ILOILO CITY, Philippines – “One silver-lining that has emerged from this pandemic is that we’ve learned to appreciate what’s local,” Ilongga entrepreneur Alma Cagalitan Capilastique says in her native Hiligaynon.
Also a Sangguniang Bayan member in Leon, Iloilo, Capilastique runs the Leon Pasalubong Center, first established during the height of the lockdowns April last year, born out of a necessity to help their struggling cottage industries and local crafters when tourism was forced to a halt. Leon, located some 35 kilometers outside of Iloilo City, is an agricultural district but is also known for its highland destination Bucari – an eco-tourism gem known for its pine tree forests, cold spring and waterfalls, and generally cool climate.
“With the lockdowns, our farmers were having a hard time selling their fresh produce outside of the town. Our local crafters who relied on the tourism of Bucari for their daily living also lost their livelihood,” Capilastoque relates.
Concerned, the public servant turned businesswoman connected Leon’s producers and crafters to enterprises in the city, starting with selling farm products before eventually starting to market the town’s handicrafts. As quarantine restrictions started to ease, Capilastique championed Leon’s homegrown merchandise in trade fairs and bazaars in the city, gaining considerable support for their uniquely embellished and hand-painted rattan bags and baskets. The small enterprise has since shipped to customers in the US, Canada, and Australia.
Leon has a growing bamboo and native product industry, but the town is also known for its handmade pandanproducts like bags, baskets, pouches, and purses. They are predominantly crafted by women artisans in the hinterland community of Baje, Leon. The remote town is around 14 kilometers from Leon’s town proper and traveling to the community entails traversing dirt roads. The internet signal and reception are limited. Shut off from the rest of Leon during the enhanced community quarantines, the people of Baje struggled to remain self-sustaining. Thankfully Capilastique’s endeavor helped the women artisans get back on their feet.
“Buying products from them directly translates to food on their plate,” Capilastique explains. “Buying local is as good as supporting our folks. We’re uplifting our own communities. We used to take them for granted, but now that they’re what’s most accessible to us, we’ve come to realize their true value, the real beauty of local products we have overlooked.”
Most of Iloilo and greater Panay Island’s cottage industries and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) have managed to power through the pandemic due to the support of both the public and private sectors. During the Department of Trade and Industry Region VI’s Panublion Heritage Fair held at a mall in Iloilo late November last year, participating MSMEs reached more than P10,000,000 in cash sales and booked orders.
Held simultaneously with an online store counterpart, the trade fair was joined by 102 small ventures from the provinces of Antique, Aklan, Capiz, Guimaras, Iloilo, and Negros Occidental, showcasing a wide array of homegrown products from distinct handicrafts to food and local delicacies.
‘New era for hablon’
Ilongga social innovator Noreen Marian Bautista, who launched the award-winning social enterprise Jacinto & Lirio (handcrafted vegan leather goods made from water hyacinths) early into her career, shares a similar optimism for the local industries of Iloilo.
“Right now, we’re standing at the precipice of a new era of ethical accountability and sustainable fashion; and I believe local producers have a large part to play in it,” Bautista explains. “My hope for the near future is that industrialization and innovation will be balanced with valuing the craft.”
Bautista is joined by Jerome “AJ” Exito, Marguerit “Margs” Malazo, and Ria San Gabriel – all in their late 20s to early 30s and in diverse industries – in founding Panublix, a startup that aims to connect Philippine weavers and garment makers with the mainstream fashion and design market.
“We believe in social enterprises for social impact,” explains Bautista, also incubator SlashIgnite’s founder. “Panublix is rooted in the community itself, as we lend online marketing capabilities to local weavers and crafters, extending some handholding as they enter the digital economy. We envision it as this accessible sort of virtual telahan and also a digital atelier in the near future for bespoke pieces.”
Panublix is derived from the Hiligaynon word panubli which means “to inherit” and panubli-on (“heritage”). Panublix now partners with some 100 local weavers and seamstresses, closely working with two partner groups in Miag-ao – one of them being the Primary Multi-purpose Cooperative.
“We want to protect and develop their enterprises and enable them to compete,” Bautista says. “We’ve heard plenty of anecdotes of these large overseas fashion houses buying from them. But it’s discouraging that despite the patronage they were not seeing much growth because they were being short-changed by the value chain.”
Panublix seeks to be a startup that sells access, bridging the gap between local producers and designers and consumers outside of Iloilo and abroad. In their quest for fair trade and transparency, 60 percent of proceeds from all sales always go back to the community.
Panublix was recognized as one of the top 100 high-potential startups at the 2020 Philippine Startup Week. It was also selected among the top 15 disruptive idea startup teams to be part of the QBO Innovation INQBATION slate, an incubation program for early-stage startups supported by the US Embassy of the Philippines.
With prospects up, Bautista sees not only a new era for rising sustainable fashion in the Philippines but also a new renaissance for Iloilo’s iconic hablon. The heritage fabric is a one-of-a-kind material characterized by its bold colors and its signature pattern. Its quality is marked by fine materials: cotton, jusi (abaca fiber), piña (pineapple fiber). Interest in hablon has been driven up in the last few years by contemporary designers heavily using it for their designs.
“Weaving is no longer a dying enterprise,” shares Bautista. “I’ve personally seen a younger generation taking interest in hablon as a viable livelihood once again – some even the children of weavers whose jobs were displaced by the pandemic. There’s huge market potential for it, and I see that it can scale sustainably. After a tumultuous time, there’s always a time of renewal. We want Panublix to be a gateway to a renaissance hablon and Philippine sustainable fashion.”
