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Not So Fast Fashion: The Filipina Designer Giving Tribal Artisans A Place On The Catwalk

Filip+Inna, November 30, 2017

Carol Ramoran-Malasig Contributor at forbes.com

“We’re the turtles of fashion,” Len Cabili, Creative Director and Founder of Philippine ethical fashion brand Filip + Inna, said to a crowd of women listening at the Philippine Embassy in Berlin. While not as behind the times as her joke might suggest, Cabili’s company is known for its more established aesthetic tastes; Cabili began working with Filipino tribes in 2008, asking them to embroider their traditional patterns and designs to modern home decor before branching out to fashion.

She would give them garments with a modern silhouette – an A-line dress, a leather jacket – and ask them which of their patterns and designs would look best on the garments. The result? Intricate, traditional patterns making their way to modern pieces. Age-old designs worn by women who learn more about the tribe through each garment they purchase. Their clients, mostly in the U.S. and Europe.

Working with tribes is slow and has had its challenges – thus, the turtle reference. They have their own pace and deliveries are sometimes delayed when the farm or children need to come first or if there’s a typhoon in their remote areas. But Cabili says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

There’s more to Filip + Inna as a brand. For one, their artisans – actual members of tribes from the Philippines – stitch each garment by hand to create a work of art. They’re not just involved in the design, but the actual embroidery process as well.

The company all started with Cabili, growing up in the southern part of the Philippines – Mindanao. The island is home to numerous tribal groups and their preserved culture.

Her father was in government and her mother who danced for the country’s national folk dance company, encouraged her to do the same. Growing up, Cabili has interacted with various tribes because of her father’s job. She saw Maranaos wearing their colourful malong and the Yakans who are talented weavers in action. She eventually followed her mother’s footsteps, dancing for the Bayanihan Dance Company. She was able to wear the traditional clothing of tribes from different regions in the Philippines while giving life to their dances on stage.

A pencil skirt with patterns inspired by the T’boli’s T’nalak cloth and the Bakwat beaded belt by the Ga’dang tribe. PHOTO FROM FILIP + INNA

“I remember there was one dance, every time I would wear the traditional garment for it, in my head, I would always think ‘Gosh, I would wear this with jeans’,” Cabili shared. The interest in blending traditional clothing with modern pieces was planted early on. She took up fashion in university but eventually joined her family’s retail business.

Cabili got the push she needed to do something she was passionate about when she was diagnosed with cancer in the late 90s. “When you’re given that, you start thinking that you don’t just want to die without leaving something behind or having some purpose.”

Fast forward to the present and Cabili is working with tribes all over the Philippines. She sought them out, visiting their communities no matter how remote they were.

During her presentation in Berlin, organised by Consul Catherine Torres of the Philippine Embassy, Cabili wore the Sebu coat embroidered by the T’boli. PHOTO BY CAROLYN MALASIG

Fighting cultural appropriation: protecting tradition and people

Cabili’s pieces don’t come cheap with a dress easily going for a few hundred dollars. “We pay the artisans per stitch, there’s no other way. We count every single one of them,” Cabili said. The artisans are not full time weavers. Some of them work their farms and some have children to care for, so it can sometimes take about 20 days for a garment to be finished.

To the weavers, working with Cabili means providing for their families while keeping their traditions as they embrace modernity. The burden to keep them from getting exploited, however, rests on Cabili’s shoulders – a task she seems to take upon herself willingly. This, as she talks about the artisans she works with as people who she truly cares about.

The T’bolis, one of the biggest tribes the brand works with. PHOTO FROM FILIP + INNA

“When I was starting Filip + Inna, someone asked me why I have to go all the way to Lake Sebu [a remote lake home to the T’boli tribe in the province of Cotabato] to make them do it. Why not just find embroiderers here in Manila?” Cabili said.

“But that was it. I don’t own those patterns and if I want to use those patterns, they would have to have a take on the whole process because they own those designs. We’re in it together.”

She maintains the designs and the patterns remain under the ownership of the artisan. The brand gives them full credit with some of them even writing their names on katsa, a small piece of cloth attached to the garment. “We have one client in the states, the katsa is still there. Because she feels that is her attachment to the artisan.”

Cabili is also coming up with a new brand identity that focuses on standardizing the way the garments carry the name of its artisan. Filip + Inna’s upcoming collections will also see a change in color scheme. Something she is excited about as it would cater to a certain market’s taste without losing sight of what is important to the artisans.

A closer look at one of the dresses by Filip + Inna. The patterns were chosen and hand embroidered by the T’boli. PHOTO BY CAROLYN MALASIG

“When I say I cater to a specific market and adjust accordingly, it’s basically in the silhouette or the colors. But traditionally, the patterns are Filipino. So, it’s just putting it in a different way. In a creative way to make it more contemporary,” Cabili shared about their process. “It’s really appropriating what is T’boli into something more contemporary but acknowledging it. And they are the ones working on it.”

A more affordable range is also in the works but Cabili says this may take a while as she wants to ensure the quality remains the same as the brand and its name represent the Philippines. “It is easy to create something and sell it at a cheaper price. But I think with the brand, we have this sense of responsibility because if you look at it, it looks back on the country,” Cabili said.

“I feel like we’re [culture] ambassadors – I feel that. There is the responsibility on my part to make sure that what we put out there reflects the best of what the artisans are capable of doing.”

This article originally appeared on forbes.com on Nov 30, 2017, 05:18am