In the last year, a humble accessory has been gracing the glossy pages of Philippine fashion magazines and the social media accounts of popular influencers. Known as the tangkulo, this triangular piece of cloth adorned with beadwork and pompoms is worn around the neck to elevate a simple outfit or accent dressier pieces. Traditionally a headscarf from the Bagobo Tagabawa tribe of the Davao region, it is one of the many examples of how Mindanaoan indigenous culture has begun permeating the mainstream fashion scene.
It’s no surprise that Davao’s fashion designers are drawing inspiration from their environment. Beyond its lush mountains and pristine beaches, Mindanao has unparalleled cultural richness and religious diversity. Comprised of 27 provinces and over 26 ethno-linguistic tribes, the Philippines’ second-largest island is a melting pot of cultures.
The Davao region alone has 11 indigenous tribes, each with their own unique artisanal traditions. From the Manobo tribes known for intricate beadwork to the cross-stitch embroidery of the T’boli, there is much to inspire the modern-day designer.
Working with tradition is by no means easy. Designers must be mindful of cultural appropriation and nurture sustainable relationships with their indigenous partners. This means ensuring that their fabrics and archetypal designs are used with respect as well as paying artisans a fair price for their work.
“Each project we embark on tells us a unique story”
“Consultation is key,” explains Lenora Cabili, a Mindanao native and founder of local brand Filip+Inna. “It is important to give the artisans proper value for their work, and give back to the community through different programmes.” Read on to find out more about Cabili’s work as well as three other proudly Mindanaoan designers from Davao and the neighbouring cities of Iligan and Zamboanga.
Lenora Cabili of Filip+Inna
With her label established in 2010, Cabili – who hails from Illigan City – was one of the first to bring traditional elements to the mainstream market with ready-to-wear pieces such as hand-embroidered shorts and pencil skirts. In February 2019, Cabili was among Philippine magazine People Asia’s People of the Year 2019, in recognition of the work she has done to integrate local artisans into mainstream fashion.
Who are the communities you work with?
We work with about 26 groups around the Philippines – each group bringing in a particular tradition from their culture. In Mindanao, we collaborate with the T’boli tribe particularly for their intricate cross-stitch embroidery that graces our shorts, shirts and skirts. The Blaan are very skilled embroiderers as well but do wonderful beadwork for us, using mother-of-pearl beads. We also use the beautiful geometric weaves from the Islamic Maranao people of Lake Lanao and the richly coloured handwoven abaca textiles of the Manobo tribes, which accent our bolero jackets and scarves.
How has your background inspired your work?
I grew up in Mindanao and was exposed to the Maranaos of Marawi City on the shores of Lake Lanao. My summers were spent in Basilan, an island off the Zamboanga Peninsula. Then my years of dancing with the Bayanihan Philippine Folk Dance Company expanded my knowledge of Philippine indigenous groups. Filip+Inna is the intertwining of my love for fashion and Philippine culture.
How do you give back to the communities?
At the end of the year, we share our profits with the artisans who contributed the most to the collections. We also give back through scholarships and livelihood programmes. Our latest is the Bahay Kubo Program, which will introduce sustainable farming to the artisans so they can fully utilise their land. Our pilot project is with the T’boli tribe since they comprise the largest number of artisans that we work with.
Despite not having a formal fashion background, Toping Zamora decided to give up managing the family insurance business and pursue his passion. In 2014, he opened a bridal boutique, and in 2016 enrolled in the Philippine Women’s College of Davao to study fashion before launching his eponymous brand in 2018. Zamora immediately started turning heads with his pretty pastel separates and dresses, embellished with beadwork inspired by indigenous motifs and utilising a custom-woven plaid cotton textile called gintlo from the Blaan tribe. Recently awarded the Grand Winner title at the Stellar Mindanao Heritage Fashion Designers Competition in 2019, Zamora has also been showcased abroad at the Borneo International Beads Conference and the Budayaw Fashion Show, both in Kuching, Malaysia.
What sparked your interest in working with indigenous communities?
In 2018, in my last year as a fashion student, I wrote a research paper on the Bagobo Tagabawa’s headscarf, commonly known as tangkulo. I studied the patterns and techniques and their significance to the Bagobo people. I fell in love with the artisans’ passion and attention to detail. From then on, I vowed to promote local weaves and native craftsmanship in my work.
