From Global Pinoy Bazaar’s impressive roster of Filipino fashion and lifestyle brands, The Sunday Times Magazine zooms in on two successful ventures in shoes and bag designs, which not only place the gifted artistry of the Filipino front and center, but also a strong sense of homegrown pride.
Shoes by Kai reflects PH culture
Back in 2013, Sheryll Quiming-Gempis’ only goal was to run a small-scale shoe business. But instead of feeling fulfilled as she began designing, producing and selling her work, she felt lost and unsure on how to pursue her dream.
Besides finding out that she was no match against affordable shoe brands in tiangges and palengkes, as well as the high-end labels of shopping malls, Gempis realized her brand had no identity. As she started from scratch all over again, a family vacation led her to decide that her products should simply reflect her culture.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, Gempis shared how she zeroed in on her catchy tagline “Wear Your Culture” for the online store Shoes by Kai.
She was on a family holiday in Ilocos Sur and saw her inspiration in Abel Iloko.
Abel Iloko, also called inabel, is a local fabric made from cotton threads, which are woven using traditional wooden handlooms. The provinces of Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte and La Union of Region I are the major producers of Abel Iloko, which have long been used in decorative pieces or souvenir items.
Of course, Gempis used this discovery for her shoes.
She recalled, “Since I was the one who personally bought my materials from Marikina, I was able to compare Abel Iloko with the more popular canvas used in shoes. I asked myself, ‘Why can’t I use this when it’s quite similar in texture?’ So I bought a few yards for me to test at home.”
Gempis and her family members were the guinea pigs for her Abel Iloko shoes. And happily, they proved very durable and are still wearable a year since she first made them.
“Matibay talaga ang weaves natin [Our weaves are very sturdy]. For one meter of textile, weavers consume over a thousand threads,” she pointed out.
Her decision to focus on shoes featuring indigenous materials was further solidified by the fact that she hails from Pangasinan in Ilocos.
“I was just happy I needed to go home to the province more often,” she smiled.
A dying tradition
More than ensuring the profitability of her business, Gempis felt she was handed a responsibility to help preserve the tradition of weaving the Abel Iloko, which just like other Filipino textiles is fast declining.
She explained, “The tradition is dying because the weavers are old already. In a weaving house, there would only be two weavers at most—the oldest in the family at that, and no one from the next generation interested to learn the practice anymore. Even the handlooms are as old as the weavers or even older than them.”
The situation only makes Gempis more passionate in promoting the weavers’ art. She said, “Dahil ngayon na meron ng mga tulad namin, nai-inspire silang mag-weave ulit [Now that there are designers like us using the textile, they are inspired to weave again].”
Moreover, the renewed passion to weave have resulted in the use of more colorful threads among the artists other than the usual red, black and gray commonly used in the binakul, a kind of inabel. Gempis uses trendy shades of blue, yellow and violet in her shoes.
The SBK owner also emphasized the importance of buying directly from the weavers and not from middlemen.
“I really travel to the weaving centers, even as far as Abra, just so I can avoid buying from middlemen. Because if your advocacy is to help the weavers, then you should pay them directly. I may not be able to support an entire community, but I can give a regular source of income for individual weavers,” she explained.
Product of artisans
After sourcing her star material, Gempis had to find the right artisans who could actually make shoes out of inabel.
“I went from Marikina all the way to Laguna in search of these artisans. It was hard to find shoemakers because they fell hard from the influx of cheap China shoes and are still recovering. Fortunately, I was able to meet my main artisan who could work with the weaves. It’s difficult to do because the sturdiness makes the inabel hard to cut and mold. I also want to make sure that the textiles are treated with respect.”
Moreover, Gempis was also able to prove that her artisan Marjo also believes in her mission and vision. She said, “Her first words to me were, ‘Ma’am, sa susunod po wag lang abel Iloko, gamit din tayo ng ibang fabrics from the south [Ma’am, next time let’s use other fabrics from south and not just Abel Iloko].’”
“Besides these, I also want show that our country has the skill in quality shoemaking especially if not mass-produced,” Gempis added.
According to the entrepreneur, the SBK team of five artisans is able to make an average of 12 pairs within a week. And one kind of fabric can be produced in various designs and colors, making each pair truly unique.
“There is no assurance that the shoe will be replicated again because our weavers don’t have a pattern they follow. They just use the available threads make whatever design comes to mind,” she said.
With regard to her own design process, Gempis related, “I get inspiration from the fabric. I only get to design once I see the fabric because that’s the only time when I know if it’s good for ballet flats or loafers. And sometimes, one fabric might work on a design but might not on another.”
