There was a time when Estela Ocampo-Fernandez thought that in the creative field, men always had the advantage. “I used to have issues being a female in a predominantly male-centric art world when I was younger,” she says. “As I grew older and more confident with myself, it stopped being an issue.”
It helped that she married a visual artist like herself, and helped captain the rise of one of the most successful brands in Filipino design: Kenneth Cobonpue.
Estela is the COO at Interior Crafts of the Island Incorporated, home to the Kenneth Cobonpue luxury brand in Cebu City. Kenneth stands as the visionary while she describes her role as the “integrator” in their collaboration, ensuring that plans and standards of quality are implemented.
Or as Kenneth himself puts it, “Estela executes my vision for the brand and frees me up from my responsibilities so I can do what I do best, which is to design. Estela keeps the organization running and makes sure my creativity is not stifled in any way.”
The 50-year old Estela has been with the company for 16 years now, and has helmed the production of blockbuster collections and such iconic Kenneth pieces as the Yin and Yang sofa, the Lolah easy armchair, the Bloom swivel chair, the Yoda chair, and the Limbo hanging lamp.
“When we create new designs, we are so focused on making a piece beautiful and functional that the gender of anyone in the team is irrelevant,” says Estela who earned her degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting at the University of the Philippines-Cebu and Master of Arts in Anthropology at the University of San Carlos. “However, people do feel that some of our designs are feminine. For example, the Bloom and the Kenneth Cobonpue brand itself are perceived to be feminine. I have not really thought hard about that. We have been more focused on creating artistic designs, whether they are perceived to be masculine or feminine.”
For Estela, managing creatives is different from handling operations, but she always refers to her visual training even when it comes to addressing leadership: the design principles of balance, dominance, and subordination.
She is, after all, an artist herself. She knows the reality and pressure of outdoing the last design, for example. And how to manage the temperament of an artist. “Being also an artist by training, she understands how I think and work,” says Kenneth. “She is very systematic, organized and makes sure everyone understands my goals.”
Despite the accolades—Time magazine has called Kenneth Cobonpue a “rattan virtuoso”—the company, Estela says, remains a huge work in progress, especially in the international market. She knows this because she also oversees new designs and sets up shows in Milan, Paris, and New York.
Estela has been in the company long enough to have witnessed its early stages and realize some of its dreams. When Kenneth has had to develop both his designs and the business structure, and when it’s Hollywood moment happened: when the Voyage collection made a splash in international media as taking pride of place in the home of Angelina Jolie, the same items that are featured in Maroon 5’s “Never Gonna Leave This Bed” video. And then there was the club set for Ocean’s Thirteen.
“Some find me intimidating, yes, perhaps because I set high standards for myself and expect the same from others. Kenneth is not intimidated with me,” the lady shares. “We are both frank and say things straight.” As for how different they are from each other, Estela has this to say: “He is a risk taker, and he wants things done now, immediately. I am very logical, more cautious and want things organized and systematic. I tend to imagine consequences in the future.”
For Estela, their continuing common goal is to share the Kenneth Cobonpue brand to the world and its story. “In the beginning, there was a young creative designer who wanted to put his own name to his creations; this belief brought along difficult transitions and people who also believed in the same vision. There is still much to be done; the story is still unfolding. What I see is that if you strongly believe in something, persevere and work hard for it. It will happen.”
Kenneth is thankful for Estela’s stewardship of the company. “Without her I would not be able to climb the heights which I have reached,” he says. “She is the wind beneath my wings.”
At the height of the pandemic in Cebu late last year, Estela assumed another crucial position in the company. “I am COO and currently the officer-in-charge for human resource. With both positions, I look at the whole organization from the point of view of design—looking at all of the elements, from people, systems, processes, to materials and planning. The major challenge is to keep people healthy while taking care of emotional and social needs. Limited travel and gatherings have also impacted us. International shows have been cancelled and put a hold on our new collections. But we are actively catching up on digital technology to bring our products to the market.”
Unkown to many, Estela is a homebody and, in fact, a “plantita.” She declutters and tidies up her home during weekends, and enjoys traveling with her husband Raymund who, apart from being a visual artist, is a writer and former UP-Cebu professor. The two have three children: Isagani Isla, 24; Linya Julia, 21; and Elias Leon, 17.
“We are a family of introverts. We set aside time for road trips and go to places where we can experience nature, either in the mountains or by the beach,” she says. “I used to feel guilty for being so focused on work that I hardly had time for anything else. I feel more balanced in recent years. It meant a conscious effort to set aside work when I was not at work. Balancing career and motherhood means making time for both.”
Photos by Miggy Caido