Meet Joel Wijangco, a self-taught footwear designer based in Manila. He was just recently chosen as one of the finalists in the annual Filipino Footwear Design Competition, which is under the Department of Trade and Industry and the Philippine Footwear Federation Incorporated. And now he’s been chosen as official representative of the country in the upcoming International Footwear Design Competition in Guangzhou, China.
His ticket to the Guangzhou design tilt is a pair of avant garde heel-less pair that’s made of a cocktail of unusual materials and tells of Wijangco’s core strength as a storyteller using shoes as his medium. Called “Sister’s Favorite,” it is the designer’s tribute to a beloved sibling, a teacher working in Japan. “We like eating a lot,” says Joel, who started out as a writer. “Japanese food is her favorite.”
The shoes’ campy and humorous design betrays nothing of the real crisis that made Joel dedicate the pair to his sister who is battling cancer. “[It] started out as breast cancer,” the designer tells ANCX. “They had to do a mastectomy. Came back again but they were able to excise it. Last year, it came back for a third time. However, it has metastasized, migrating to her spinal bones and hip bones.”
It was upon hearing of the cancer’s return that Joel decided to make the shoe— to tell his sister’s story and as memento of the moments they spent together over bowls of ramen, something his sister likes to order here in Manila whenever she’s home from Japan. For the design, Joel collaborated with Tawong Lipod, a special effects and prosthetics outfit. “Cari Dawn Conejero, its founder, has been a joy to work with, a kindred soul definitely,” says the designer. The two created the shoes from resin, rubber, and plastic, with a fiberglass-coated metal shank embedded in the sole.
Many of the narratives that inspire or make it to Joel’s creations come from childhood memories. “But some are also aspirational, some try to connect to a feeling or a shared story,” Joel says. But while the foundation may be abstract or mere flights of fancy, he makes sure they’re wearable. “I try to make sure all the designs are fit for utility,” he says. “The most recent one may have had no heels but heelless shoes have been around for a while now -- you'll find fashion forward icons such as Lady Gaga, Victoria Beckham, and Daphne Guinness wearing them and happily trotting about in them.”
Joel kept the tribute shoes a secret to her sister until the end of the Filipino Footwear Design Competition where it placed first runner up. “She cried, I cried,” recalls Joel. “She's very happy about it. I was surprised at how much emotion it had stirred up in both of us.”
Joel says his sister is currently undergoing chemotherapy and that her recent checkup shows she’s responding positively to the treatment. He says they have only became very close in the last 15 years. “She's a ride or die kind of person. Amazing hard worker, would do anything for her family,” he says when asked to describe his sibling. “Underneath all the earnestness is a sense of humor which we share. She has so much love inside of her.”
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