How old Philippine textiles and techniques became the key to ushering the next generation of “sapateros”

Accessorizing is serious business. Recognizing her niche in an increasingly competitive market, award winning shoe designer Tal De Guzman is always on her toes, deeply rooted in the substance and medium of her craft. Combining a holistic weave of community partnerships, respect for tradition, and business savvy in her designs, De Guzman meticulously crafts bespoke artisan shoes that pay homage to Filipino culture. Through her brand Risqué Designs, De Guzman commemorates and modernises the country’s indigenous weaves with due regard to their cultural context, encouraging Filipinos to wear and appreciate their culture. Blazing her own trail in the accessories industry, De Guzman is also reinvigorating the historical heritage of Marikina as the shoemaking capital of the country through her collaborations with local sapateros. Following her talk at SoFA Design Institute entitled Bags & Shoes: From Idea to Brand, De Guzman shares her design story for aspiring designers and accessories aficionados.

Why and how did you choose shoes as your medium to tell a story?

Actually, when I started venturing into fashion, I thought I was gonna do bags. So, I first explored bag design and production with Amina, and I realized I knew very little about anything in fashion, especially regarding the materials used. So, I took the whole SoFA Fashion Design course. I was really planning to put up a business using local materials, but when I was doing my research, I realized there are so many local brands and designers doing bags. There is Aranaz. There’s Bea Valdes, and Rafé Totengco, too. There are shoe designers, but also still very few. I felt like there was a niche that I can get into, and I really wanted to explore using materials like weaves and carvings.

It’s a very difficult business to get into. If you’re into fashion, you can actually do just free-size or small-medium-large. If you’re doing bags, you can make a product in just one or two sizes, too. But with shoes, you cannot make a 7 whereas a 9. There’s a lot of factors to deal with, which brings it to a lot of difficulty for someone setting up a business. But even until now, there’s no one who‘s doing exactly the same thing as I’m doing. There are some who are doing local weaves, but mostly they are basic flats, and basic designs. When it comes to the ones that I’m doing, as intricate as this, until now I still have the space to myself.

How did you come up with this vision that incorporates various aspects of the Philippine culture?

I think I was just really drawn into and curious about the culture. I grew up with a very colonial mindset. You know, if it’s imported then it’s automatically better. I guess I knew what needed to be done to counter this, because even at that time when I was even at SoFA, a lot of the designers were getting inspirations from Western culture. A lot were referencing Greek mythology and Roman mythology, and I would ask myself why. We have those [stories to share], also. People are just not telling them. We’re just not digging deep enough to find resources. I guess, that’s what lead me to do these things.

Right now, I think people have more consciousness and we’re more in-touch with our culture. It’s kind of a movement, and it’s good. I’m happy that now it’s becoming more prevalent. For example, when you go to Bangkok, you would see the textiles. When I was in Indonesia, people were wearing their batik and everything. In the Philippines, why is it we would only wear our clothes during Independence Day or Linggo ng Wika? So now, I’m happy that up-and-coming brands are making traditional things more wearable. That’s also my objective. It’s nice that it’s becoming more popular right now. I wanted to make them relevant. Before this whole “support local” thing became a really in thing, I really had that mindset already. I feel that [as a nation] we’re a very creative group. Our crafts are very nice, but growing up, they were always done very traditionally. The reason why people don’t want to use them is because they’ve lost their relevance.

How do your products address the misconception that locally made products aren’t as good?

I was born and raised in Manila. So, every time I would go to a province, I would be really drawn to their crafts, and I kind of questioned the thought of why are weaves just used for table runners, and things like that. Right now, it’s easy to say that people have learned how to experiment more and think of ways to maximize local textile. But five years ago or so, the scene was not like that at all. People were questioning, “Bakit ba ako may weaves sa shoes ko?”. Pwede pala ‘yun?” Like yeah, why not? You had to be very patient in always explaining that these are hand-made. People were still into the point where everything was cheaper and mass-produced in China. Of course, I had to sell my stuff at a higher price because we were also paying premium with our partners, artists, and communities. It took a lot of explaining.

Basically I prove people who doubt Philippine quality wrong simply by creating quality products. We are a business. For people to keep buying from you, you have to first give them good products. A lot of people would consider us a social enterprise. But for me, I don’t want to get stuck with that label. Yes, we may be helping people, but it’s so much more than that. I don’t like pity purchases. In the broadest sense of the word, we are, technically, a social enterprise because we’re directly affecting people’s lives. But if you’re just banking your whole marketing on the fact that you’re helping artisans but you’re putting out crappy products, your customers are probably gonna buy from you once out of charity, and I don’t want that. I want them to keep coming back because whatever we’re making is worth the purchase. We want to convert these customers to truly love Filipino quality. Together with other brands, we’re collectively trying to change the mindset of people.

Given the environment of the retail industry when you started out, you say it was a challenge. Who was your target market?

I knew my target market would be the higher end. Let’s say, the A and B brackets. Maybe, even a bit of the upper C. My target was women who have this love for the country—who would be more fashionable, and also adventurous. In terms of age, eventually, I narrowed it down to two. The yuppies, who can already afford to shop and have this consciousness for local labels, and the Titas of Manila who understand the value of something that’s made-to-order—something that’s limited—and they’re also those who are supportive of original local designs. Until now, they are still our clientele.

What do you think is the biggest difference between buying those made in a workshop, handmade like yours, compared to buying off-the-rack, like the department store?

