A 16-year-old’s social enterprise in Mindanao makes fashion accessible, sustainable, and relevant

Published July 31, 2020, 12:37 PM

by Kerry Tinga

Isabela Blancas overcame depression and started One Closet, a social enterprise that encourages sharing through fashion

Photos by Dexter Nanual

Isabela Blancas inside the One Closet shop

Three years ago, Isabela Blancas was a 13-year-old girl living in Metro Manila suffering from depression. She confided in her loving parents the internal struggles she was facing. It is difficult to put into words how depression can take hold over a person. It is difficult to find all the words you would want to say to a loved one fighting such a dark disease.

That summer, her father, Frederick Blancas, brought her to Butuan City in Mindanao. He encouraged her to help him in a social entrepreneurship workshop he was conducting. A life-long advocacy of his, he hoped there would be something in the workshop that would resonate with his daughter.

“I found it intriguing, fascinating,” Isabela recalls. “That there were these types of businesses where profit was not the sole purpose.”

She was driven to commit herself to a greater social purpose like the social entrepreneurs she met. Her family brainstormed together. Encouraged by the transformation she felt in herself, Isabela fell upon the idea of inspiring confidence in the women of Butuan City.

“Fashion is my passion. I regard fashion as expressing and empowering oneself as a confident individual. When one looks good, one feels good,” Isabela shares with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. “The mindset influenced my decision to establish One Closet. I wanted to give the ladies of Butuan City their ‘Cinderella’ moment. But it didn’t stop there. I wanted to encourage people to share. Donors get to declutter their closets while our clients get to help others with their education. Fashion becomes relevant.”

A Cinderella story

Today, 16-year-old Isabela proudly runs One Closet, a social enterprise that rents out pre-loved designer gowns to the women of Butuan City. She was able to collect donations from prominent local designers such as Rajo Laurel, Martin Bautista, and Michele Sison, Red Charity Gala founders Tessa Prieto-Valdes and Kaye Tinga, and even Binibining Pilipinas beauty queens Miriam Quiambao and Avon Garcia.

A designer dress donated to One Closet

The rental model is environmentally friendly and sustainable. It allows women of Butuan City to wear designer gowns that they may have never even dreamed of before. Whether it is for beauty pageants, debuts, or pre-nuptial photographs, the patrons of One Closet can wear high-quality designs that make them feel confidently beautiful for a reasonable price. Part of the proceeds goes to Mindanao-based beneficiaries.

More than just a rental shop, the social enterprise encourages sharing and giving back. Even the clients who are looking for a reasonably priced dress to wear can feel good knowing that they too are part of the giving process.

Since the beginning, it was important for Isabela that half of the proceeds would go to helping the marginalized youth. The search for a beneficiary brought her to Agusan del Norte where she met the Sisters Disciples of Jesus in the Eucharist. The Sisters have taken in survivors of domestic violence and have cared for them under Gesu Eucaristico Children’s Inc. (GECI), the current beneficiary of One Closet.

“I regularly visit them [the survivors] in the convent. We would dance and laugh, forming a connection that later deepened as they started trusting me with their painful past. Despite what they went through, they choose to be resilient, and they’re forging ahead with renewed strength and optimism,” says Isabela. “They inspire me. I used to think that I would be helping them by providing for their education and that would be it. But they have, in turn, helped me heal from depression.”

Even with the shop closed due to quarantine guidelines in Butuan City, One Closet continues to support their beneficiaries, sending rice and other relief goods.

Thanks for the memories

Now more than ever people need to find in themselves confidence. So Isabela adapted One Closet’s business, still grounded in its original principles.

“Because of social distancing, it’s quite difficult to get customers to rent from us, so we decided to venture into indoor shoots to push our formal wear,” says Isabela. “This is our way of reinventing our business model to adapt to the new normal: safely creating beautiful memories.”

One Closet has partnered with experts like Soljin Robles for event styling and catering, RED Epic Production for videography and photography, and Junel Hinayon for hair and makeup.

“We urge potential clients to try something cool like renting 18 dresses for a debutante or two or more bridal gowns for a bride,” adds Isabela.

While this has been a trying year for everybody, there are still memories that can be made. For when looking back at what happened in 2020, it is practically necessary to create moments that can be fondly remembered. Photographs from this year capture a thousand words on hope, perseverance, creativity, and care. We have all been humbled, remembering what the most precious things are in life, how we ought to cherish every moment of every day.

Perhaps because Isabela has seen the depths of darkness and found the light, found it in spreading love and encouraging sharing in society, that she is steadfast in her optimism.

“To the youth reading this,” says Isabela, “in days when the future seems bleak or when we grow weary finding the light in things, never lose faith and keep on searching for the light at the end of this dark tunnel. It’s worth fighting for.”