Upon his 2007 graduation from the fashion program at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Heaven Tanudiredja started his eponymous jewelry line with a limited edition of five hand-beaded necklaces. Since then, his collections have grown enormously both in size and complexity; they’re now stocked at Barneys, Liberty, 10 Corso Como, and more. Above: Pieces from his Fall/Winter 2010-2011 lookbook.
Tanudiredja’s desk the day I visited his Antwerp studio. Most of the black beads are vintage French jet, which form the core of his collection. “Everything’s hand-made, and we produce everything here,” he says. Because of that, his necklaces typically sell for upwards of $5,000 in the U.S., “the price of a Birkin,” he marvels. Though for him, of course, it’s about quality, and creative ambition.
The idea for the line began with his love for vintage stones. “My grandmother would go to Clignancourt in the early ’90s to buy furniture,” he says. “Every time I’d go with her I’d bring back a few pieces of jet.” Having been trained in embroidery as a teen while apprenticing with a tailor in Bali, where he grew up, he incorporated beadwork first into his clothing at the Royal Academy, then his jewelry.
“Now I use a mix of vintage, new, and ’60s stones,” he says. Though he stalks the flea markets in Paris, Milan, and Florence for favored styles, and has dealers searching for him all over the globe, “I have this obsession where the fewer I find of any given bead, the more exciting it is.” To make it into his collection these days, however, he needs a minimum of 100 pieces.
Before he launched Heaven, of course, Tanudiredja was focused on clothing design, having studied fashion in Jakarta as an undergrad and worked for a local designer there. Pictured here is his Royal Academy graduation show, whose inspiration points included bullfighting costumes, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude. He’ll launch his first professional clothing collection in September.
“Jewelry is so often overlooked in fashion, but it’s incredible,” Tanudiredja told Hint magazine of his adopted craft last summer. “The level of work and quality of materials that go into these tiny pieces is incomparable to anything else in fashion.” When it comes time to design the clothing line, “I’ll have to put the two together somehow,” he says.
During my visit, though, he and his staff of three were still resolutely focused on finishing the Fall/Winter 2011-2012 collection in time for this week’s Paris showcase. Here, an assistant hunkers down to begin sewing, armed with headphones and several pairs of needle-nosed pliers.
The team’s floor-through studio overlooks Antwerp on both ends, with a terrace out back for the occasional breath of fresh air. Tanudiredja likes working in the city because it offers so few distractions. It's also affordable: "We’re all so poor here, we start from nothing," he says.
Tanudiredja’s jewelry often starts here: with some kind of substrate the beads can be sewn onto, and built up in layers.
“The small beads we put on one by one, and the amount has to be the same throughout, so we have to count one by one,” says Tanudiredja — hence how it can take 48 hours to produce each individual piece, and how their price tags can climb so high.
“We try to control ourselves, though, and not to go too far with the designs, because then we have a problem with the production,” he says. Above: The final version of the blue necklace seen in the previous slide, from his Spring/Summer 2011 collection.
The jewelry’s intricacy stems from Tanudiredja’s aesthetic preoccupation with volume: “I don’t like just normal flat designs — I like the three-dimensional,” he says. “I look at what materials would go nicely together, and how we can build it up so it’s standing. That’s the way I work: I usually look at the material first. It’s the same with clothing. I look at the fabric first.”
Indeed, most of Tanudiredja’s design process happens tangibly, rather than on paper. “I figure each piece out as I’m making it,” he says. “Some designers do research; I like when it’s abstract. Sometimes I don’t even know where an idea came from.” His only objective, he adds, “is to create new shapes, and to make them look stronger than the previous season.” The piece shown here is loosely inspired by the movement of caterpillars.
This piece — actually one of his designs for men — is a “robot caterpillar,” he says.
And these had an even more elaborate concept: “I was thinking about all my classmates who are really talented, but they have difficulty surviving in fashion,” Tanudiredja explains. “I was dreaming of them as weird flowers that live inside cages. No one can touch them, but they don’t want to change whatever they’re trying to do.”
Despite the gargantuan effort that lies behind each Heaven necklace, most of the studio’s production methods are quite lo-fi. The most sophisticated piece of machinery is this electric drill press, used for making holes in beads and in some of the metal components Tanudiredja’s been experimenting with lately.
Those pieces — part of the Fall/Winter collection he’s launching this week — begin with flexible plastic stencils, which are used to trace components onto flat metal sheets.
The components are cut out using a hand saw at a workstation in the back of the studio.
They’re also lacquered by hand in the studio, a process which entailed a good deal of trial and error. “Normally lacquer isn’t applied to metal — it’s for wood or plastic,” he says. “We had to do a lot of experiments. The paint wasn’t sticking, so we had to try putting it in the oven, and washing it. We’ll have gold and silver, but I like it to be toned down, so we also did dark red.”
Some of the finished or nearly-finished necklaces, whose metal substrates are visible underneath all the beadwork.
Viewing one of the pieces in profile reveals the most incredible thing about its construction: Half of the beads aren’t even visible from above, but are merely there to give the piece dimension. These are the kinds of subtle details Tanudiredja loves.
A look from Heaven’s Spring/Summer 2010-11 season, which was the first time Tanudiredja focused on a transparent, ethereal aesthetic — a departure from all the jet and its corresponding heaviness.
That collection also included Tanudiredja’s most ambitious design to date, which was bought by Toronto socialite Stacey Kimel: “Each of these white beads costs 14 Euros, and we used 175 of them,” he says. “When I made this I didn’t think it would sell, but if you take it seriously enough, people get it. I’m not afraid anymore.”
Sometimes clients ask for custom designs, like the one Tanudiredja sketched out here. The text reads: “This necklace was inspired by diamonds that look like raindrops falling from the petal of the flower… The addition of colorful gems and platinum flowers to the diamond sparkles gives this waterfall a fresh and rejuvenating power.”
Another of the studio’s current experiments: Electroplating real seashells. “We get it done at a place that normally works with furniture, in another city in Belgium,” says Tanudiredja. “It’s a very difficult and expensive process, but the result is good; the more difficult the process in general, the better results you usually get.”
A testament to Tanudiredja’s enduring devotion to that principal are his glasses: His eyesight is already failing, a victim of the intense level of visual detail he works at on a daily basis. But the results are better than good — they’re spectacular. And for now, that's all that matters.