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For Ferdy Tumakaka, music is his muse.
The founder and designer of New York-based footwear label Prajaa is also a professional pianist. He was born in Indonesia and trained at the Manhattan School of Music, where he came to love the work of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Frédéric Chopin. And his passion easily translates to his work on Prajaa, a collection that unites the elegance of formal footwear with a casual, sneaker-inspired base.
Mastering a musical composition is similar to the experience of bringing shoes to life, said Tumakaka. Learning a piece on the piano can take months, even years — a process that is strikingly similar to his method of design.
“I sketch many, many shoes, then I come back and revist them. The way I work with music is how I develop my sketches. I analyze pieces structurally and architecturally and then break it down,” said Tumakaka, citing the spring ’12 Baba chukka style, which he reimagined for fall ’13. “I still have a chance to evolve it. Shoes have a personality. And like people, their personalities change as they mature.”
From an early age, Tumakaka was torn between creative ventures. He was interested in architecture and interior design, but a career in music prevailed. At 17, he won a piano competition, and at 21 was named music director for the New York Theatre Ballet.
His musical duo, Ferdiko, currently on hiatus while fellow pianist Noriko Suzuki is on break, played such concert venues as Carnegie Hall.
And Tumakaka prefers the sound of music while he designs — even if he’s not the one tickling the ivories. “I don’t like sketching in silence,” he said. “I always have music playing in the background.”
More recently, he’s turned to online site Spotify.com to find the variety that he enjoys. Tumakaka said at the moment he’s drawn to contemporary and electronic sounds, as well as indie-pop groups.
“One of my jobs as a performer is to listen to everything,” he said. “The nuance of something playing in the background affects my color decisions. It’s all subconscious.”
In fact, he’s currently working on developing a new sound of his own that blends traditional Indonesian and Western music. He’s even been approached by a creative organization in his native country to work on a documentary project focused on the Portuguese influence on Indonesian music.
Tumakaka also is growing the Prajaa line, which launched with men’s in spring ’12 and is carried by DSW.com, Varoj.org and Gamine in Brooklyn, N.Y. Spring ’13 marks the debut of a companion women’s collection, which came about as a result of requests from female customers. However, explained the designer, creating shoes for women calls for different musical styles as inspiration.
“The different timbre of [varying] female vocalists will spark different looks,” he said, citing pop artists Lykke Li and Lana Del Rey as favorites.
“They show the variety of colors in their timbre and how that impacts women,” he said, noting that Del Rey’s album “Born to Die” is a good example. “She’s flirty on one track and heavy on another. It inspires me [regarding] the many things one woman can be.”
Of course, Tumakaka’s Indonesian heritage is a source of influence in Prajaa, whose name is translated from the ancient Sanskrit word for “generation.”
“It’s a new generation of shoe, handcrafted by Indonesian artisans,” he said. Incorporated into the line are traditional elements that include locally produced fabrics from Tuban in East Java.
But as a musician-turned-designer, Tumakaka admitted the transition hasn’t always come naturally.
“It’s been a little bit scary,” he said. “I’m still learning so much on a daily basis [about] how the industry works, the infrastructure, etc. It’s been an eye-opening experience that has enriched all aspects of my life.”