When Crazy Rich Asians broke box-office records in August, three Pinoys made headlines. The first two were Kris Aquino, who played the snobby Princess Intan, and Nico Santos, who displayed comic chops as Oliver T’sien.
The third star is a bit harder to spot. In a pivotal part of the film, Astrid Leong-Teo, embodied by the Hepburn-esque Gemma Chan, escorts the family matriarch down the church aisle in a pink Alexander McQueen gown clutching a black minaudiere. The piece features a sleeping siren clasp in 24-karat gold resting her head on a black shell case. Even to the untrained eye, it looks like the kind of impractical but gorgeous must-have accessory only the world’s 1% can afford. It’s the crucial sartorial storytelling needed to conjure the character described in the book as one of Singapore’s chicest women. And the creator of the bag happens to be Cebuano designer Neil Felipp San Pedro, handpicked for the movie by author Kevin Kwan.
A deep-rooted artisan culture has always thrived on Cebu, an island where industrial meets organic and where handmade guitars and woven rattan furniture abound. But after being stalled by the export recession of the late 2000s, Cebu’s reputation for craft needed a resuscitation. Neil’s recent exposure once again trained the spotlight on the island’s young designers and startups. They are making everything from furniture and jewelry to food snacks and homeware, and more importantly, marking a new creative frontier where the idea of place is a big part of the design narrative. The Siren minaudiere, for instance, was concocted from Neil’s lucid dreams and the beach his mother used to take him to on weekends. “Most of my pieces are a homage to the island that I call home,” says the 29-year-old designer.
Much of this resurgence can be credited to a small retail store tucked in an arcade of hip restaurants along Governor M. Cuenco Avenue. Measure the number of distinctive designs per cubic meter, and you’ll find thousands of pesos worth of innovation in the store on any given day.
On one corner is a hand-carved kalesa (horse-drawn carriage), wood-covered notebooks with stencil art from emerging graffiti artist Kidlat, hand-painted Sugbuanon ukuleles and a traditional coconut grater. In another corner are patched teddy bears made from sustainable fabric, intricate bunso dolls made of cloth and assembled by Cebuano needle workers and painters and shelves full of multi-colored hablon (weaves) from the south. On the ceiling are an upcycled ventilador frame with rattan weaving, and an origami lighting fixture made from bamboo.
Holicow, or the Holistic Coalition of the Willing has, in recent years, attracted designers like Neil who are looking for more than just mass production. They want to tell a story. “Our weapon of choice has always been design,” says HOLICOW’s manager, Kae Batiquin. “Design, by nature, always has to answer a problem.” The problem she is referring to is the global recession that hit the Cebu export industry in 2008. The question on everyone’s mind then was: “How could we sell furniture to a market that was already reselling their houses?”
This prodded a group of designers to go through what renowned furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue calls a “soul-searching stage”, to see what they could do as a group to survive the crisis that persisted until 2010. These late-night conversations led them to what was a new global buzzword at that time: sustainability.
“In the past, waste was waste was waste,” explains Kae. “But we concluded that if we started upcycling or explored new methods of making things and alternative ways of procuring materials that were still legal and certified, then maybe we could cut costs — and, in the process, educate the market on how to appreciate the work of Filipino hands.”
This intensive, research-driven redirection is what Cebuanos call kúti, or meticulous, and required a level of dedication to detail that not everyone was prepared to take on. “Sustainability is not just in the material that you use,” says Kae. “It must answer other questions: will this feed a family? If I make this design, can I repeat it? Can I ship it elsewhere? How will this product be received by people who haven’t seen this material used in this way before? It was meticulous thinking, especially in the world of export where volume is law.” For a time, nobody thought this sustainable approach to making things would gain traction in the market.
As predicted, not everyone understood the ethos behind all the kúti — why a farmer, for instance, is just as vital as the designer in the overall value chain. Kae says, “There was a cynicism that came from older colleagues: So you’re opening a store? With what? With natural materials? Upcycled stuff?” Instead of going for what’s kúti, traditional designers opted to isolate themselves and, with them, proprietary industry secrets.
On the other hand, the kúti coalition naturally attracted new allies among the young, those who wanted to break from high-volume, unbranded rattan pieces that dominated the ’90s Cebuano aesthetic. They seemed to understand the concept of designing with kalibutan, or the world, in mind. And with this came the strength of another buzzword: collaboration. Rather than cling to ato-ato (“just among us”), the young designers quickly embraced the more inclusive inato, or “how we do things”, especially in business. They began to call for practices that are meant to be shared and are mutually beneficial and reciprocal. Neil, like many designers who become part of the coalition, is a partner of HOLICOW, not just as a supplier but also lending his energies as visual merchandiser and artistic collaborator.
The store has become an open incubation lab of sorts where artists, retailers and social entrepreneurs can pop in anytime and ask for feedback on branding, aesthetics or design technique. At any time of day you’ll find Kae tackling a design problem or tweaking an item here and there. Kae’s table, too, is full of resources that most people might discard — green wine bottles, scrap metal, tattered fabric — but which she might yet turn into something stylish and worth coveting.
With broad collaboration came a need to map out what makes Cebuano design distinctly Cebuano. And HOLICOW begins by asking questions about identity before embarking on a quest for answers. “When we think of design, we think of the Japanese or the Scandinavian style, which has a very particular look and proportion,” says Kae. “There hasn’t been one scholarly study about Cebuano design. But why [then] are outsiders telling us they can sense [something] distinctly Cebuano?”
There isn’t a clear answer to that yet. “Maybe it’s a case of not being able to see your own nose,” says Kae. She puts her faith, however, in a kind of reverse engineering: one has to own it first, in order for theoretical frameworks to follow. On the surface, though, Cebuano design appears to be readily identifiable through the endemic materials that designers work with, the methods applied and what eventually comes out.
She shows me a muted, towel-like weave called kinarnero, hand-loomed and looped from an endemic cotton called tingkal. The varietal only grows in rough limestone areas in the south of Cebu. Living on an island, the elder Cebuanos wove with function in mind, to dry yourself off immediately after a fishing or swimming excursion. It might not be as colorful as the ones in mountainous Luzon or as ritualistic as those of Mindanao but “this is ours” Kae asserts. “It survived trend and colonialization because it’s relevant. The more you use it, the more resilient it becomes.”
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Smile magazine.