How a Filipino designer successfully built a design career abroad

Known for his sophisticated geometric shell-inlay minaudieres, Bacolod native Rafe Totengco has established a flourishing design practice in New York since laying down roots in the city in 1989. Having started his eponymous brand Rafé New York in 1997 then sitting as a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America since 1998, the multi-awarded Filipino-American designer has built a legacy of excellence grounded in the love of design and bolstered by a strong business acumen. A favorite among trendsetters, his clientele transcends local and international boundaries. Totengco’s designs are frequently featured by socialites, celebrities, retailers, bloggers, and the fashionable Everywoman across different continents. Throughout his stellar career and continued international success, Totengco has remained true to his roots. His recent collaboration with Bench brought him back to local shores to tell a tale of two countries with his capsule collection. His coruscating minaudieres tell stories of summers and sunsets along pristine Philippine beaches and the treasures within its azure ocean depths. Mixing natural elements with contemporary flair, Totengco deftly harmonizes his local upbringing with a New York work ethic as a testament to the world class standard of Filipino craft. 

How was it like transitioning from being raised in the Philippines to being immersed in the cosmopolitan culture in New York? How has this helped develop your taste and style? What exactly about our artistic culture and tradition have you brought with you to the US? 

“One of the best decisions I made in my life was move to New York. The city made me feel like everything was possible as long as you were good at what you did. Everybody comes to New York with a dream. The drive to succeed was so great that it propelled me to keep going forward and keep learning. My memories of growing up in the province I always cherish because there was a simplicity to that way of life. We always dressed up to go to church and had clothes made for special occasions. There wasn’t as much ready-to-wear during my time so everything had to be custom made and you can just imagine how much I took advantage of that. To this day whenever I buy clothes I’m tempted to personalize them. We Filipinos have a ‘can do’ attitude that we apply to almost everything in our lives. It’s this belief that everything is possible that brought me to New York. I met me in New York.”

How did your design sensibilities evolve from the time you started your brand in 1997 until now? What was your mantra at the beginning? How has it changed since then? 

“Fashion comes and goes, but style remains. I’ve always loved color, pattern and print. You’ll see from my earlier collections to my most recent that there is a common thread. I have a multi-cultural and eclectic aesthetic that draws upon my love for travel, art, music and architecture.” 

As a successful businessman and designer, what are the things that still challenge you now? Are there things you are still learning? What are some goals you still hope to achieve? 

“The challenge is always the same for me. Every season I ask myself, ‘what’s new’? How do I get someone’s attention in such a crowded platform.”

What advice would you give to aspiring designers who wish to establish their brand overseas? How can young designers develop their confidence and their voice? 

That is a complex question without an easy answer. Everybody thinks the grass is greener somewhere else. I know plenty of designers in the Philippines who are making a nice living because they are making the most of opportunities in their backyard. The costs to establish yourself abroad are so tremendous you have to have very deep pockets and an incredible support system already in place.” 

What attitudes or habits helped you advance in your career as a designer? 

“I do what I love and I love what I do.” 

What is it like designing for a business? How can designers equip themselves for this kind of task? 

“The fashion business is a business. There are deadlines, market weeks and timelines that you should adhere to otherwise the show can’t go on. When you miss market week you don’t get orders for the next season and then the rest is obvious.”

What is it like working with other professionals in the fashion industry and how does this play into running a business? 

“It takes a village. You can’t do it alone and you’re best to surround yourself with people who are excellent at what they do. Accountants, lawyers, salespeople, publicity, production and book keepers. These people should help you do your job better.”

Is there any particular experience or inspiration throughout your career that you would say defined or changed your perspective about design? Why is it important to keep an open mind as a designer? 

You have to be open minded period because the moment you think you know it all then you’re finished. My customer’s lifestyle is changing and her needs and wants are changing with her. If you can’t give her what she wants she’ll move on so you’re best to adapt and react.”

What are the most common challenges that you face as a designer running a business and how do you deal with them? 

“I take it one day at a time. I forecast as much as I can but I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Are there any risks that you’ve taken as a designer and as an entrepreneur? What role does risk-taking play in the creative and business aspects of fashion? 

The moment you start your business and you invest in your own money you risk losing everything. If you’re not careful you could lose it all. You have to stay as vigilant as possible and know when to pull the plug or further invest. The fashion business is not for the faint of heart.”


Interview Angela Manuel Go