MANILA, Philippines – The distinct notes of the hegelung wafts through the cool and crisp Cotabato air. Surrounded by lush green mountains and a spectacular view of Lake Sebu, Lenora Luisa Cabili breathes in the idyllic scene. She is taken back to a beloved memory: vivid hues of gold, fuschia and purple malong worn by Maranaos visiting their home when she was a child. In her mind, she dances to the music of the kulintang, just like she used to during her days in the Bayanihan Philippine Folk Dance Company.
“My sisters and I followed in our mother’s footsteps, and joined the Bayanihan dance group when we were younger. Through dancing, I discovered indigenous groups from all over country, and a seed was planted in my heart. But it was 1992 in Paris where I was awed by the depth and beauty of hand-embroidered French Army uniforms,” relates Len. “Then in 2007, I met John Robshaw, a textile designer in New York. I remember sitting in his showroom, going over his wide collection of textile books, and noticed that he encircled information about weaving traditions in different parts of Asia. That’s when I knew I wanted to do something similar but within Philippine traditions,” she adds.
In 2010, Filip + Inna was born. The name brings together Cabili’s love for Philippine culture instilled early by her parents, and her innovative fashion style. “Tradition intertwines with contemporary,” she explains.
During the first four years of operation, Len did everything except oversee production. “Thankfully, in the past year I have been blessed with a fantastic design team who accompany me to visit our artisans around the Philippines,” she says.
From the Itneg tribes up north in Abra province to the different tribes down south in Mindanao, Filip + Inna is working with artisans to make exquisite clothes and accessories for the international market, while preserving each group’s ancient techniques of weaving, embroidery and beadwork.
Mixing traditional patterns with contemporary designs and silhouettes, each garment is painstakingly handmade by the artisans, and the result is a unique cultural fingerprint that showcases authentic, indigenous Filipino fashion to a global audience.
This noble endeavor is stated excellently on their website: “Filip + Inna’s mission is to create while also reviving – even preserving ancient traditions of the Philippines that are in danger of becoming lost. We work with many groups of talented artisans across the Archipelago, giving them an opportunity to improve their livelihoods. From our hands to yours, may the beauty, depth and integrity of each garment bring a deep appreciation for what is distinctly Filipino – distinctly Filip + Inna.”
With the many Asian influences in international fashion trends, what makes traditional Filipino designs stand out from the rest? “We have a diverse culture, and when you look at each indigenous group, they have their own distinct patterns, traditions in embroidery, beadwork and weaving,” Len explains. “When you look at Mindanao, you will see how rich it is in textile tradition. The Maranaos have their malong and langkit, and the T’bolis have their t’nalak, to name a few.”
Even with their many successful trunk shows abroad and a steadily growing number of loyal customers (many of them from outside the Philippines), the road hasn’t always been easy for Len and her team.
But Cabili, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2000, is no stranger to persevering and beating the odds. “Having been diagnosed with cancer, I searched for something with a purpose. I prayed for a long time about it, and fashion kept coming up. Eventually, people and circumstances were used to bring about Filip + Inna. It has not been easy but it has become a faith-filled journey. I have seen the goodness of God prevailing. One of my favorite verses is Psalm 90:17 – May the favor of the LORD our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands. With Filip + Inna, I see these words come alive, especially in our artisans’ handiwork,” recounts Len.
The production process is their greatest challenge: it is often slow and arduous, because the clothes have to travel to where the artisans live. But they always overcome the challenges with faith, love and plenty of humor that highlights the brighter side.
“There was one time, while making our video on the T’boli dreamweavers, our van got stuck in the mud. Daphne (the film maker) and I had to get down and start pushing the van. And just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, it rained!” recalls Len with a laugh. “Another time, we slept in a T’boli longhouse, and I woke up to someone scratching my head. It was a cat,” she adds with a smile. “Then there are those times like when we were working on a two-piece bathing suit sample, and I got a call from the artisans. They were all giggling and asking why I wanted the (undergarments) to be embroidered,” Len chuckles.
Filip + Inna’s beginnings weren’t always smooth, and many times Cabili questioned whether she was willing to go on. “I had a defining moment in 2011, right here in Lake Sebu. I took my friend, John Robshaw, who wanted to visit the T’boli dreamweavers. There was a program for us, organized by the artisans, and some of the ladies gave speeches. At one point, John leaned over to me and asked, ‘Why are all the ladies crying?’ I looked around and true enough, most of them were in tears. One of the leaders was speaking that time. She said that before Filip + Inna, they would help their husbands till their land and wait months for the harvest in order to earn money. Through Filip + Inna, they were able to use a skill that was innate to them and earn a living from it. They know that when they see and finish a particular garment, they will get the payment for it. Right then and there, it dawned on me that I could not afford to let Filip + Inna fail. I resolved to work hard to make Filip + Inna grow,” says the determined designer.
Filip + Inna then took on a new project that would ensure the continuity of tradition among their artisans and also be a way to give back to indigenous peoples and their communities.
“We have the Back to the Loom project where we partnered up with John Robshaw Textiles of NY to build our first weaving center, which we gave to Yab Man, a T’boli dreamweaver. We are working on our second weaving center in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, which will benefit the Tagabawa. We are also working on a home line, wherein a portion of the sales will go into building more weaving centers for the artisans and their communities.”
In 2013, more growth and blessings came through a collaboration with Bayo Clothing, another home-grown fashion company that takes pride in being Filipino. The resulting limited edition collection was a success, especially in finally introducing Filip + Inna to the Philippine fashion scene and market. They received glowing reviews, with online and print magazines hailing them as “heritage chic.” It was a sort of homecoming for Filip + Inna, after having been to shows in New York, the Hamptons, Connecticut, Chicago, Texas and Los Angeles.
So what’s next for Filip + Inna? “In addition to the artisans we’ve featured on our website, we are now also working with the the B’laan and Manobo tribes. Soon, we will start working with the 7 Tribes of Bukidnon,” answers Len.
The future seems bright and colorful indeed for both the artisans and the brand, as Filip + Inna continues to bring traditional Filipino fashion to modern times. “We are taking part in the Likhang Habi Market Fair this Oct. 23-25 at the Glorietta Activity Center, and also The Urban Artisans in Nest along Jupiter Street on Nov. 14-15. We are doing a trunk show at the Asia Society in New York on Dec. 1, and hopefully in Tokyo, Japan with the Philippine consulate,” Len shares excitedly.
Perhaps the best picture that would describe the future for Filip + Inna and traditional Filipino fashion is a photo taken by Paco Guerrero. Len shares: “It was very special to shoot on location in Lake Sebu, and having the weaving and embroidery artisans take part in it. The last shot was a moment I will never forget. It featured the Anya dress which we made exclusively for Aerin Lauder, with the five leaders of the embroidery groups. The model held hands with the artisan who made the dress. As I watched the scene unfold, I became overwhelmed with emotion, as I looked back at the last five years and the struggles we had to go through. It has not been easy, but I wouldn’t have chosen another way,“ says Len.
Indeed, this picture faithfully represents Filip + Inna and the artisans who were woven into their lives: the modern and the traditional are holding hands, and their faces are looking forward – together.
This article originally appeared on The Philippine Star here.