jacobs. How did you get a foot in the door?
Thanks to my former professor John Miles (and he's not the only one), I am here today. He put my name on the list. At the time, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs contacted the Royal College of Art and asked my professor for recommendations — and my name was on the list with other ex-Royal College of Art students. Could you imagine? How generous. For him, it was simply giving a recommendation, but it was very, very important for me. Without that, I wouldn't be here today. My father reminds me about this sometimes. There is no way that we could have planned this career. My father could send me to fashion school in London, but he couldn't find me a job at Louis Vuitton or Hermès.

What an incredible experience it must have been, being so young and working for a fashion house with such pedigree and gravitas.
When I started at Louis Vuitton, I was the youngest on the team. It was an amazing time. I did a lot of things that seem insignificant, but looking back, it was a big experience, learning how to start from zero. I started working with Marc [Jacobs] to help develop the tag and trying to adapt the LV monogram and deciding what the code of the womenswear would be. It was trying to know the house's heritage, and then we would play with it in fashion.

Any memorable moments from your time with Louis Vuitton?
Right at the beginning — I don't know if you remember — for the very first Louis Vuitton womenswear collection runway show, Marc decided to do something very luxurious: silk, cashmere, no logo, no bag (well, there was one messenger bag), and everything was white. Everything was luxurious and discreet. There were double-faced cashmere skirt, coats. In one of the interviews, he mentioned that he didn't want the first collection to look like an airport carousel, but after that, little by little, he embraced the heritage and the studio started to be more playful with it. I worked a lot on the accessories with Marc, and it was an interesting experience. He was always asking: What kind of heels would go with this length. It was back and forth: clothes and accessories. I stayed until Takashi Murakami's collaboration. I was there when Marc invited Stephen Sprouse to do the spray paint on the monogram.

From Louis Vuitton, you went to Hermès. Talk about moving from one iconic French fashion house to another.
Before I joined Hermès, I had an introduction to the world of Hermès through Marc Jacobs. He knows so much about Hermès — and he would often talk about the iconic bags. When I started coming to Paris, Yasmin Le Bon, Naomi Campbell, they would all mix something they bought at Camden Market, but they would wear it with a Birkin bag. They would just carry it as if it were a tote bag. I love those kinds of looks.

Through Hermès, you first met Jean Paul Gaultier — he was artistic director for the house at the time.
In 2003, when Mr. Gaultier was appointed artistic director of Hermès, and it was recommended to me that I contact him. So that's how I had my first interview with Mr. Gaultier. When I heard back from him, it all went very quickly. At the time, Mr. Gaultier had so many collections: menswear, womenswear, couture, plus Hermès. I couldn't believe it: Hermès is such an amazing house, and Gaultier is such an amazing designer, but they cannot be more opposite, could not be more different. It was another amazing experience for me. Louis Vuitton was an international company, but it was very clear that Hermès was a French company. Everyone spoke French. It was incredible to work with Gaultier from his first collection to his last collection. He was there for seven years. I was there for seven years.

Aesthetically and technically, working for Hermès must have been a true education.
Hermès is not only about leather, but it is also about cotton and linen — and Gaultier is happy working with cotton, linen, cashmere and wool. We were trying to find the finest cotton, the finest linen. Those years were formative because it wasn't just about making expensive clothes. It was about quality and process. It was also about trying to be respectful and not just touching the amazing material but also being respectful of the time it takes to make the clothes — we didn't do anything at the last minute. At Hermès, we had time to breathe.

After Gaultier left Hermès, you stayed with him, working for his namesake brand.
When the collaboration ended in 2010, he offered me to come work with him 100 percent for his collection. Mr. Gaultier is someone who is strong technically. He loves playing with the traditional elements. He's not afraid of history. He's great at tailoring, but he's also great at dresses. At Hermès, he loved working on leathers, knitwear, using exotic skins. He's someone who is curious, and it was enriching for me.

How did Gaultier's artistic expression influence you?
I could say about working with him at his own house for the past ten years that it's the creativity that is so important; it's the fire, and it's the inspiration. He opens different worlds to me through research and books. He would ask me to look at certain things, and then I would go very far. That's part of the job that I like. Also, it has become a discipline; it's like a habit that I will research and look at things and be open-minded — to be very curious.

Where do you find inspiration these days?
Right now, I find contemporary art and contemporary dance inspiring. Through contemporary art and contemporary dance, I can see how these artists and choreographers find inspiration from what's around us and make something beautiful or make something provocative. Through art, I can find the answers to certain questions of what's going on today. I don't always understand the movement, but I find it inspiring because I don't understand it immediately. Subconsciously, all of this will come back again and influence my work in fashion.

Art and fashion continue to blend more and more. Do you find fashion to be fine art?
The one similarity between fashion and fine art is that you can live without it, but life is so much better with it. We don't need them, but it would be so boring without art and fashion. Fine art is something you admire. Fashion is something you have to wear. You live with it differently. Fashion is more personal. A painting, a sculpture? You can live with them. But fashion has to be practical if women want to wear them.

What makes you excited about collaborating with Eve & Max?
First and foremost, it's because of Maxine. Both of us have had a feeling that we should do something together. Thanks to Maxine's clear vision, it has come together. I like how it's progressing, almost naturally. Working with Maxine brings me back to the London times. We don't live in the same city, but we still have the same connection, which is amazing. I'm so happy that she invited me and that she wanted me to be part of it. We worked together on this collection, and I'm excited to see where it will take us.

Is there a specific piece from the new collection that you think will resonate with women?
What comes to mind is this T-shirt sweatshirt: It looks like a sweatshirt that you cut the sleeves off of, and it's a V-neck to make it very easy and practical. The idea is from a T-shirt sweatshirt, but everything is lined in silk. In one of the photographs, the sleeve is rolled up, so there's something quite casual about it. What Eve & Max has to offer is very relaxed, yet everything is lined in silk. It's not like a normal sweatshirt that people wear to do sport. It's something familiar, but it's not a copy of something produced in mass quality. The first piece is in pink. It's very delicate and combined with a full skirt. It's sporty, and there's something quite casual about it — but not casual negligence.

What do you feel we will see in terms of trends in the business of fashion going forward?
One of the reasons that I got excited about this project is that both Max and I like something that is quite quiet. It seems to me that the fashion world, before the pandemic, was screaming. Everything was louder, bigger — and I like that Eve & Max focuses. It's more a whisper rather than a scream. I quite like that idea. We've been through quite a lot — and I went through certain times feeling like my job is really unnecessary. My dream is that in the future, people in fashion will design something more and more towards sustainability.

Going back to the conversation we had earlier, we have to ask the question, "Is this respectful?" It's a complex subject, sustainability, but if people or companies practice it more, I think we will get somewhere. It's so complex, and I don't have all the answers, but ideally, it would be good for fashion to have a certain responsibility rather than just producing a new collection and saying this is a new look. It's not enough to just produce a new silhouette. It used to be like that, but it's not relevant today. I really like the idea that Maxine and I don't pretend to have the answers, but both of us really want to touch on this issue of being more responsible step by step. We don't have the means to change the world, but we can play a part in it.

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