7 great women leaders in Filipino fashion championing culture and heritage

Published March 9, 2021, 5:32 PM

by John Legaspi

This Women’s Month, let’s celebrate some of local fashion’s leaders who continue to forward Filipino designs and initiatives.

Zarah Juan, Anya Lim, Len Cabili, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, Jeannie Javelosa, Marga Nograles, and Adrienne Charuel

In the Philippines, women’s roles have been vital in keeping ancient heritage alive. Think of them as the Holy Grail of Philippine culture. Women such as Apo Whang-od and the late Fu Yabing Masalon Dulo are like vessels that bear our identity and make sure that it is passed on to new generations, refusing age-old traditions to be forgotten. Their lives helped keep who we are intact and celebrated. 

In our modern times, many Filipinas still lead and continue to champion our culture. Though technological advancement and globalization have reached the local scene, especially in fashion, female designers and entrepreneurs know the true power that lies on our local tapestries and how they empower us as a nation.

As we observe Women’s Month this pandemic, a time when many fashion brands are struggling, let’s celebrate some of local fashion’s Filipina leaders who continue to put the Philippines in the core of their designs and initiatives.

Zarah Juan, founder of Zarah Juan

Through her namesake brand, Zarah Juan proves that the true joy in dressing up can be found outside its self gratifying purpose. With her campaigns such as the “Balik Buhay” initiative and the “Biyaheng Pag-asa” program, she and her social enterprise were able to put a spotlight on local artisans and even extend assistance to Filipinos in need of help during the pandemic.

“In this pandemic we believe that we should prioritize people versus profits,” she said. “Each and every action we do to uplift others—no matter how small—will create an impact that will help our nation survive this crisis.”

Marga Nograles, creator and proprietor of Kaayo Modern Mindanao

Putting Minadanaoan culture front and center is the mission of Marga Nograles with her brand Kaayo Modern Mindanao, threading the works of the T’boli tribe in modern designs. During the pandemic, she produced a collection that merged protection and heritage in its every piece. This, among her other works, enabled the brand to help frontliners in Davao and in other locations in the country in their battle against COVID-19.

“When this crisis hit us, we paused only for a brief moment then got back on our feet working from home,” she said. “We worked with weaves, beads, and threads that our tribes had stocked at home, and up-cycled everything we could find. At this time, when we were given the choice to evolve or repeat, we chose to evolve.”

Len Cabili, founder and creative director of Filip + Inna

Through the brand Filip + Inna, Len Cabili ensures that modern Filipinos don’t just know our ancient Filipino tales, but wear them with pride, even during a pandemic. Producing casual pieces imbued with the artisanal works such as the embroidery of Mangyan, the butterfly sleeves, the piña fabric, among others, Len and her brand brings the Filipino heritage closer to our everyday lifestyle.

“It is important to look back and find the stories that define us,” she said. “Integrating culture in our work creates authenticity. In the world of fashion where globalization has given birth to accessibility, we somehow tend to look monotonous. We need something from way deep inside us to come out to produce something true to ourselves.”

Adrienne Charuel, founder and creative of Maison Metisse

It’s the country’s natural dyeing heritage that is at the center of Adrienne Charuel’s brand Maison Metisse. Hailed from the French word meaning a woman of mixed ancestry, the brand is dedicated to showcase honest and ethical fashion, mixing traditions with today’s style.

“It’s important for me as a Filipina to celebrate our cultural heritage and show the beautiful creativity that we can make in collaboration with our local communities and indigenous tribes,” Adrienne said. “I also want to show how we can have a contemporary interpretation of native beauty while respecting the time old traditions of the Filipino People.”

Anya Lim, co-founder and managing director of ANTHILL Fabric Gallery

Anya Lim, with her social enterprise Alternative Nest and Trading/Training Hub for Indigenous/Ingenious Little Livelihood Seekers (ANTHILL), elevates handwoven local textiles by empowering Filipino indigenous people. Aside from giving the weaves a modern makeover through design, ANTHILL Fabric Gallery and Anya’s mission includes creating conversations about protecting and valuing the weaves and the people behind it. 

“We feel the need to work on raising our level of consciousness, take our power back, and spark conversations to collaborate on solutions,” Anya posted. “We humbly call on this community to stay vigilant and work toward how we can take action together and weave responsible consumption. Let us honor the connection and wear with intention.”

Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, president and co-founder Rags2Riches, Inc.

Mixing ethical fashion with local style, Reese Fernandez-Ruiz and her social enterprise are able to find solutions to issues such as sustainability and poverty. By creating pieces made of scrap materials, the enterprise was able to give a means of livelihood for women residing in Payatas, Quezon City. Years after its establishment, the brand was able to incorporate indigenous works in their products, merging its purpose of producing zero waste fashion with a sense of patriotic style.

“Advocating for women is not just about women,” Reese posted. “It is about building a better future for everyone… It is true that we have come a long way when it comes to true women empowerment. But the work is not yet done.”

Jeannie Javelosa, chief visionary officer of GREAT Women 

“Women’s voices cannot be done alone,” Jeannie Javelosa said. “It needs a platform space where many small ones can come together and become strong.”

Mixing advocacy, lifestyle, and heritage, the Gender Responsive Economic Action for the Transformation of Women, or simply called GREAT Women, doesn’t create a charity house, but an institution that is organically thriving by looping the three into something that small-time weavers, farmers, and communities can be proud of.

“But I wouldn’t do anything otherwise. Because I think, if there is anything in life, it’s not just about you, you have so many gifts and talents, in the end, it’s what we can give.”