Finding Fashion in the Philippines

…some of the most delightful things are found in the most unlikely of places.

by Sarah Speechly and Maxwell McBride Peterson
Understanding how fashion works around the world is a part of our culture here at NOT JUST A LABEL, and recently our very own Sarah Speechly embodied that. She packed her bags and set off to the Philippines for a very different fashion week and a unique experience that hit close to home…

Asia has produced some of the most successful and renowned fashion designers in the world. Some have been raised, studied and lived abroad for their entire lives, but they have always maintained that unbreakable bond to their Asian heritage. I am in fact one of these such people. Having grown up in the Philippines before moving with my family to the UK, I always held this part of the world close to my heart. Countless flights back to visit family and friends, are cherished memories that helped me explore and understand my heritage; experience traditional foods, vibrant colours and better understand these ever-happy people.

This trip however had a very different aim. I have come back to these seven thousand plus islands with the desire to understand its relationship to fashion. Being involved in the fashion industry back in Europe, I have a very different sense and experience for this culturally driven art. Whereas the UK has a rich tailoring heritage rooted in a sense of tradition and functionality, coupled with a more modern ethos of rebellion and devil-may-care spirit that attracts great talent form around the world, what sort of spirit fuels Philippine fashion?

My first stop was Philippine Fashion Week. At first glance, this seems like any other bi-annual fashion event. Organised by a local events company, this has all the red carpet panache of your “traditional” fashion weeks the world over. But once I was involved, I quickly realised this event has a much more democratic approach.

Held jointly in a monolithic exhibition space and the Mall of Asia, the world’s 4th largest shopping centre, I prepared myself mentally for yet another stressful fashion week. Habitually tardy shows and snaking queues paired with sprints to-and-from a maze of catwalks are de rigueur, but when I glanced at the schedule and walked into my first show I sensed something very different. Sure, the unbroken line was there but instead of the typical glib 20-something trendies I expected, it was full of, well, ‘regular’ people.

With the first show starting at 7pm, the effort is made to include the public en masse at all the shows, once their day job had finished. Instead of the typical begging for invitations, which are then kept under lock and key, these shows had a very laid-back composition that was quickly apparent when the first model walked out. The ‘open-to-public’ shows were for the local heavy weights: well funded and established brands – that fact was flaunted when two of the Kardashian brood appeared teetering on the catwalk

Penshoppe and Bench were among these brands showing at the Mall, whereas the convention centre housed the real design talent and creativity I was after. Unlike London or Paris Fashion Week, where catwalk space and schedule pole position is fought over in a highly political waltz, Filipino designers share the catwalk. In a seemingly never ending loop, designers present their collection one after the other with only short breaks between, so the designer may poke their head out for a quick smile and wave.

The pageantry and ambience is forgone to let the clothes simply speak for themselves, all in an effort to save money. Of course the more capital behind a designer meant that they opened the next round of designers showing - sometimes as many as 10 collections would follow.

After a few days, patterns developed. Days were spent exploring hazy, humid Manila trying to wrap my head about its Spanish-Filipino colonial style architecture and weathered stone plazas that are juxtaposed against a mountainous skyline of steel and glass; the constant chatter of English and fast-food chains that mushroomed everywhere I looked.

One particular repetition was the success of dressmakers and designers on the catwalk. Eveningwear holds a special place in the hearts of Filipino designers such as Cary Santiago and Esra who used their success abroad – both reside in oil-drenched Dubai – to display one-of-a-kind creativity and elegance and enchanted the audience.

One particular showcase of true Filipino culture and heritage was the Burdaang Taal: Habing Pilipino show. Comprised of 17 designers, this presentation is dedicated to using the historical Piña fibre, made from the leaves of the pineapple plant, to create traditionally inspired creations.

Gowns, frocks, jackets, and barong – formal embroidered shirts for men – showcased Taal-style embroidery in natural ecru, while other designers blended piña with silks to create draped and flowing pieces covered in complex embroideries in a rainbow of colours. For a fabric that has been used since the Spanish occupation of the Philippines in the 16th century, its appearance on contemporary catwalks today is a testament to this country's respect for fashion and it’s origins.

But while my experience so far had been relatively hassle free, the constant gridlock is just something these Manila-ns live with daily, speaking to designers revealed a host of issues.

Jewellery and accessories designer Ann Ong creates 24-Karat gold dipped bags that matched perfectly with gowns on display that evening, but when asked for her details, there was a noticeable absence of a website. For something so crucial that first year fashion students already own bespoke webpages, this seemed like an obvious mistake. When confronted, Ong said she is reluctant to put her collections online for fear of counterfeits. And she isn’t the only one.

Dress designer Cary Santiago was equally reluctant to discuss manufacturing techniques when I asked him about his elaborate eagle shouldered dress that could easily be seen adorning some blue blood in a European ballroom. The copycat fear is something that plagues the industry worldwide, but in a part of the world that most people think is responsible for producing fakes, it was interesting to observe the same fear by local designers. This anxiety has resigned many designers to limit their fame to the domestic market.

One exception is NJAL’s own Mich Dulce, a world-renowned milliner who studied abroad at the London College of Fashion and Central St. Martins. Her foreign education and overall ambition to be on runways around the world is why she welcomes exposure. She introduced me to designers OS and Proudrace, another NJAL designer, who want their designs to be seen beyond the Philippine border, but are finding backers for non-commercial designers increasingly rare.

This overall disparity in support could account for the distinct lack of emerging talent I had seen on the runways of Philippine Fashion Week. Despite not recognizing the names I had seen, they all had a similar vein or air about them that seemed to exude a sense of financial security. Finally Preview, the biggest local fashion magazine, has recently launched the Preview Emerging Fashion Talent Awards, or PEFTA, a separate fashion show entirely dedicated to the emerging talents within this region.

Held in September, these awards, despite being a few years old, showcase the ten must-see Filipino designers in collaboration with the country’s top fashion schools; of which there are only a handful. But the talent they are producing is not going unnoticed. I had the opportunity to join a British Council committee, who with The Look of Style sustainable and ethical fashion show, send one lucky designer to London College of Fashion to attend a short course, all expenses paid.

As well, they brought British designer Jane Bowler, armed with a box of leftovers, bits-and-bobs and forgotten catwalk dreams from the Hackney scrap, to lead a workshop for recent graduates and scholars at the local School of Fashion and the Arts (SOFA) that was started by two Filipino graduates of Istituto Marangoni London. This active interest in the region is a sign of growing importance and recognition of potential.

Ending at around 11pm every night, the halls of the exhibition space and cavernous mall were quick to empty. Everyone tried to rush home in the plodding traffic, and when I finally found a taxi, I was left alone with my thoughts of the day as I watched the streetlights flick past.

The Philippines is like many emerging fashion countries, the usual dilemmas between commercialisation and individuality, but they seem to acknowledge both in very reverent terms. One goes one way, the other, in the opposite direction. All very civilized and yet one thing they can agree upon is that fashion’s relationship to the Philippines is an exciting work in progress…