Whether it’s offering modern renditions of the classic Maria Clara dress or tapping into longtime artisanal techniques, Filipinx designers are putting their culture at the forefront of their work. And while many of them are fighting to gain recognition in circles that are heavily dominated by the western world, these creators are refusing to assimilate. Instead, they’re showcasing the beauty that can be found within their very own country.
“I remember when I was 24 and felt invisible,” recalls Caroline Mangosing, the founder and creative director of Vinta Gallery. Just like many ambitious fashion enthusiasts, Mangosing held multiple fashion internships, hoping to break into the industry. But on top of the challenges that are already embedded with being an intern came the fact no one in the room ever looked like her. “After a while, I stopped pursuing fashion. Instead, I pursued being Filipino,” she says. This pivotal moment would lead Mangosing to creating the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture in Toronto. But years after in 2009, fashion seemed to make its way back to her, and she began to build the early stages of Vinta Gallery, which eventually launched in 2016.
Now, Mangosing’s brand serves as a beacon of pride by turning to the Philippines’ classic attire for inspiration. Merging her love for both fashion and Filipino culture, the Toronto-based clothing brand specializes in bespoke renditions of the country’s historic garments: the barong and Maria Clara dress. Merging pre-colonial Filipino and colonial Spanish elements, these pieces are identified by the use of pina (pineapple leaf fibers), and the Maria Clara dress commands power with its signature butterfly shoulders. Like couturiers in Paris, Vinta Gallery allows consumers to make each made-to-measure garment their own.
“There’s a deep tradition of couture found in the Philippines that nobody talks about. My mother would get a newly made dress for her every weekend before parties,” Mangosing says. “We are just as masterful in this craft as anybody else.” While these pieces are traditionally donned at formal events, Vinta Gallery makes them feel more accessible to a younger audience for casual outings, like a backyard barbecue with friends or vintage shopping in the city.
As brands like Vinta Gallery work to cultivate a Filipino community through clothing, Limnia is tapping into heritage with jewelry. “Filipinas love gold, but we especially love pearls,” founder Annette Lasala Spillane tells NYLON. From necklaces to anklets, each carefully designed piece feels classic and versatile. “There’s a lot of thought when it comes to buying jewelry. It must be luxurious but also practical. And there’s also consideration of being able to pass it down from generation to generation,” she adds.
But look closer and one may notice that the cultural references are present and serve as Spillane’s driving force of design. First, some of the pieces are named after places in the Philippines, including “The Manila” and “The Luzon.” But perhaps what carries a greater tie to Filipino heritage are the materials used and the artisans behind each item. “All the materials we source are from the Philippines,” she says. “And we also only work with artisans from the Philippines, which is something I knew I’d want to do the moment I started the business.”
Vinta Gallery and Limnia share more than their love for culture and using their businesses to highlight its craftsmanship in fashion. Oftentimes, people in the western world falsely believe that goods and apparel from other parts of the world are “cheap.” Both these brands, among many others, are working to dispel this myth. “This is something I’d have to explain to people when they’d question my prices,” says Spillane. “I work with the artisans back home and never question the price they give me because I understand that it’s their livelihood. This is something I will never back down on.”
Similarly, Vinta Gallery takes pricing very seriously. “People need to realize that if you want to have ethically sourced clothes that are sustainable and offer living wages, it’s going to come at a cost,” says Magnosing. Plus, it’s important to recognize the groups that are also tapping into the Indigenous practices of the Philippines. Ifugao Nation is only one but a few grassroots organizations that offer Indigenous Filipino attire woven by the artisans of the Ifgugao Indigenous group while proceeds aid to keep their practices alive. The group’s scarves and blankets, with its bright colors and intricate lines, follow a longstanding weaving technique and are stocked at Narra Studio, a New York City-based shop offering apparel, accessories, and home goods that highlight the Philippines’ artisanal work.
But what seemingly binds many of these Filipino-owned brands is something that many young Filipinos in the design space outside of the Philippines are yearning for: community. Ivy Ocampo and Jeanette Sawyer founded their home goods and accessories brand Maaari with this purpose in mind. “We wanted to forge a connection between our makers and our customers by telling the stories of what inspires our designs, how the goods are made, and who makes them,” the duo share in an email with NYLON.
Not only does Maaari offer a vast array of products rooted in Filipino tradition, but the brand’s blog also helps to inform customers about history and culture, like an explainer on banga, a traditional dance in the Philippines, or the ancient symbolism behind Linglingo, which means fertility and virility. Through this, Ocampo and Sawyer hope that their followers will be inspired to continue and preserve the country’s craft and culture.
With each effort to preserve and celebrate Filipino culture comes the natural segue into proper representation. And it would be daft to believe that proper representation doesn’t contribute to a sense of pride and empowerment. As these designers and business owners, along with many others, continue to spotlight their Filipino heritage, it’s refreshing to finally have that pride within the fashion industry. Long gone are the days of hoping to be seen by others; instead, they’re creating for themselves and their culture.