“Basahan but make it fashowwwwnnn.”
An Instagram post by @voguerunway featuring New York-based furniture designer Elise McMahol amidst samples of her upcycled woven creations has been getting a lot of attention the past two days. It has so far garnered over 30,000 likes—including one from the famous American model Gigi Hadid—and more than a thousand comments.
The snap naturally didn’t escape the eagle eyes of Filipino fashionistas. The actress Bela Padilla recognized that the home accessories dotting the photograph look awfully similar to our locally made rugs or doormats or, well, basahan.
“Philippine doormats, yes 💯 about a dollar a piece 😂,” wrote Bela.
“Kaya pala nawawala basahan namin sa bahay,” went another comment.
The lifestyle website NoliSoli also posted about the photo on its Instagram page, garnering mixed reactions.
“It’s Vasahaughn,” said one.
“Divisoria said what,” the home cook Bea Ledesma chimed in.
“My lola will give you this for free,” another comment went.
But while there were a lot of funny and amused reactions, there are those who couldn’t hide their dismay that an American designer seems to be taking credit for a weaving technique that’s been used in the Philippines for years and years. After all, didn’t we grow up with these mats around our homes? Also, search “basahan making tutorial” on YouTube and you will get a plethora of videos from as far back as ten years ago done by Filipinos.
“Cool but like it makes me uncomfortable knowing there’s no acknowledgment of other cultures (like mine) that have upcycled fabrics for much, much, much longer that would probably benefit from the exposure as well,” said Filipina photographer Regine David.
Blogger Quina Baterna echoed David’s sentiment. “While this doesn’t discredit Elise and her work towards sustainability efforts, please do due diligence and give credit to the cultures that have been doing this for years,” Baterna said, calling out the magazine.
According to the Vogue feature story, Elise McMahol is the founder of LikeMindedObjects, a studio that specializes in creating upcycled items. Aware of the tons of old T-shirts in America which end up going to waste, she thought something must be done to repurpose them.
The designer then asked her textile artist friend Francesca Capone in November of 2020 what she can do with the 100 pound bale of T-shirts she had in her custody. Since Francesca has been making potholders in a small loom, she suggested why not make circular strips out of the T-shirts and weave them in a bigger-sized loom. This way, they can fashion the discarded fabrics into bigger items like quilts and blankets.
But in order for their upcycling advocacy to have a greater impact, Elise and Francesca thought of making 18” x 18” looms available for people to use at home or in their respective communities. LikeMindedObjects is selling the loom—note it’s the loom—for $200 (roughly P10,000).
A name that kept being tagged in the @voguerunway post is that of Filipino social enterprise Rags2Riches which has been making well-crafted rugs and other fashion items from upcycled materials since it was founded in 2007.
The enterprise has also been working to uplift the lives of Filipino artisans by helping them create and market these fashionable woven items.
In response to the tagging, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, the president and cofounder of Rags2Riches, took to Instagram to acknowledge the frustration of some commenters—although she didn’t early on directly address the issue being raised on cultural appropriation.
As someone who’s been in the practice for more than a decade, Reese underscored the difficulties of keeping an enterprise such as hers, and similar efforts to address fabric wastage should be encouraged. Reese said that while the craft industry is very fragmented, the stories of craftsmen are similar. “Many artisans all over the world suffer unfair trade practices,” she wrote—a situation that might be rooted in the wrong concept of “handmade” being equated with “cheap.”
Reese said there’s indeed a huge problem on textile waste, and her company continues to help lessen it even if it sometimes feels like they are not making a dent. “Building a fashion and design house empowering community artisans in the Philippines is not easy. But we got here because of our artisans, partners, and advocates who supported us,” she said, assuring everyone that her enterprise is not giving up.
The upcycling advocate said she’s been in touch with Elise of Likeminded Objects since Tuesday. “She has been kind, open, and considerate—and is doing the work of learning more and better,” Reese said, recalling their exchange. “She is a person that I never would have met but now we are connected. And I think that bridge has power as bridges often have.”
“When we support social entrepreneurs for social development we double the impact and we create bridges that will lead to alignment of goals,” said Zarah Juan whose eponymous brand makes bags and shoes from local materials made by local artisans. Another advocate of sustainability, she applauds “the kindness and graciousness” that both Like Minded Objects and Rags2Riches have shown in addressing the situation, and warned against jumping into the whole credit-grabbing argument, especially because it hasn’t been established where the weaving practice used in the decorative mats really comes from.
“The goal is not to compete but to unite and work hand in hand in reducing waste products,” Zarah told ANCX. “The enemy is either one side but the fact that our world is alarmingly deteriorating. And by being open, supportive of one another and embracing inclusivity we may have a chance. The greatest impact of this action is a replication of sustainability measures and environmental awareness.
A few hours ago, Reese finally addressed the cultural appropriation issue in a message to ANCX. “This is a very complex and layered topic. I would not say that I don't have a problem with the concepts of culture appropriation. I think there is a lot of work to be done so we can give more platforms to those who don't have them, especially to the cultures that identify with these skills and techniques.”
Reese explained her side further by zeroing in on the points she wanted raised: “1) There are very valid reasons to be frustrated, 2) R2R started because of our advocacy and we are continuing because of partnerships - we see the value in being inclusive and building bridges rather than cancelling people, 3) We connected with Elise and started a good conversation. Isn't it much better to build this bridge than not have it at all?, 4) Now that we are having this discourse, let's intentionally lift up the cultures and people we are defending. I am not going to dismiss the frustrations that people expressed. We just want to go about it in a way that is open, kind, and inclusive.”
Like she expressed previously, Reese believes there is a lot more to be accomplished when it comes to having an ideal crafts community. “We need more supportive systems, access to bigger platforms and markets, recognition for artisans and their crafts, appreciation of our culture, and the list goes on,” she said. “But the path to get there could be one that is open, kind, and intentionally inclusive. We’ve got a lot of work to do, so might as well do it together.”