New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looked fetching in her ivory-colored Barong Tagalog and long black skirt at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gala dinner, but her comments about the outfit hurt fashion designer Albert Andrada, one of the couturiers tapped for the occasion.
New Zealand website newshub.co.nz, posted a video showing Ardern holding her Barong Tagalog. Asked what it smelled like, she replied, “I’m not going to sniff the shirt on camera.” She was quoted in the accompanying article to have described the barong as “scratchy” and “quite starched,” and that it smelled like “pineapple husk.”
Andrada, in a phone interview, told The Manila Times in a phone interview that he found the prime minister’s comments “a little undiplomatic.”
He was quick to point out, however, that he cannot be sure if Ardern meant to be critical of the barong, since it may have been the website that gave the story a negative spin.
Still, Andrada believes the prime minister should have made an effort to appreciate the national wear.
“As leader of a nation, you should give importance and appreciate the culture and traditions of another country you are visiting. What she did is a little undiplomatic. Sana she just said those things [in private]instead of showing [the barong]to media and saying things like it ‘smells like pineapple husk,’ which is natural for something made of the material,” he said.
“The barong has been our formal attire ever since the Spanish era so we cannot change that, [nor our use]of piña and abaca fiber. All throughout the years [the fabric]has been developed but it is still fiber from pineapple,” Andrada explained.
“Now it’s starchy because we need to starch [the material]to enable it to fit well on a person’s body when they wear it; so that when you iron it, maganda ang bagsak niya (it will fit beautifully).”
“And one more thing, it’s starchy because of the fine weaving. The weavers put starch [over the fabric]once they’re done, which is what they’ve always done.
“So yes, it’s scratchy, which is why we require everyone to wear an undershirt or undergarments when wearing a barong.”
Andrada said he lined the world leaders’ barong with silk.
“When I attended the fitting of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he was very happy [with his barong]because he even said, ‘I don’t have to worry about my undershirt.’ He also asked me how it should be worn. He said, ‘Albert, how do we properly wear this shirt? Do I have to really close the buttons on the collar?’ I said, ‘Yes, it has to be like that because it is the formal attire of the Filipinos.’ So, I gave him some tips,” he narrated.
He admitted being offended by the ‘scratchy’ Barong issue “as a Filipino but not as a designer.”
“We’re not talking about how [the barong]was made but the barong itself. She was talking about the formal attire of the Filipino and not how it was made,” he explained.
“[Whether a diplomat or not] anyone visiting another country should show an appreciation for that country’s traditions and culture so as not to offend anyone,” he added.
According to Andrada, it took his team three months to complete Ardern’s Barong Tagalog. Working only with some measurements that were given, the designer and his staff even made sure to look up the prime minister’s photos online to make sure what they made suited her frame.
“[The barong took that long to make] because the embroidery is made by hand, including the dyeing, because it was made to be a little darker than the usual shade. The actual challenge really was that I was not given the time to [properly]measure everyone. I was just given the measurements that is why for some, it was not a perfect fit.”
“But we can’t blame the prime minister because maybe it’s her first time to see or wear such a thing. Maybe the people around her or anyone from the embassy should have informed her what a barong is, or what fabric we use. But at the end of the day, we Filipinos are very forgiving and are always warm in accepting our visitors. We still welcome them no matter what.”