As a whole, the designer is also focused on offering wearable and not high fashion footwear. “Because our tagline is ‘Wear your culture,’ we want our shoes to be integrated into everyday life,” she enthused.
Determined and confident with her brand, the Filipina entrepreneur ventured into various local bazaars to showcase SBK’s products.
It was in one of these instances that she met Rene Guatlo of Habi, the Philippine Textile Council who edited the book, Habi: A Journey Through Philippine Handwoven Textiles (2013). Seeing the potential in Shoes by Kai, he encouraged Gempis to carry on with her craft and even supported her by giving her textiles when she would run out of materials.
“Not only did he give me the go signal, he also became my mentor when it came to Abel Iloko,” Gempis added.
Moreover, Gempis also recalled that it was Guatlo who introduced her to journalist Jessica Zafra, the author of Twisted, a popular newspaper column back in the early 2000s, who gave SBK its very first feature.
According to Gempis, Zafra’s role in SBK’s early days was crucial. She explained, “When I met Jessica, she immediately bought a pair and reviewed my shoes in all honesty.”
This was what Zafra had to say: “One of her ideas was to incorporate local ethnic weaves into her shoe designs. Voila: Smoking slippers in abel Iloko . . . We took our smoking slippers for a nice, long walk yesterday—they’re very comfortable and practical, plus the probability of running into anyone wearing the same shoes is extremely low. The inside is lined and soft; the soles are light and flexible so you can fold the shoes, stash them in a bag and take them anywhere. Spare shoes! Like those bendy ballet flats, only they’re made of artisanal, eco-friendly, indigenous (3 buzzwords!) materials.” (www.jessicarulestheuniverse.com, July 9, 2013)
The writer further helped in the publicity of SBK by recommending it to a fellow journalist in Interaksyon.com. Though the first features of SBK were online, Zafra still warned Gempis to be wary of fashion bloggers.
“Thanks to Jessica, I never gave in to fashion bloggers asking for my product for them to review it. If I did, then I know they wouldn’t be fair in what they’d write.”
Even today, Gempis only grants interviews to credible media outlets only, such as Women’s Journal and Health Today, which were her first features in print.
Soon a concept store
Today, SBK has truly found its market as proven by endless messages from her happy clients on her website, not to mention sales.
Asked what her plans are in the future, the SBK owner elaborated, “I can’t operate solely online forever but I don’t want to go to malls either because I definitely can’t keep up with the demand. So my dream is to have a small concept store offering not only shoes, but also bags, which I am now beginning to conceptualize. And once the indigenous fabrics here are saturated already, then I can get fabrics from Southeast Asia.”
While her products are now sold in a cultural space in Los Baños, Laguna—offering everything “Made in the Philippines”—Gempis is eyeing to open her first stand-alone SBK store by 2015.
She is also excited for the future especially now that the local products are in a “better place.”
“A few years back when everything is imported, you’re not ‘in’ when you’re not wearing something branded. Now, we’re going back to everything artisanal or handmade. We value pieces that are unique. There are a lot of mainstream brands that put out collections using local textiles too so there is hope now for everything Filipino,” Gempis concluded. EV
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Vesti bags promote Mindanao
To this very day, Mindanao is pictured as a terror-laden and war-torn area with threats of beheading from the Abu Sayyaf and reports of recruitment by the Islamic State of Israel and Syria. All these still see the headlines after the “Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro” was signed to unite the island with the rest of the country.
But for Vesti Bags owner and designer Martha Rodriguez, there is so much more to Mindanao than all this negativity. A native of Cagayan de Oro, she is proud to showcase Mindanaoan fabrics and textiles through her company.
“Aside from what media is portraying, Mindanao has many good things going for it. We have all these crafts that can be offered to the world market. There will come a time that people will appreciate our products as people today are still surprised to see beautiful weaves from Mindanao. My aim is to raise awareness over what we can produce,” Rodriguez told The Sunday Times Magazine in an exclusive interview.
“Vesti came to me as a calling,” Rodriguez said about the beginnings of her business. Everything can be traced back to Rodriguez’ teenage years when she moved to Manila for high school.
She recalled, “I grew up in Cagayan de Oro and moved to Manila when I was in second year high school. People were so scared to talk to me because I was from Mindanao. They accused me of beheadings! They also thought that we didn’t have water and electricity, and that we were isolated there.”
