Rafi Ridwan -10-year-old fashion extraordinaire

HE may be only 10-years-old but Rafi Ridwan has beaten adversity to become one of Indonesia’s next up-and-coming fashion designers. Carene Chong had the chance to meet the inspirational boy who hears in colours.

Rafi and his proud parents posing by his works of art

A timid little boy weaves in and out of the crowd at the entrance of the Melbourne Institute of Fine Arts on the posh end of Collins Street.

Rafi Abdurrahman Ridwan has arrived in Melbourne for the first time in his life with a troop of family members just 10 hours before our interview. Fatigue is etched on his face.

It might have been the discomfort of being watched by strangers who recognised who he was, or the loud foreign noises he was hearing thanks to a newly implanted cochlear, but Rafi quickly breaks down into tears.

His mother Shinta Handayani explains, between hushes to calm the nervous boy: “He’s not a fan of the limelight, He never was.”

At only 10, Rafi is Indonesia’s youngest fashion designer. He’s here in Melbourne as a guest of the Wonders of Indonesia fashion exhibition and competition, which was part of last week’s Festival Indonesia.

Above the brightly coloured garments on display at the Institute of Fine Arts, hang sketches by the hands of none other than Rafi.

Rafi’s masterpieces on display. Photo: Wan Shing

The garments were a collaboration between Rafi and prominent Indonesian designer, Barli Asmara, who was also a judge at last week’s fashion competition.

“It was Barli Asmara who discovered Rafi’s talents and gave him this opportunity to realise his dream,” Shinta says.

Rafi, who was born deaf, makes animated, albeit inaudible, chatter throughout our interview, probably trying to add a comment or two as his mother speaks.

“When he was three or four, he asked me, ‘Mum, what is sound like?,” she says.

“My heart shattered as I searched for an answer that wouldn’t hurt his young heart.

So I tried explaining to him that sound is made up of various colours like red, yellow, green and blue in the hopes that my answer would help him fill the emptiness in his life.”

It was from then on that Rafi started drawing with vibrant colours. But his love for fashion and art didn’t fully surface until he watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid on TV about five years ago.

“He was embarrassed for Ariel because he felt she wasn’t properly clothed,” Shinta recalls.

“So I told him to design a few outfits she could wear. He came back with detailed designs of skirts, gowns and even bolero jackets for her.”

Rafi’s mother Shinta Handayani with some of Rafi’s earlier sketches. Photo: Wan Shing

Last year, Rafi went to the Jakarta Food and Fashion festival in the hopes of showing Asmara his sketches. He wanted to tell Barli about his dream to have his own fashion show for his 9th birthday.

Shinta says Barli immediately recognized Rafi’s huge potential and didn’t hesitate to grant him his wish. They joined forces to create a small collection and showcased the pieces on his birthday last year.

Rafi has been designing ever since.

At the 2011 Jakarta Fashion Week, 24 models went down the runway in designs by Rafi and celebrated Indonesian textile designer Nonita Respati and accessories designer Ariani Pradjasaputra.

Contrary to what you might think, Rafi’s involvement in his collections doesn’t stop when he puts his drawing pens down.

He likes to have a hand in everything, from designing the outfits to selecting the fabrics,” Shinta says.

“He doesn’t like the fabric to just be bought from the shops, but insists they be specially made to suit his designs.”

From Harajuku style clothing to traditional Indonesian outfits, beautiful evening gowns to quirky casual wear, Rafi’s sketches are intricately detailed down to the very last stitch.

Growing up, Rafi hasn’t had the best health. On top of his hearing impairment, he was born with respiratory problems and has been in and out of hospital several times. He was bedridden for two years, and yet he never gives up.

“He’s someone who dares to dream and strives to make his dreams come true no matter how hard it is,” Shinta says.

“For that I am truly proud of him.”

Rafi expressing his thanks for the invitation to the Wonders of Indonesia fashion event. Photo: Wan Shing

Along with his larger-than-life personality, Rafi has an equally big heart. Earlier this year, he launched a childrenswear collection in celebration of his 10th birthday. He  chose classmates from the deaf school he used to attend to model the outfits.

He wanted to let them know that if he can achieve something like this despite his condition then they certainly can too.”

Rafi’s not sure what’s next on his journey to becoming a fashion megastar, but his dream is to one day showcase his design on the catwalks of Milan, Paris and Japan like world-renowned designer Karl Lagerfeld.

“He wants to travel the world and let everyone know that special people like him can do great things too.”

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