ISA BOULDER, the Balinese Label Making “Awkwardly Sexy” Swimwear

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Photography by Timothy Schaumburg

ISA BOULDER creates tongue-in-cheek designs that champion local craftsmanship and sustainability

  1. Who is it? ISA BOULDER, a swimwear and knitwear brand based in Bali that prioritises local craftsmanship
  2. Why do I want it? Unconventionally sexy pieces designed with women in mind, and with a focus on sustainability
  3. Where can I buy it? On ISA BOULDER’s e-commerce platformMATCHESFASHION and Nordstrom

Who is it? “The first time we met, we didn’t actually hit it off, initially,” laughs designer Cecilia Basari. She’s speaking about herself and her business partner, Yuli Suri, who is smiling back at her across a work table in their Bali studio space. The duo are the minds behind up-and-coming women’s swimwear – and now, knitwear – label ISA BOULDER.

After graduating from Central Saint Martins in London, Basari moved to Bali, where she met Suri, a veteran in Bali’s local garment production scene, through a mutual friend. Subsequent to their first meeting, the pair found common ground in fashion. “Yuli was the one who suggested swimwear,” says Basari. In addition to a number of local designers, Suri had previously worked with a large Balinese swimwear brand that, as fate would have it, had recently laid off the majority of their seamstresses. Basari and Suri took them on to form ISA BOULDER.

Although not originally from Bali – Basari is from Jakarta, and Suri, Java – the duo decided to keep production local, entirely within the city, where they both now live full time. Since its inception, the label has placed Balinese craftsmanship front and centre. “We realised that in Bali there are a lot of local production that is not given justice. There are a lot of traditional crafts that are highly regarded here, but the skills are lost in very commercial items, intended for export,” says Basari, “Instead, we try to make garments that are unique, using these very traditional crafts, like crochet. I think, in the long run, no matter what we design, we will make sure it’s something that will highlight the locality of Bali.”

All ISA BOULDER pieces are completely handcrafted, either in-house by the ISA BOULDER team (which Basari describes as a group of “perfectionists” with a familial bond) or outsourced to a number of “talented” and “big-hearted” local artisans. In addition to championing local craftsmanship, the label embraces the beautiful imperfections that come about with the handmade process. “Nowadays, a lot of brands produce their knitwear with computerised knitwear machines. In Bali we don’t have that capacity. We work with a small knitwear manufacturer. It’s all handmade, and in knitwear and hand-crochet there are going to be imperfections,” says Basari. Suri adds: “Our young generation tends to seek ‘perfection’, especially since commodities are made with computerised machines. But there is this appeal in the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which is so beautiful and intrinsic in the garment-making process, which is what we want to embrace in our designs.”

“We’re very happy with what we’ve achieved,” says Basari. “People think that ISA BOULDER is this elusive designer, but it’s all everyone’s work: Yuli, me, the studio team. Everyone contributes to the development of the brand. We just do what we think is nice and it’s really surprising when people like it.”

Why do I want it? If you’ve been endlessly scrolling through Instagram the last few months, you’ve probably seen ISA BOULDER’s signature ruched satin swimwear. “Awkwardly sexy” is how the duo describe it. With the label’s S/S20 swim collection, Basari and Suri wanted to flip the category’s male gaze-y associations on their head; to sartorially flip off the patriarchy, to design against what men typically find sexy. The result was a line of unconventional swimwear – heavy ruching to create the illusion of curves, strange and bulbous V-string straps – that would make women feel sexy, for themselves.

It was the duo’s pursuit of environmental sustainability that catalysed the label’s expansion into knitwear for A/W20. “We’ve always wanted to explore knitwear because the idea of minimising unnecessary fabric wastage is very appealing,” says Suri. “During [swimwear] production, it can be quite painful and annoying to see these bags of leftover fabric that can’t be remade into garments. Knitwear is a good way to alleviate this stress because the yarns can be unwinded and reused if something goes wrong – and we only use up the necessary yarns when producing a garment.”

And while knitwear has seen the label abandon excess waste, the duo have doubled down on their signature subversive aesthetic. “For inspiration, I sent Yuli some very raunchy images,” laughs Basari, speaking to the creation of their Autumn/Winter collection, a series of lingerie-inspired hand-knit and crocheted separates. The collection is inspired by what the duo calls ‘female angst’, the anxiety of navigating societal expectations and pressures, the unhappiness that stems from “people expecting women to dress a certain way,” says Basari. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek statement because people associate knitwear with homeliness or conservativeness. It’s something you use to cover yourself, but then we want to translate this into very sexy, revealing clothing.” Open-knit sweaters and T-shirts feature trompe l’oeil bras; the alternating yarn-tensions of a bodysuit allude to the outline of a thong; crocheted garter-belt-and-stocking all-in-ones blur the line between dowdy and hot.

As delightfully strange and singularly appealing as each ISA BOULDER garment is, it’s also apparent that each is also a feat of technical expertise and craftsmanship. Speaking to the season’s knit mesh tops – the duo’s favourites – Basari says: “They’re quite time-consuming to make – it takes about a week to make one. I hope that people don’t treat it like something disposable, but I hope that people will treasure it like a collectable piece.” 

Where can I find it? You can shop ISA BOULDER’s swimwear now and their knitwear collection imminently on the label’s e-commerce platform. ISA BOULDER is also available at MATCHESFASHION and Nordstrom.