I won’t see a lot of people wearing the shoes that we make because I don’t really mass-produce. I manufacture for other brands, so in that sense that is the only reason I would mass-produce. But my own designs, for Risqué Designs, we keep it limited. I’ll admit it, because even the weaves, even if I order the same color combination, the outcome can vary depending on the weaving process. It’s part of the story. That’s the big difference. You really won’t see too many people wearing the same thing because if I do a design, the most I do is about 20 pieces. Sometimes, I would do even just one size per. What makes me happy is when these people who are buying our designs see another person wearing the same thing and say, “Oh, I know where you got that!” They know that this person is also a supporter of local. It’s all part of community building.

Can you tell us a little bit about your production process? How do you create pieces that stand out without sacrificing comfort and functionality?

Comfort is very important to me, obviously because people can’t wear shoes that don’t feel good. One of the reasons why I wanted to have my own manufacturing facility is because I’m really concerned with the fit and everything, and since we’re catering to customized orders, I have to be very meticulous with those details. If I’m designing a collection, it starts with a concept. Basically, a design. Then I experiment with color combinations, personally source the yarns to be used, and then have my weavers, usually in Negros, do their part. I don’t meddle with their patterns. I leave it to them, and they always surprise me. I get to play with just the colors, and they’re open to that because I’m very careful with working with the weavers. I don’t want to disrespect. Some of them are very traditional. At the same time, while waiting for the weaves, I would be preparing the other parts of the shoes, such as carved heels. I would be preparing for that to be done by my people in Paete. For every new collection, I really physically go there and discuss the designs with them. After the prototypes are done, so they send over the production here. Back in Marikina, inside the workshop, once I have all the materials, the pattern is done and the form starts to be assembled. Then it would go to the sapatero. So ‘yun, finishing whatever, and then, if there’s any sort of embellishments, we do that last. It’s always a different thing that I try to introduce, and sometimes, the process would be different. That’s what I enjoy; doing different materials, doing different processes, and experimenting with what I can use.

How do you describe the shoemaking industry in Marikina today?

I think it’s starting to be more lively again, but the sad thing is, there aren’t very many people who really want to be a sapatero, or for the older ones, remain a sapatero. A lot of the children of the workers, they don’t continue the craft anymore. They’ll just go to call centers, work in IT, or whatever. I guess they saw from their parents that it’s a hard job, but what I found now, since online shopping became easier, a lot more people are venturing into making their own brands, and it’s fueling the industry. When business owners want to make shoes, the tendency is to go straight to Marikina. It’s either Marikina or Liliw, but Marikina is closer. When I was starting out, it was so hard to find shoemakers. I was talking to people in the Marikina Shoe Industry Development, and they said that way back before China and everything, there were about 4,000 to 5,000 manufacturing companies here for shoes. When the decline happened, it went down to less than 500.

But now I think it’s being revived, because cause younger people are being more brave to restart it. I really noticed the difference. When I started this workshop in 2015, peak season for manufacturing would always be the months leading to Christmas. Right after Christmas, come January, a lot of the sapateros would be out of jobs because it’s lean season. But, you know, last January, I got a big order for one of my manufacturing clients, and we were looking for new sapateros, it was so hard. I asked my staff, do these people have work now? Apparently, yes. It’s good. I mean, for us, it’s harder to find. But it’s good because you know people still have their jobs. Just a year before that, by January, I would get asked if I could give more jobs to people. What a big difference a year can make in the industry.

What are the parts of the Philippines that remained unexplored for you?

A lot. There are weaving communities that would come to us to see if we can explore their materials. But I’m careful with that because I want to make sure that we can work well with the community, first and foremost. I really make it a point that I visit where they are, I see how things are done, I get to know the people, and check if it would be a good match. Sometimes, you know the weavers are good but I’m also looking for people who, even if they’re not professionals, can work professionally.

Are there any more local materials you have yet to try out?

I’ve been wanting to explore using mother of pearl. I also really want to study metallurgy in design. I’ve worked with embroidery—the ones from Lumban, but I didn’t get to fully maximize the opportunity, so I wanna go back to it sometime again. What else? For shoes I have to be picky also with the materials, because what looks nice doesn’t always work. Some things are flimsy, or get dirty easily. I also want to work with bamboo, and with coconut, but I have to do it slowly. Usually, I get to do that when I’m embarking on a new project, a new collection, or a new collaboration. Since I’m managing too many aspects of the business, it’s hard to find time to delve into the unknown. But the thought of trying something I have yet to, that’s what excites me. When there’s a material I get to play with, it’s like ecstasy!

You teach a Materials and Resources class at SoFA. How do your efforts shape the way young designers view our artistic heritage?

I try to expose my students to a range of different materials, from the traditional to a bit more modern. Like for the weaves, we would really discuss at length with them the different kinds of materials; the fibers used, the process, the history behind these weaves, why they are different, etc. For people who don’t know, they would think of weaves as something that’s all the same, but they come from different tribes and communities, and it’s important that they understand that to be able to understand also their heritage, too. I also bring them on trips. I brought them to Paete. I brought them to Marikina. I wanted them to understand traditional crafts; the value of something that’s handmade.

One of the more advanced topics we discuss is the LED technology. Because there’s some programming involved, the students find it fascinating. I bring in a friend from Google who teaches LED and how to incorporate it into clothes. I just really want them to get a range of what’s possible, and then I think it broadens their minds. They’re not stuck with the idea of just using what they can find from Divisoria. I also always ask my students, “How can you manipulate it?” It can’t always be the same techniques, the same forms, and the same output. I think, in a way, for my students, they become more adventurous in what they’re using, in what they’re incorporating, and then telling more the story of their designs. It becomes more of a journey for them when they create new things.


Interview Angela Manuel Go

Photography Trisha Descallar