In college, she took up Clothing Technology at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, where she found the courage to showcase the beautiful side of Mindanao. Her term paper tackled the country’s only silk industry pioneered by the Abai (Ayala Beneficiaries Association Inc.) Weavers Multi-purpose Cooperative in Laguindingan, Misamis Oriental.
Following graduation, Rodriguez went to New York and found herself a full time job. And while it seemed that the young Filipina was already living the American dream, something in her moved her to return to the Philippines in 2010.
It was during this time that she rekindled her calling to promote Mindanao’s culture through its local textiles.
“I first went to Abai center in 2006 for my college term paper. I returned in 2010 and was devastated to see it was already abandoned. They had stopped weaving because there were no more orders. I saw the stacks of fabrics there and I told myself, ‘Sayang naman.’ I ended up buying the whole lot,” Rodriguez recalled.
Clueless as to do with the fabrics she acquired, Rodriguez used her background in fashion and turned them bags. That moment marked the beginning of her now four-year-old bag company Vesti.
“Vesti is derived from the word ‘bestida’ [dress]. It is also happens to be a Russian word, which means ‘to share.’ And it is the perfect name for my company because I want to share Mindanaon weaves to the world market,” the 29-year-old businesswoman added.
Reviving Mindanao silk
In the last four years, Rodriguez has relished every discovery she makes in the diverse weaves Mindanao. Currently, she uses seven kinds for Vesti that come from different provinces including her hometown Cagayan de Oro, Surigao del Sur, and Bukidnon.
Her self-imposed rule is to buy directly from the weavers, even if it is sometimes difficult to continuously source textiles from them.
She explained, “It’s hard to source and still continue ordering from them kasi nawawalan sila ng gana [when they give up]. Like the Abai weavers, they started very big when they were being funded by the Ayala Foundation before.
“Because they want easy income, they sometimes resort to fishing or farming in order to live. Weaving doesn’t always have buyers,” she added.
But hope is not lost for Rodriguez as she is taking an active role in reviving the Mindanao silk through the Abai weavers. On October 26, she is set to stage the second “Hudyaka: Celebration of Mindanao’s Finest Design and Craftsmanship” in Cagayan de Oro.
“Together with six designers, we will showcase Mindanao silk through our own interpretations, be it on bags, clothes, shoes or even furniture,” Rodriguez said.
All the products featured in the show will go on sale, so that the proceeds make can help reopen the center.
“Eventually, I hope to turn the center into a tourist destination what with its proximity to Laguindingan Airport,” Rodriguez informed.
The first Hudyaka was held 2012 in partnership with Philippine Textile Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Trade and Industry.
Striking a balance
From participating in bazaars, Vesti is now available through Bijou Boutique in Greenbelt, Makati; Pluma Store in Alabang Town Center; Emporium Store at Mactan International Airport, Cebu City; Chimes Department Stores at Davao City, and soon, at Spruce Store in Centrio Mall in Cagayan de Oro City. It also operates an online store at vesti.ph.
Considered as specialty bags featuring handcrafted Mindanaoan weaves, Rodriguez describes the brand’s aesthetic as “a play of colors and strong lines in structured shapes.”
Every month, the brand releases new designs, from casual to formal, for a clientele that goes from the young to older women. A casual knapsack or sling bag is priced at P3,000, while handbags in leather materials start at P7,500. Elegant metal clutches can go as high as P10,000 to P15,000.
“Fashion is fast. Every month, there is something new that I can design with the textiles that come in. For every new style, Vesti produces 24 pieces per design per color so that there is an exclusivity in owning one,” explained the talented lady.
Rodriguez also always takes into consideration the identity of the weavers for every bag she envisions to respect their artistry.
“They don’t want to change who they are, and I don’t want to change them too,” she noted.
Advice to the young
With no formal background in business, Rodriguez is now on her way to expanding Vesti into other product lines like shoes and apparel, as well as entering the export market.
Asked how she has achieved so much in a mere four years, she replied, “For me, there are no rules in doing business. What I do is I learn from mistakes so that I push myself to make it better next time.”
She continued, “I’m very passionate in what I do so that I am very careful with my designs. I make sure the quality is at par with branded ones, and the delivery of bags is always on time.”
Alongside her profit, the businesswoman also gives back to others through advocacies like the Hudyaka, and soon, scholarship programs she plans to establish.
Rodriguez hopes her story can inspire other young Filipinos to become entrepreneurs themselves.
“Don’t be scared to walk a road that’s very uncertain. I didn’t have the formal training in business, and I didn’t have the money to begin with. I was also scared in the beginning but I didn’t give up. If you know that you love what you’re doing, then you’re already headed toward something good,” she ended.