“Who is the most promising young designer in Cebu?”
The question hung over the air after fashion designer and Zee Lifestyle fashion editor Oj Hofer asked the question. The group was gathered in the private dining room of Trattoria da Gianni, enjoying the authentic Italian fare while pondering over their response.
To be fair, there was no assemblage of people who were better fit to discuss the subject. Gathered around the large wooden table were the high council of Cebu fashion, if there was ever any—in attendance were fashion designers Cary Santiago, Philip Rodriguez, Jun Escario and Arcy Gayatin, each an influential figure in the industry; visionary accessories designer Doro Barandino, whose pieces are selling in shops in LA; makeup artist Romero Vergara, who has made over several of the Philippines’ beautiful faces during his long-running tenure; and Eva Gullas, the publisher of Zee Lifestyle, a publication that has been an informal vanguard of what’s going on in fashion for the past 20 years.
Jun Escario was the first to break the silence with a joking tone: “Naa ba? (Is there any?)”
Everyone bursts out laughing. “Naa uy (of course there is),” both Arcy and Cary exclaim.
Cary pauses and adds, “Actually Jun, that’s the right question. We don’t really see these young designers now. They don’t even do fashion shows anymore.”
Everyone nods at the noticeable difference. Just five years ago, invitation to various fashion shows and events would come in at least once a month, varying from large-scale solo designer presentations, to collaborative shows that bring several names together. In 2012 alone, Zee Lifestyle staged two large ones: Furne One’s fashionable homecoming, a week-long affair that involved jewelry talks, a designer bazaar, and an exhibit; and Jun Escario’s 20th anniversary show that transformed the Oakridge Pavilion into a red cathedral.
THE ISSUE OF FAST FASHION
These days, events like that have been limited to a few every year, and the majority of them have featured the influx of international brands that have entered the market. “I guess the biggest disruptor for you is H&M and Zara,” Eva mused.
“Not really,” Cary argues. “It’s not totally high-end. For example, if you’d pass by Jun’s shop, you really stop and take a look inside. The pieces are unique.”
Certainly individual style suffers to an extent when in the realm of fast fashion. Philip shares, “It doesn’t matter if you go to Europe or somewhere else—if you buy it in Zara, it’s exactly the same everywhere in the world. They’re generic.”
“But it’s amazing how fast they can interpret fashion trends,” Eva points out.
“Ralph Lauren used to be the richest designer in the world, but now?” Arcy shrugs empathically. “You know why? Because Zara is very fast fashion. They can translate what they see on the runway in a couple of weeks. So many designer boutiques have closed down because they can’t keep up.”
There’s no denying, of course, that fast fashion has transformed the landscape of the retail clothing industry. Once editors post their reviews of the major fashion shows—which are practically on the spot now, thanks to the digital age—these brands roll out a massive inventory that boasts the latest insider-approved trends. Asymmetrical collars? Ruffled sleeves? Palazzo pants? If you see them on the runway, chances are you’d see them in H&M two weeks later.
Naturally, the risk that comes with it is, as Philip mentioned, you end up looking like everything else. I know several fashion-forward ladies who have resorted to thrifting and vintage shopping in the hopes of finding that one unique piece that will set them apart from everyone else.
Therein lies the real value of designer clothing—as Eva points out, “The edge with designers is that they can create something that’s just for you.”
“No Ev, it’s all about the fit,” says Cary. “It’s different when a designer gets to mold it to your body.”
“If you approached a French designer, you can still end up with the same piece as someone because you can only take from the collection,” Arcy argues. “Don’t tell me Karl Lagerfeld would sit down with you and sketch up a dress just for you. No way—no matter how rich you are, you have to take from the collection. It’s just over here that we really sketch, and they can still complain that we’re too expensive.”
CEBU’S FASHION INDUSTRY
The statement brings up another issue that young designers face. Although the city is home to a number of truly stylish individuals, the collective level of appreciation for fashion isn’t yet what it should be. As Jun mentioned in last year’s tete-a-tete, “In Cebu, no one is fiercely fashionable. Women dress for comfort.”
That climate is what young designers face when they want to break into the fashion industry. According to Edward Castro, the magazine’s resident stylist and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Design and Arts in Cebu, the pool of talent is considerable. “It’s an eclectic bunch, for sure. They come from different walks of life, they have different styles, but they all have one thing in common—raw potential.”
“I see the fashion industry as a community of creatives who are working individually on their respective brands,” adds Bree Esplanada, who has dressed blogger Ixa Perez, Queen Philippines candidate Trixie Andrews, among others. But he admits to finding a caveat. “However, if the industry really exists, it is mainly favored towards designers with strong social connections.”
This might be the reason why some have chosen to pursue a career in Manila instead, where they feel people are more receptive to conceptual design. “The industry in Cebu is fixed with established aesthetics and standards that can’t be shook anymore,” says Yves Camingue, another former Zee stylist who went on to be a contestant on Project Runway Philippines. These days, his cool street-style collections have been seen on local celebrities and various fashion spreads. “In Manila, there are different strokes for different folks. One can discover his niche and potential in Manila.”
