A STRONG PRESENCE
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after he started out, Sebastian Gunawan is a couturier and ready-to-wear designer who has kept up with the times and is adored by his many loyal customers. He consistently presents compelling new collections in his big annual solo shows.
“To survive this long in the business is not an easy task,” he says. “We have to be sensitive to what the market wants. That’s the most important thing. If you don’t keep up with what the market wants, you will be gone. Now, we’re living in the age of technology. To stay relevant in this digital era, we must have a presence in social media. Our couture label’s Instagram account has amassed more than 120,000 followers during the last five years or so. It attracts customers from markets that I had never expected to reach, like Panama and Kuwait. I have been pleasantly surprised by the broader network social media offers entrepreneurs, and how in particular it’s been beneficial to our brand. One of our more recent new customers is a former Miss Singapore. Our customer in Panama is quite well-known in high society there. Whatever the backgrounds of our customers, we build relationships with them. They become friends as well as clients.”
How did Gunawan gain so many Instagram followers? “To be honest, I am always learning a lot from millennials,” he says. “I wasn’t born with the technology that we have nowadays, of course. So when it comes to gadgets and the digital work, my teachers are my daughter Alessia and also from my team, because they’re much younger than me. (Alessia is 22, has just graduated from her studies in London and is a photographer.) They’re always giving me a lot of information about how it all works. Thanks to them, I understand there are rules on how to post on Instagram, that there are strategies to make your posts more targeted and interesting, and that there are ways to analyse the responses you receive and your impact online. It’s so important to me that I have created a social media team for each of our labels for couture, ready-to-wear and bridal.
“I see Instagram as a sort of in-house online magazine or catalogue for our design work. The photos and the captions we post have to capture clients’ imaginations, and be glamorous and exciting. We often post images of the people who are wearing our designs and of our fashion shows. Our behind-the-scenes posts are very popular. People love that stuff. Sometimes we post images of my own activities, but the emphasis is always really on the work we do. Because I want people to appreciate my work. My Instagram page is not about me, but my designs and the people who enjoy them.
“I strongly believe that my approach to glamour has always been the key to my longevity in the business. Of course, my clients appreciate international designers, but they also stay loyal to me. This is maybe because they value my glamorous creations, the high level of detail and workmanship in each dress. On top of that, we take pride in the high level of personalised service we give to our clients.”
The Sebastian Gunawan label is actually about two people. Working closely with Gunawan is his wife and creative partner Cristina Panarese. They each have distinct roles in the design process. “I’m more imaginative by nature and Cristina is more practical,” says Gunawan. “I’m more into creating silhouettes, while Cristina is good at the details. Through the years, everything has blended well. Because it’s the work of two people, it’s more interesting.
“After all these years of working together, we understand each other very well. When she tries to adjust something or give me some input, she knows how to come into the process. Sometimes we disagree, of course, but I think this keeps the work fresh. For me, fashion is a dream. If I’m trying to fulfill my dream, it means I try to fulfill my ego. And ego sometimes makes people do stupid things. So that’s why we remind each other of what’s really important, which is teamwork.”
What advice does Gunawan have for young designers? “You have to be able to sense what’s really going on around you. That’s the most important thing. When you’re going to go to war
you have to understand your enemy. When it comes to buyers, you have to understand what they are looking for. If you can give them what they need to please their customers, you’ll survive. Enduring for decades in this industry is about showing people how professional you are and how strong you are in the market. Because a lot of designers, they’re so talented but they somehow get stuck in one place. They want society to understand them, not the other way around. But if you try to understand your surroundings, you’ll go with the flow and you’ll succeed.
“I think that being open-minded is the key to success today. You have to continuously see what is happening, what is surrounding you, and try to adapt to any changes that are going on in the industry. You must look towards the future. Essentially, that’s the only way to survive and keep growing in this dynamic industry.”
Still on the subject of longevity in the fashion business, Gunawan expresses his admiration for houses like Chanel and Christian Dior, which have gone on to even greater heights since the passing of their founders. “There’s a reason why I love the work of Coco Chanel and Dior,” he says. “It’s not only because of the distinctive looks they created, but also because of their inspiring philosophies. Coco liberated women, giving them a loose and comfortable cut. After the end of the Second World War, Dior was unable to source high-quality fabrics. But he managed to make standard fabrics look luxurious and glamorous thanks to his incredible silhouettes.”
“You must look towards the future. Essentially, that’s the only way to survive and keep growing in this dynamic industry”
Where does Gunawan plan to take his business from here? “For readyto-wear, we will definitely do more marketing and selling online,” he says. “We obtain good feedback from overseas buyers about colour and fabric preferences, and which pieces sell better in their markets. These insights are extremely helpful to us.
“Right now, I’m planning my next annual couture show, and I’m also thinking about writing a book. It won’t be an autobiography, more a history of the brand and how we built it. Longer term, I hope my label will outlive me. I hope that, in the future, some talented young designer will become Creative Director of the Sebastian Gunawan fashion house. That’s my dream. That’s my philosophy.”