In 2015, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) commissioned a documentary series called Kalayaan, hosted by artists Lourd de Veyra and Jun Sabayton, and directed by RA Rivera, Jr. The series was meant to inform the public about the rights of the Philippines in the much-disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS). The premiere would be in the same month as the 117th Philippine Independence Day.
Before the hosts travelled to the location, they approached their friends at Team Manila and asked if they wanted to donate something to the troops who were stationed at the islands in the WPS.
It was then that Jowee Alviar and Raymund Punzalan, the brains behind the graphic design studio and merchandise brand, decided to create The West Philippine Sea collection, then meant to be a simple token of appreciation for the protectors of our territory.
“We thought, ‘What if we made a shirt na para sa mga troops lang talaga, para maging special?’” Alviar tells ANCX, as he recalls the birth of what has since become one of their best-selling collections.
To put a stronger message across, Alviar asked a friend from Taiwan to translate the words “West Philippine Sea” into Chinese characters, so they could place those characters on the shirt, above the English words.
“Nilagay talaga namin ’yong Chinese translation kasi alam namin na lalabas sa documentary at sa media,” Alviar recalls. “Para ’yong mga Chinese, mabasa nila.”
The team designed and created 10 pieces in a span of three days. When the documentary series launched, they were inundated with queries about the shirt and where it could be purchased. It didn’t take a while after they answered to the demands of their loyal followers, and before they knew it, the collection became a wearable, washable narrator of a nation’s stories and sentiments.
This, Alviar says, has always been the vision of their group.
“It was a reaction to what was going on in our country,” Alviar says. “Through our design, we are expressing our reactions, and the reactions of people sa situation.”
Alviar and Punzalan, both 43 years old now, met in college, at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, where they both graduated with a degree in advertising. As artists, they dabbled in graphic design, indulged their love for music (Eraserheads, Sandwich, Parokya ni Edgar), and tuned in to NU 107.
One day, they chanced upon a graphic design book that featured album covers and music posters. “Na-imagine namin anong gusto namin gawin,” Alviar recounts. “We said, ‘When we graduate, we’ll work with bands and their album packaging.’”
But an opportunity presented itself to Alviar after graduation, and he left the country to take his master’s degree in graphic design at the California Institute of the Arts, U.S.A. There, his vision for his career expanded. As part of the school’s program, artists from different parts of the world would visit the students, give talks, and share their experience.
Alviar told Punzalan about the initiative, and it gave them the idea to do something similar for Manila. “Through graphic designers, we can represent where we came from and who we are,” Alviar says.
After earning his master’s degree three years later, Alviar came home. And Team Manila was born.
At the time, Punzalan already made strong connections in the music industry, and was working for music media, like Pulp Magazine and MTV Inc. They gave out business cards (the design of which they still use up to this day) to friends and acquaintances, specially those who are in Punzalan’s music circle.
“Before, you were either a freelance artist or an advertising person,” Alviar says about his industry then, where small design agencies weren’t as prolific as they are now. “We introduced ourselves as a graphic design studio.”
Their brand’s goals were to create new works that meant something to them, to collaborate with artists, and, of course, “to create cool stuff for Manila.” Fortunately, their clients linked them to other bigger clients, and they began designing logos and event invitations for big-time companies like BigFish Manila.
In 2005, they were already itching to create a new project. Alviar recalls, “We thought, ‘Ano ’yong magandang gawin na ginagamit din natin?’” The answer? T-shirts.
Like often-heard-about tech guys who create companies out of a garage, Team Manila grew from Alviar’s home in Parañaque, until they rented a place in Makati.
“House studio ’yong sa Makati” Alviar says, tangibly amused and proud of their beginnings. “Naka-shorts and t-shirt lang kami. Magpa-pants lang kami kapag may meeting.” They hired six employees, which included a silk screener and graphic designers, all of whom lived in their home studio and slept in one room on the second floor. The production area was at the back of their house, and they had a small bodega at the entrance. After a while, they asked their landlord if they could convert the bodega to a mini store, which later became their iconic first physical store.
Their design inspirations were products of nostalgia then. They harked back to the days when they would commute around Metro Manila, and observe the tireless city through the eyes of idealistic artists: “’Yong mga topic namin pag-nag-iikot, ’yong design sa side ng jeep, design ng jeep, contrast ng buildings na glass at texture ng gritty areas, ang chaos ng streets.”
Alviar admits the business side of their passion is still a challenge for him. “If I had a choice, I would just design the whole day,” he says, laughing. “But we have to manage people, deadlines, accounting.”
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Eighteen years later, Team Manila still wants to tell the story of the Philippines, not just here but to the whole world. And on a much bigger scale. “We have a greater chance to collaborate with people to align our vision, our voice,” Alviar says. They have since worked with brands such as San Miguel Pale Pilsen, Philippine Airlines, and Uniqlo, to name a few.
Their responsibility to their audience—who are becoming more aware and more critical of the country’s issues—is now bigger, too. With the help of social media, they often ask their followers how they are, and what they want to say. And while he admits that, personally, he isn’t as vociferous as his activist artist friends, he wants his team’s creations to speak to a generation as loudly as possible.
“Before, the designs were geared toward culture, celebration, food, tourism,” he says. “We still have that. But now, nagkakaroon na ng stance yong audience, political stance. So we ask them, ‘What do you believe in?’ And we translate that to our designs.”
Are we free?
As the effects of the pandemic creeps in on everyone, Alviar keeps his mind busy by doing what he loves: creating. It can get depressing, he says. But as a father, and a business owner who needs to take care of 25 employees, he needs to keep moving forward. “I have a five-year-old kid. I have to explain to him what’s going on. Nagkahalo-halo na ang emotions.”
Most of what he feels, he puts into art. They can’t make shirts now, but he can share the messages he wants to convey on social media. “It’s like a shirt,” he says. “When you wear a message, you spread that message.”
Five years after releasing their West Philippine Sea collection, Team Manila finds the need to raise more questions and find answers from their followers. There are more messages now that need to be spread.
This Independence Day 2020, he wants to speak—or more aptly, ask.
“Ano ba talaga ang kalayaan?” he says. “What are you celebrating? Saan ka ba malaya? We want people to think about that, and then talk to us. We are opening a discussion. Lalo ka pang mapapaisip dahil hindi tayo makapagsalita. Free speech is being quelled. There’s the anti-terror bill. That’s our kalayaan being questioned. Gaano ka ba talaga kalaya?”
Despite all this, Alviar chooses to remain hopeful. In their next collection, Team Manila plans on generating designs that help people get through this erratic year. “We’re not giving up,” he says. “We’re not hopeless. Kailangan natin mag-survive, with the health crisis, government issues, social problems. We need to help each other, to be kind to our neighbors, be sustainable in terms of food security. We want to spread that message.”