Edward begs to differ though. “Personally, I think Cebu is very embracing and nurturing of new talents. I’m happy to see some of my students already getting clients on a regular basis. That just goes to prove that the Cebuano community can be a progressive community,” he asserts.
Jun’s sister Ixa Escario agrees that though there may be less opportunities, this can actually help in developing their unique identity as a designer—on her end, she’s chosen resort wear and swimsuits as her bread and butter. “I get my inspiration from this city—how it has evolved and grown over the years. It’s underestimated, but never overrated,” she shares. “You have to start from the bottom and work your way up to show what you’ve got. As my city grows, I grow together with it.”
THE CITY’S NEW CROP
So although there is a small exodus of talent, Cebu has a creative pool deep enough to constantly produce someone who could become the next big thing. Which leads us back to Oj’s question: who is the most promising young designer?
“Jul Oliva,” Cary offered up, to which Jun adds, “Yes, she’s very experimental.”
A former protege of furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue, Jul Oliva had learned to sew as a teenager, but started out with product design before she decided to pursue a career in fashion fully. It might have turned out to be a good step—the alternative aspect of design, and the tutelage of an internationally renowned creative, expanded her imagination. Jul’s designs are certainly forward-thinking. From creating an intricate hand-woven pattern with fabrics for a modern take on the terno, to a shaggy shrug in contrasting colors, the unconventional take on materials and play in texture make each Jul Oliva creation a true conversation piece.
Arcy gives her own vote, “I like Mike Yapching.”
With his own polished take on modern dressing, Mike Yapching had been chosen as the Filipino contender for the Singapore-based fashion competition Audi Star Challenge in 2011—at the time, he was still in the middle of finishing up his studies. Since then, he has been churning up sophisticated party dresses under his eponymous line, and creates ready-to-wear pieces for an international brand based in the Mactan Export Processing Zone.
It’s a consideration that Mike doesn’t take lightly. “Some of the greats in the Philippine fashion industry come from Cebu, and it is such an overwhelming feeling to be considered by them as one of the most promising Cebuano fashion designers. It is an honor and a privilege to be mentored by one of the Cebuano greats, Edwin Ao,” he shares. “I am flattered, yet there is the pressure to always deliver and live up to the expectations of such amazing and inspiring people. I could only hope to become one among them in the future.”
Moving on, Cary adds, “There’s also Celine Borromeo.”
Another alum of Project Runway Philippines (she made it into the top three of her season), Celine Borromeo advocates classic feminine dressing with a twist—oversized blazers and feminine silhouettes done in tweed and pinstripes play up on androgynous style. The designer had taken up a position on Josie Natori’s team, and is now based in Manila.
“I’ve worked really hard to build my name in the industry, and I don’t intend on stopping anytime soon. It is not easy to be recognized, especially if you are a simple designer like myself. I don’t do avant garde. I don’t stand out in that way,” Celine explains. “But what I do is make very polished, classy and modern pieces people of all ages can appreciate. To be able to stand out and be recognized for what I do best by Cebu’s most prominent designers means I’m on the right path.”
A COMMUNITY OF CREATIVES
It seems like the challenges that up-and-coming designers face have an upside—talent and drive are completely different things, and the people who do not persevere in pursuing the profession could likely give up in the face of limitations. In the end, we’re left with talents that we can truly call promising, the ones who took on the arduous road with a fervor that matched their creativity.
For his part, Mike sees the competition as something that helps him work harder. “In my years of working in Cebu as a fashion designer, I can say that, with a little push and maximum determination, Cebuano designers and brands could become globally competitive.”
Edward certainly thinks so when he observes the students year after year. “With a bit of time and accumulated experience, and of course unwavering passion, they will be able to find their own voice and rightfully take their place in the industry,” he shares. “The fashion industry is tough, and it’s crucial to earn your stripes before anything else—it’s hard, but not impossible.”
All that said, the dinner with our high council of designers ends on a hopeful note, that the formidable conditions of the Cebuano fashion industry can help mold a new crop of talent that in itself can be the collective next big thing. To those hoping to rise above, Oj offers three pieces of advice: “Know your product—bring something that has your imprimatur to the fashion design world. Don’t just copy, acquire the skills to be a competent designer. Do the dirty work, don’t just draw. Recognize your strength and weaknesses, and build your own unique aesthetic.”
Second, “Have a specific vision—more than having a fashion philosophy, what is your vision? Be clear about who your clients are and where you want to take your business,” Oj continues. Lastly, “Work on realizing that vision—success in fashion means 1% inspiration and 99% action. Act on your vision until it becomes a reality.”
To simple answer Jun’s question: it might take some looking into, but the promising young designers are definitely out there—naa jud diay.