Couture in the House: SonicSF in the Philippines

August 26, 2014

My brother is a well-known fashion designer in the Philippines, and when his name became a brand he found he needed an office and a workshop. My grandparents were looking to sell their house so they suggested selling it to my brother.

But this house wasn’t your typical Quezon City house with its flat roofs and dull, flat-brown paint. In fact, it also used to be my grandmother’s leather goods shop.

My brother has often told me stories of walking arou

nd my grandma’s backstock, smelling the strong musk of leather hide, and seeing my grandma immersed in her creative flow as she designed wood carvings to be pressed on leather, experiences he says inspired him to experiment with making clothes today. He instantly grabbed at the chance to establish his flagship store in the same space as her old leather goods company, knowing a lineage of craftmanship is in these walls!

Fourteen years has passed since I left my motherland, and two weeks ago I returned, at almost the exact mark on the calendar in the month of July. July is the storm season of the Philippines. I was expecting hot tropical sun but I got something deceivingly similar to San Francisco (or at least where I live in the Outer Richmond). You know, that skyless grayness? But that’s just the sky. Once you walk outside, it is humid and hot. And guess what? All parts of my outer body can produce sweat, even my elbows.

The trip was riddled with revisting the part of my brain that contained my Tagalog vocabulary, reopening the pocket in my stomach where rice usually goes, and, of course, heavy…heavy nostalgia.

One of the things I was excited to see was my brother’s shop, to explore the mingling of old and new.

I expected to see at least one piece of vintage mechanical equipment that churned out leather bags or wallets. I wanted to turn an old rickety iron leather straightener (that’s an actual machine right? Probably. You know those machines you imagine when you don’t really know anything about machinery). I wanted to blow dust off metal templates that had my grandma’s name on it and I wanted my brother to show me framed ephemera that he’d salvaged, holding on to memories of our trailblazing family artisan.

But rather than a monument to the past, I found a space alive with creativity, and a craftmanship solidly of the present: rooms filled with fabric and cloth from China and India, shelves lined with jars of buttons and “motifs”. There were racks upon racks of outgoing gowns and suits ready for praise at their designated wedding or soiree.

In the office of the creative staff, up to date magazine cut-outs colonized a cork board, whether for inspiration or perhaps milling out competition. Next to them, paper cut-outs of new designs that would eventually be translated into fabric.

And then, my brother, working in his office drawing up his newest design for his 11 o’clock client. I was enamored by the intense pace of activity.

For the last several years I’ve been coming across my brother’s name, buzzed around in Hollywood-esque gossip media shown on Filipino channels, and even seeing him featured on America’s Next Top Model, when he designed couture dresses using Hello Kitty products.

During my high school prom I wore my Francis Libiran penguin-suit with pride as I showed my classmates the tag that bore my last name.

Finally seeing his workshop was fulfilling in a way that I can’t explain. It was inspiring! I felt like his younger-self must’ve felt walking around my grandma’s leather shop, wide-eyed and unconsciously brewing an inclination for artistry. Thus realizing the possibility to turn creating into a profession. It was intense for me to see the magnitude of his fame, but even more so how comfortable and confident he was practicing his craft. I love that he loves what he does and is so good at it.

During a long car ride to one of our island hopping escapades, he showed me a magazine that featured the “25 Most Influential Fashion Designers in the Philippines.” He’s in it of course and he also pointed out the older designers he originally looked up to. “I used to clip magazine cut-outs of their gowns and pieces when I was your age and now… I am one of them,” he said.

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