Dozens of women sit giddily in their seats, holding pieces of cloth in their laps. They are members of the T'boli tribe eager to show off the products of their labor—beautiful hand-embroidered fabrics they have worked on for weeks at a time that will be used to create tops and skirts and dresses that will soon make their way to the other side of the world.
We are in Northern Cotabato, in a town near Lake Sebu. We had flown to General Santos City, taken a van to our lodgings, and have come to this school via habal habal, that is, each one of us on a motorcycle hanging on for dear life to the driver assigned to us for the weekend.
And now we watch as the women show off their embroidered handiwork to the woman who has commissioned them to do such beautiful pieces, our host, Len Cabili of Filip+Inna.
The women clearly admire Len, the lovely woman who has taken interest in their heritage and their culture and who has shared them with the world, going from barrio to barrio to say explain her advocacy, and then later labeling each piece with the name of the artisan who created it when she pulls it out at on one of her trunk shows around the world. Thanks to Len who visits, appreciates their painstaking work and paying them by the stitch, the women now have a regular income that helps them put food on the table, buy roofs for their homes, school supplies for their children and medicine for their parents.
It's really about working with different tribal groups. I want to work with as many indigenous groups as possible. This is what our brand identity is all about.
Len started Filip+Inna seven years ago, though she calls her company "the turtle of fashion" since she says she never really knows when a piece will be completed. The women in various tribal villages all over the Philippines usually work from home, amid the chaos of children and chores and life in general, so there are all sorts of factors that can contribute to delays in work.
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Today, Len works with embroiderers, weavers, appliquers, and beaders from tribes from different parts of the Philippines: Ga'dang from Mountain Province, Tinguian from Abra, Ilongot from Aurora, Ifugao from Kalinga, embroiderers from Lumban and Taal, Mangyan from Mindoro. In Mindanao, she works with Yakan from Basilan, where her mother is from, Tboli from South Cotabato, Blaan and Tagakaolo from Sarangani, Tausug from Jolo, Sama from Tawi-Tawi, Maranao from Marawi, and Manobo from Davao.
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Len says she inherited her love for the weaves and fabrics from different parts of the country from her mother, Leni, for whom it was second nature to be dressed in traditional garments.
"When we were growing up, every year our family Christmas cards had all of us dressed up in different native outfits," says Len, whose father, Camilo, was mayor of Iligan for many years. "My father would go on trips around the Philippines and bring me back different fabrics since he knew how much I enjoyed them."
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But it wasn't till many years later that Len had her wakeup call. She had been working for over a decade marketing water jugs with her family business when she discovered she had cancer. It was unnerving to say the least.
"I would lie awake at night and think, 'if I died tomorrow, would I be proud of what I have done with my life?'" she says.
Her answer to herself: No, she wasn't.
I look back at my life and see it was pain that brought me here to a good place. Itâs all about how God can turn things for good.
The idea simmered in the back of her mind for several years. She worked with her siblings on a home accessories line inspired by indigenous patterns of the Maranaos and the Yakans, and later, on a clothing line with her best friend, Olympic swimmer Akiko Thomson.
In 2009, Len tagged along with her mother on a trip to General Santos City and Lake Sebu. She had just read the book, Dreamweavers by Neal Oshima and Mailin Paterno and says she was so inspired that she became obsessed with meeting the weavers featured in it.
"When I went on that trip, I met five out of the seven weavers and was so inspired by them. I knew I could work with them and take what they were already doing and translate it into something more contemporary," she says. But she was conflicted too. "I was alone on that overnight trip. I remember waking up and feeling so alone and thinking about whether this was something I really wanted to do. I knew this was a preview of what things would be in the future, and it was really lonely. But at the same time, I was really excited. I was well aware of what this indigenous group, as well as others, were capable of creating and I wanted to work with them. I loved it."
When I opened the box and saw the samples, I got this feeling that something good was about to happen. It was one of those moments in life when you just know that you are on the cusp of something very important.ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
Len says she brought dresses with her to the tribal women and asked them to let their creativity inspire them.
Three months later her first samples arrived from Lake Sebu.
"When I opened the box and saw the samples, I got this feeling that something good was about to happen. It was one of those moments in life when you just know that you are on the cusp of something very important. That feeling when you know that this moment will define certain aspects of your life," she says. "Opening that box and seeing something spectacular. The skill was there."
And so she moved forward with the idea.
"I did the numbers. I knew I couldn't sell them here in the Philippines because it was going to be expensive. I wanted to pay the artisans by the stitch, so that would be very hard to sell the clothes here," she says. To price her pieces, Len went to the website of Tory Burch, and marked hers up higher since Filip+Inna had hand-embroidered details.
Having spent time with premium shoe designer Warren Edwards in New York, Len had learned that when something was really beautiful, there were people who would pay any price to buy it. And so Len spent many hours and many days working on samples with the embroiderers at Lake Sebu. Their excitement was palpable. And when the samples were finished, Len took a deep breath and booked a ticket to New York. This was it.
The trip was a disaster. She met with different people and visited different shops and showrooms to show off her work. But there were no takers.
Deflated, confused and utterly disappointed, Len went back home to Manila. "I remember coming home so devastated. I remember having this conversation with God. What am I going to do with all these clothes? I had invested a lot of money in them, and I felt like a failure. But I left it all in His hands," she says.
One night, she was browsing the Internet and came across a site called Indagare, a New York-based boutique travel agency that scoured the world for beautiful finds that it sold in trunk shows. And so on a whim, Len sent an e-mail to the website, sharing the story of Filip+Inna.
And I made a promise that I would do whatever I could do to make it work for these women. I have to do it.
"I had nothing to lose, and I believed we had beautiful clothes, and so I did," says Len. Minutes later, she received a response from its founder, Melissa Biggs Bradley, and before she knew it, she had an invitation to take part in Indagare's trunk show in the Hamptons a few weeks later.
Two years later, Melissa persuaded shy Len to make a personal appearance at the trunk show at the Pierre Hotel in New York. Till then, she had just been sending clothes over in boxes, but Melissa said it would be good for the brand if Len showed up herself. At the show, Len chatted with a woman who bought a few pairs of shorts.
"I didn't realize it was her till Melissa told me afterward, and when she did, it was like we had come full circle. We had based our price points on the Tory Burch website, and now here she was buying our clothes. It was amazing," says Len.
In 2013 at another show, at the Plaza Athenee, Aerin Lauder walked in and began looking through Len's racks.
"She bought all the tunics and shorts in size small. The next morning, we got an order for her store in Southhampton. She ordered three more times that summer. It's been such good exposure for us. She has such a good effect on the brand. We get calls from other stores all over the world because our brand is in her store. We recently received her order for this coming season—this time they are items from the Manobo, Maranaw, and Mangyan."
Len says though she has been feeling well, she still goes in for a checkup every six months.
"I know I need to pace myself, I know I need my eight hours of sleep," she says. "I accept my cancer, really. Pain is God's megaphone to the world. It is His way of reaching out. I look back at my life and see it was pain that brought me here to a good place. Itâs all about how God can turn things for good."
Today, seven years after she started working from her desk in her bedroom at home, Len has a little atelier which is a beehive of activity. She has a team of designers and seamstresses who work on Filip+Inna collections.
"It's really about working with different tribal groups. I want to work with as many indigenous groups as possible. This is what our brand identity is all about. It's our name, Filip+Inna, that points back to our country and its beautiful people,"says Len.
Len says one of the big turning points in her life was when she took an American friend of hers to visit the T'boli weavers in Lake Sebu.