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Designer Wants to Fashion Jobs for Children of Aceh

June 12, 2005|Marilyn August | Associated Press Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Harry Darsono has carved out an international reputation dressing stars and socialites, presidents and princesses. But Indonesia's most successful fashion designer wants to take on a much bigger challenge.

He plans to clothe the children of tsunami-ravaged Aceh province, not with handouts or hand-me-downs, but through vocational training in fast-disappearing handicraft techniques -- embroidery, needlework, patchwork, weaving -- unique to the North Sumatra province.

"Give them skills, teach them to be productive, and they'll be able to clothe and feed themselves," he said.

Darsono has long been committed to vocational education as an alternative for poor or troubled Indonesian children. Public school here is supposedly free, but the fact that children must wear uniforms and closed shoes as well as buy their own school supplies and books makes it prohibitively expensive for millions in this impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

The designer, 55, says he has "saved" about 4,600 street children in Jakarta by providing them with training and now is setting his sights on helping Acehnese orphans recover from the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Darsono, chairman of the National Council for Vocational Education, says his foundation is working to set up training centers that will teach thousands of children traditional Acehnese textile techniques, including a special type of embroidery using bright colors and designs heavily influenced by centuries of trade with India, Arabia and China.

Eccentric, Darsono requires visitors to his renovated "hands-on," private textile museum in South Jakarta to wear all black or white -- so as not to clash with the designs on display. Flamboyant, he carries a $27,000 gem-studded cellphone when he entertains wealthy clients.

Versatile, he is a concert pianist, cellist and Balinese dancer. Funny, he holds aloft a round, fluffy hat inspired by, in his own words, "a heap of cow dung!"

For Darsono, fabric is magic. Visitors are urged to try on gowns, jackets and hats worn by the rich and famous, including several items worn by the late Princess Diana that he managed to buy back at auction.

Darsono's love affair with textiles began when he was a boy in the grip of dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. By age 9, he'd been thrown out of seven schools, finally landing in a French boarding school where he remained mute for two years, communicating through drawing and sign language.

One of eight children, Darsono says he was lucky to have enlightened parents who recognized his learning disabilities and could afford proper treatment abroad. Music therapy helped calm the aggressive behavior, but he says his problems virtually vanished when he learned to use a spinning wheel.

Darsono went on to attend the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, study clothing technology at the London College of Fashion, and attend the London Film and Television Academy for Stage Production, where he developed a passion for theater and opera costume design. He later earned a doctorate in humanistic philosophy at Oxford.

Today, he opens his doors to disturbed, impoverished children to teach them a trade such as batik work, beading, embroidery and weaving.

"I put the most difficult cases in the spinning room," he said.

A museum tour includes a stop at the studios where young girls with tiny practiced fingers sew sequins onto silk and where young boys carefully transfer Darsono's designs to fabric that will then be hand-painted and crafted into one-of-a-kind creations for his clients, who include international beauty contestants and Arab princesses.

Darsono also is working with the Rotary Club to improve hygiene and health for some of Jakarta's poorest residents.

"You wouldn't believe that in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods, you have enclaves of people who live without running water," he said. "Our fundraising will help finance proper toilets."

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