Natalie Lim, Richmonde Hotel Iloilo’s general manager, has similarly witnessed first-hand the renewed interest for hablon, but on an even more personal level – herself an eager patron of contemporary Ilonggo fashions that have incorporated the timeless woven fabric in her personal wardrobe.
“I love shopping, it’s a bad habit of mine; I could spend an entire day at a mall just shopping. Recently, however, instead of name brands, I’d rather spend money on local designers,” Lim mused. “With their fine workmanship and unique attention to detail, it’s worth it. Hablon especially is very intriguing. In Iloilo where the past is always present, woven hablon stands as a timeless icon.”
Lim has developed a penchant for statement pieces from some of Iloilo’s most notable designers: from ingénue Jeff Ticao’s patadyong loungewear (a favorite of reigning Miss Universe Philippines Rabiya Mateo) to striking hablon pieces by John Montinola and PJ Arañador – both of whom heavily incorporate Ilonggo aesthetics and imagery into their work.
Even through the pandemic, when the tourism and hospitality sectors were among the hardest hit, Lim’s patronage of Ilonggo design and artistry continued. In late 2020 however, she was inspired to double down on her support for local Ilonggo artisans by hosting their creations in her hotel.
Lim decided to convert Richmonde Hotel Iloilo’s BizBar into a showroom for local products in October 2020 – the hotel’s bar and bistro had been entirely closed for nearly eight months at that point due to COVID-19 restrictions. And so Bugal Iloilo, from the Ilonggo word for “proud,” came into fruition – a monthly weekend bazaar that would showcase some of Iloilo’s most prized local products and popular designers.
“We envisioned to repurpose this venue, offer small and medium entrepreneurs a chance to shine,” Lim says. “Bugal Iloilo is an intimate trade fair that highlights curated Ilonggo items you can’t find anywhere else.”
Among Bugal’s diverse partners are Balay Hablon, designer Jeff Ticao and his contemporary Patadyong-inspired loungewear, Modern Ilongga’s Maggie Dela Cruz, and couturier Jaki Peñalosa, who’s already renowned for her signature silk, piña, and jusi fiber ternos.
Also on the curated inventory are Green Corner (a former construction company that has pivoted to pots and planters amid the pandemic), Plantita Belle (terra cotta pots handcrafted by a seafarer furloughed during the lockdowns), and the Bonsai & Suiseki Club of Panay, among others.
“Most of our partners are small startups so they don’t have physical shops or viable showrooms yet, that’s how the idea was born,” echoed Lim. “For me, the economic aspect of [the trade fair] is secondary. What we mainly want to do here is open doors for these young and brilliant artisans, entrepreneurs and connect them to influential people. We want to give them more traction to showcase what they have to offer.”
As restrictions began to ease in the latter part of 2020, a series of weekend marketplaces and outdoor bazaars began sprouting around Iloilo City, organized by both the public and private sectors to once again enliven the local economy. Among these socially-distanced events were Courtyard by Marriott Iloilo’s Growers Weekend Bazaar, City Time Square’s Night Street Food Drive-thru, the Esplanade Night Market, and the biggest of them all, the Iloilo Convention Center’s monthly Mercado Iloilo.
“I think Ilonggos are beginning to realize that we don’t need to look outside of Iloilo if they’re looking for quality products, may it be for our homeware or special gifts,” Obra Ilonggo’s Raisa Treñas says. The fledgling social enterprise Obra Ilonggo is also one of the pioneer partners of Bugal Iloilo. “You’ll be surprised by all our stunning local finds. Local products are reemerging in the limelight, and getting the attention they deserve.”
The brainchild of Raisa’s mother Rosalie, wife of the city mayor Jerry, Obra Ilonggo was formed in the middle of the pandemic with the region’s local cottage industries in mind – a way to promote local Ilonggo crafts and revitalize these tourism-dependent sectors despite the lockdowns and travel restrictions. Rosalie sits as the undertaking’s chairperson and founder.
Raisa says it’s passion that unites the predominantly women-led team of Obra Ilonggo to revive and champion local artistry and empower homegrown craftsmen and artisans. “Through our own humble way, we hope we are helping stimulate the economy and put food on our partner crafters’ tables,” relates Treñas. “Most of the communities we’re working with used to cater predominantly to tourists, so the pandemic was a large blow to their small enterprises. Some of these cooperatives were even on the verge of disbanding and closing because of difficulties brought on by COVID-19.”
Sourcing from all over Panay Island (from Antique to Guimaras Island, to Miag-ao), the endeavor is bent on promoting quality Ilonggo craftsmanship and empowering and re-inspiring local artisans to level up their craft as the group introduces innovative techniques, premium materials, and design insight.
Among Obra Ilonggo’s best-sellers are their summery tiki cups made of polished coconut, their upcycled all-weather rubber ottomans crafted from discarded car tires, and their understated hablon and patadyong table runners and placemats.
“Ilonggo products are very diverse, with so much color and potential,” adds the young social entrepreneur. “Through this venture, we want to promote Ilonggo talent and revitalize our local economy. In promoting these creative products, we’re not only promoting Ilonggo handicrafts, we’re also promoting the homegrown success stories of Iloilo City as a whole.”