Who are the communities you work with?
The Bagobo Tagabawa community in Lubogan, Toril, and the Blaan women of Kiblawan. Apart from using the Bagobo Tagabawa’s tangkulo headscarf in most of our collections, we also work with the community to adorn apparel with their traditional beadwork called pangulabe.
What are your signature looks?
I use a custom woven gintlo in vibrant colours depending on the season. In 2019, I was inspired by the annual Kadayawan Festival in Davao, a thanksgiving event where people often parade in colourful costumes.
Bea Constantino of Herman & Co.
Bomber jackets, batik crop-tops and wide-legged trousers are some of the signature looks of this fun and youthful brand established in 2016. Designed for the modern woman, the pieces are easily incorporated into everyday looks. Hailing from Zamboanga City and Sulu, founder Bea Constantino is sensitive to the difficulties of conflict areas and how cut off they can be from the economy. She designs with socio-economic rehabilitation in mind, choosing her textile sources from areas most in need.
What’s your brand philosophy?
We are a heritage clothing line that puts a special spotlight on traditional textiles from Mindanao. We aim to bridge the gap between conflict areas, like my province of Sulu, to the mainstream marketplace so as to aid more livelihood and trading opportunities. Aside from traditional weaves, we use commercial textiles from local merchants in the province. They are not locally made but as part of our aim to help the communities sustain business, we buy textiles such as batik and Malay-influenced embroidered fabric from them.
Where do you get inspiration?
The weaves we use have to be appropriate to the community they represent. For example, the Tausug weaves are encouraged to only be used from the waist up. Our designs revolving around that weave are more modest and conservative. Also, each collection begins with a narrative we would like to communicate and is interpreted through the colour palettes and silhouettes of the clothing. For example, we have a collection named Kusug, which means “strong” in our dialect. Inspired by the courageous warrior heritage of the Tausug tribes of Sulu, the collection features very bold and vibrant colours.
What’s next for you as a creative director?
I am developing products that encourage wellness and mindful living, such as candles and bath products made from locally sourced essential oils and ingredients such as mangosteen and suwa-itlog, a type of lime that is only found in Sulu.
Marga Nograles of Kaayo
The Rising Star
Born, raised and residing in Davao, Marga Nograles initially started making clothes in 2017 as a hobby. Her passion has now grown into a full retail concept, with a recent store opening all the way in Makati City, Manila. Sophisticated separates like silk pajama coordinates, or Kaayo’s signature crop-tops adorned with traditional beadwork or a touch of local fabric, make trendy and easy-to-wear wardrobe additions.
How would you describe your brand philosophy?
Kaayo means “inspire kindness” in Cebuano. Each project we embark on tells a unique story. We recently collaborated with MovEd, which provides early childhood learning to underprivileged areas, for a collection to benefit the war-stricken town of Marawi. MovEd founder Alex Eduque, who is a graphic artist, drew iconic Mindanaoan symbols such as pineapples or durians, which were then beaded or embroidered on the clothing. We raised enough to provide 500 school kits for students in Marawi City.
What traditions do you incorporate in your work?
I use weaves from different Mindanaoan tribes in my designs such as t’nalak and dagmay – handwoven cloths of abaca fibres rendered in different patterns – and yakan, a cotton and silk weave that showcases boldly coloured geometric patterns.
How has your family’s position in Davao inspired your work?
My family has been collaborating with the T’boli tribe for their beadwork and weaves for decades now. We just got back from a trip where we brought their master weaver to the Shanghai Arts and Design College to exchange ideas and showcase the craft.
Where to stay
Just a 20-minute boat ride from Davao Airport, on the lush island of Samal, is the luxurious Pearl Farm Beach Resort. The villas and over-water cottages are designed by famed architect Bobby Mañosa, inspired by the nipa roof stilt houses of the Sulu, with high ceilings and wide openings to allow for air circulation. The spaces are decorated with local textiles, reinterpreted as wall coverings, throw pillows and accessories.
Toping Zamora Boutique
Arellano St, corner of Tionko Ave, Davao City
Kaayo Modern Mindanao
3/F, Greenbelt 5, Ayala Center, Makati City
Herman and Co.
Available at Lanai in Karrivin Plaza, Chino Roces Ave Ext, Makati City
SilkAir flies daily between Singapore and Davao. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the February 2020 issue of Silkwinds magazine