Perhaps the most successful Filipino fashion designer today, Rajo Laurel has expanded his portfolio to include designer bedsheets, cakes, bags, jewelry, corporate uniforms, and a collaboration with social enterprise Rags2Riches. His 16th year in the industry proves his knack for combining passion and enterprise. Rajo talked about his journey as a creative entrepreneur at the recent SoFA Speaks lecture series, "From Idea to Icon: How to succeed as an artist in business."
Read on to see how Rajo's creativity and passion for his art combined with his excellent business sense have made him into one of the most esteemed designers in the Philippines.
1. DO MORE THAN JUST BELIEVE IN YOUR DREAMS - ACT ON THEM
"When I was nine, my father read my letter to Santa Claus where I asked for a Barbie doll. Thankfully, my father did not give me my Barbie doll. In the village where I lived, there were stray cats. I picked them up, washed them, cleaned them, put perfume on them, powdered them, put ribbons on them, brought them to school, and I sold these stray cats. I saved enough money and bought my own Barbie doll!"
2. CREATIVITY AND COMMERCE SHOULD NEVER BE AT ODDS.
"A lot of us want to be designers but a lot of us don't want to be businesspeople. Unfortunately you have to be both. In my business, design is just a third of what's happening. The rest is actually business."
3. HAVE A SPACE WHERE YOU CAN DREAM
"How can we derive these beautiful ideas and make them real? [My apartment] is where I retreat and think. It's important for you to have a [well-designed] space where you can think, and basically dream. Fashion designers are the purveyors of dreams. We actually are illusionists. We sell a fantasy--we are part of that fantasy. We are fairy godmothers. We are the people who have the sort of like illustrious magic wand and be able to sort of like sell all of these fantasies."
4. TRAVEL. A LOT.
"I'm a very avid traveller. This is where I find most inspiration. Inspiration comes from everywhere: A book, a well-dressed gentleman, a conversation, the experience of eating a beautiful dish. But for me, it comes from my travels."
5. HAVE YOUR MUSES
"Because I'm a man, it's very difficult for me to try on my clothes; I'll stick to what I do well, by having beautiful friends try on my clothes. I call them my muses. Muses are very important especially for a male designer. I'm very envious of female designers because they can feel the clothes. That's probably why we're so visual, because we can really see the total effect. As a male designer, I need that perspective of someone who tries on my dresses. And it's important to have someone in front of you to bounce back ideas with."
6. SHARE THE WORK
"I'm very very fortunate that as a designer, I have my brother, my sister, my mom, and my sister-in-law to be part of my team... You cannot do it all on your own. The entire design process is actually a collaboration. We are the architects of the design, and we have a lot of other people that make that into reality."
7. MAKE YOUR BUSINESS LEGITIMATE
"It's not just important to be a brilliant idea maker. You may be a brilliant designer, yet how long will you last? At the end of the day, you are here to last for a long time. Hopefully, even outlive your brand. First step, secure permits and pertinent papers. And please, pay your taxes. A lot of designers here don't have these. Therefore, what are you running? A mom and pop operation. How will you make your mom and pop operation grow into an enterprise if you're not treating it like an enterprise?"
8. KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
"When you're a designer, sometimes you think, "Oh, I'm so bad in math." You can never become a designer this way. I suggest that you become good in math, and only then will you become a better designer. Making clothes is really all about trigonometry, thinking in three-dimensional form. Some people don't like [the technicalities]. But it is the things you don't like that will make you successful."
9. ESTABLISH GOOD CREDIT STANDING WITH SUPPLIERS
"The minute you have good credit standing with suppliers, the longer you will have the chance to pay them back. The minute your checks bounce, patay ka na. Because they will not trust you again."
10. WORK AROUND THE CHALLENGES
"When I first told my father I wanted to be a designer, he just looked at me and said no. He enrolled me in La Salle in a business degree, Right after that, I went back to school doing fashion design. But because of that three years of business, I was able to utilize all of the functions of being a businessman. I was also lucky to have studied in La Salle Taft, which was very near Malate. In the late eighties to early nineties, Malate was the hub of the design community. Because I had long breaks, I spent more time with these designers, my mentors, and in my break times, and became their assistant. So it was not an overnight success. It's my 16th year in the business and each year I am still learning."
11. TURN YOUR NAME INTO A BRAND
"My business started with just me in the beginning. A few years later, I started Laurel et Ross, the part of my business [dedicated to] uniform design and manufacturing." Rajo designs for all the Shangri-La hotels locally and for 8 Shangri-La hotels all over Southeast Asia. He also designs the uniforms of several popular local fast-food establishments. "It's not always known by everybody, but that is actually what gives work to a lot of people.
"After that, House of Laurel started--a small, baby project derived from my aversion to rush jobs. We have a culture of making pagawa. Unfortunately a made to order dress takes time. Some of my clients needed their dresses immediately. My sister said, why don't you create a small ready to wear line beside your store so if they're rushing, they can choose from there. It started growing and is still growing. I'm happy that it's actually quite successful."
12. COLLABORATE WITH OTHER BUSINESSES AND BRANDS
"Collaborations are lucrative and it's one way to unleash your creative spirits. I've been able to do wedding cakes, clothes for Plains & Prints, I have shoes, wedding rings. Don't say no to challenges like these. Try to open your mind to something you're not used to doing, it's that fear that actually motivates creative people like myself."
13. GOALS DON'T COME PRE-PACKAGED
"There are so many wonderful careers in fashion. In fashion production alone, you can become a designer, photographer, accessories designer, production manager, all of these wonderful career opportunities in fashion... All of these can be taught and can be learned."
Read about other successful entrepreneurs in Female Network's SoFa series:
(Rajo Laurel profile photos and sketch of a proposed design for Venus Raj's national costume for Ms. Universe 2010 courtesy of Rajo Laurel)