What drives Omar? “Progression. Wanting to be better… Because if I’m not moving, life becomes boring.” Photograph by Steve Tirona
Style Style Profile

Sneakers are men’s gateway to fashion, says this L.A. based Pinoy fashion retailer

Commonwealth founder Omar Quiambao on not being afraid to go against the grain
Rhia Diomampo Grana | Jan 07 2019

Checking out creative director/designer Omar Quiambao’s website (omarquiambao.com), one could easily get a sense of his provocative yet sophisticated take on design and branding. An ad he did for Akademiks clothing brand, for example, has an image of a man at a podium with this copy: “Terrorist. Patriot. Activist. Scapegoat. Politician. Labels are for clothes, not people.” The said campaign was selected by US Ad Review Magazine in its “Best Ads of the Year” List in 2004. Photos on his Lookbook, on the other hand, pay homage to the Cordilleran culture—an Igorot woman carrying a winnowing basket with a pair of ASICS Tiger sneakers, the same sneakers hanging alongside native trinkets, and another picture features traditional tattoo implements. Fashion shoots for Commonwealth SS17 featured the streets of Manila and the jeepney and pedicab, two iconic Pinoy modes of transport. His design portfolio includes work for clients like 10 Deep, Clae footwear, Stussy, Reebok, Prps, and musicians, the Clipse, and N*E*R*D. 

Commonwealth fashion shoots featuring the streets of Manila
Omar did creative direction for this Akademiks clothing line campaign

One can also better appreciate the Filipino-American’s style and artistry by checking out Commonwealth, an internationally known boutique he founded in the United States with his cousin Larry Incognito. The store launched its third location in Manila last December at Powerplant Mall (the first two are located in SM Aura and Greenbelt 5). Omar was hands-on in conceptualizing not only the look and design of the store but also its in-house brands.

Omar graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. But other than his passion for the arts, it was skateboarding that led him to venture in fashion. “Everything happened organically. When I was growing up, I hung out a lot in skateboard shops and other cool places. I’ve always desired to open up a shop to be able to carry my friends’ brands,” Omar recalls. This dream finally materialized in 2004, when Omar and his cousin Larry realized they had the same vision—to “build the same energy of the shops that we frequented in New York and L.A.”

The sneaker community was a very niche market then. Collecting sneakers wasn’t as popular. Fifteen years later, one could say Commonwealth has already carved its own place in the industry. In fact, it made it to GQ Magazine’s list of Top 100 stores men should shop at. Their US stores are located in Los Angeles, Virginia Beach, and Washington D.C.

ANCX got to spend a bit of time with Quiambao at the recent Commonwealth launch in Powerplant Mall.

Omar, tell us more about the discerning market Commonwealth serves.

It’s a pretty wide marketplace for us—maybe ages 16-45. What usually draws young men into fashion is sneakers; it’s kind of their gateway into learning about design and fashion. When they're in high school or university, the big thing is sneakers that come from the sports that they follow. They might not have an interest in wearing an expensive apparel, but the sneakers make them conscious about all the other products that they wear. On the older side, the customers pretty much buy the apparel. They're more aware and brand conscious, they understand fabrics and fit, and are interested in the designers that design these.

What were your earliest ambitions?

When I was four years old, I wanted to be a firefighter. I thought they were really cool in those trucks, saving people—like a realistic version of a superhero. When I was 13 or 14, I wanted to direct films and commercials, so that kind of led me to design school. At that time, I didn't think that being a film director was going to be realistic, because opportunities were few and far between. So when I graduated from college, I worked for a fashion advertising firm. That started to put all these things around me to help develop this world that we live in now.

Omar’s parents both hailed from the Philippines, but they met in Philadelphia. He was born in Virginia and studied in New York. Photograph by Steve Tirona

Are you fashion-conscious? 

I consider myself [fashion-] aware. I feel that fashion has its connotations—about being conscious of the trends, things coming in and out. My focus is more about style—what you’re comfortable in and what helps you express who you are. Sometimes, those things are on trend, sometimes they're not. But I think if you're comfortable with it, then that's what makes the difference. 

What are your personal fashion must-haves?

Well, always a good jacket and a clean pair of shoes.

Any fashion advice to men?

Start with good foundation pieces—a nice pair of dress shoes, a good pair of sneakers, a good pair of trousers, a good dress shirt, and a nice jacket. Then build the nuances and novelty on top of that.

How many sneakers do you own?

I've had a range. I think the most sneakers I had was over 200 pairs, but you have to start to strip away and donate some of those shoes, so I think right now I have around 40 pairs—a quarter of what I used to have. I just try to be a little bit more selective. 

What do you do during your downtime?

I try to enjoy as much family time as possible. I have a five-year-old daughter, and we go to playgrounds, go to the movies, etc. During the month of October to June, I watch a lot of basketball. 

What team are you rooting for?

Oh man! It's embarrassing. The New York Knicks. 

Are you a foodie?

I think when you start to consider design in your life, you kind of apply that to everything… including food. I think my palate has grown over the years. Working with someone like Mike [Concepcion] who's a restaurateur, you become conscious about the food you eat and the places you go to, and you start to know why things taste the way they do, and what’s considered elevated and what's not. So whenever I travel, whenever we go to different markets for work like in Paris or Tokyo, we try to make sure we hit the right spots there. Same goes for food; it’s definitely a big part of our travel plans and our lifestyle. 

Commonwealth’s flagship store at the Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles offers a wide assortment of brands synonymous to the community’s vibrant and eclectic culture.

Are there designers you look up to?

It's always about point of view for me; it's not even about product. What are they trying to accomplish? On the non-fashion side, as far as design is concerned, there's a guy named Oliviero Toscani, who did the art direction for Benetton in the late ’90s. He was considered very controversial in what he chose to use as advertising for Benetton. It was about a kind of a shift: from shooting photos of beautiful sweaters to using actual photojournalistic images—whether it was a bloody camouflage military uniform with just a Benetton logo next to it. It’s about having enough courage to speak about things outside of what you're already doing.

How about fashion designers?

That’s a tough one, they’re too many! I could say Ralph Lauren and Martin Margiela, but there are so many things to appreciate about so many different designers. I like alternative thinkers like Rei Kawakubo, designer of Commes des Garcons. She has a DIY spirit and has a punk rock attitude about fashion that’s against the grain for fashion houses and runway shows.

Favorite footwear?

Pressure! I wasn't prepared [to answer that]. (laughs)

What drives you? 

Progression. Wanting to be better. You know, move forward and see how much I can learn with new experiences. Because if I'm not moving, life becomes boring. Just trying to keep up with the things we want to see for Commonwealth, and even for my family.

What do you consider your biggest achievement in life?

As much as I love what I do, for living and as a profession, it goes back to family for me—raising my daughter, and I have another baby on the way due in April. I think the real legacy that I’ll leave will be how I raise the family and how they contribute to the society. 

Photographs from omarquiambao.com