How To Wear Philippine Indigenous Textiles Responsibly, According To A Textile Expert
Say it loud, say it proud: Philippine fashion is on the rise.
With today’s consumers becoming more conscious of their choices, the spotlight now shines on slow, sustainable fashion. “Today, more people are knowledgable on slow fashion, green fashion, sustainable fashion, and responsible consumerism,” shares Kitty Caragay, Assistant Professor in the UP College of Home Economics and faculty-in-charge of the UP CHE Costume Museum. “Philippine traditional textiles align with those philosophies.”
Take one look at your Instagram feed, and you’ll notice it. Indigenous weaving patterns and textiles have become popular: formal wear, hand bags, shoes, and even ready-to-wear-pieces feature jaw-dropping Philippine textiles and embroidery.
Model wears a Filip + Inna top featuring inabel textile from Ilocos. It was made in Pinili, Ilocos Norte, where some of the country’s oldest weavers come from.
This bodes well for local fashion. After knowing that centuries-old traditions continue to be passed on, and after seeing a new generation of Filipinos wear our country’s heritage with pride, one cannot help but feel nationalistic—maybe even hopeful.
But in the spirit of supporting local fashion responsibly, we also have to ask—where do we draw the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?
For Assistant Professor Caragay, who works with indigenous people groups and conducts research related to Filipino textiles, it all boils down to one thing: context.
Who benefits when you support the products? Are the indigenous weavers treated fairly, and not as a commodity? When donning the textile, are you wearing it in a way that respects and values the community’s culture?
“Kailangan malaman muna ng wearer ang context ng textile na ginagamit nila [First and foremost, the wearer needs to know the context of the textile they’re about to use.],” she quips.
“The consumer needs to be careful where they’re buying from, because there are instances na ginagamit lang ang weavers or communities as branding, but they’re not well-compensated for it. At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the weavers are also paid right.”
Model dons a Nina Inabel by Nina Corpuz dress featuring the binakul, made in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte. The binakul is known for its psychedelic art designs. According to traditions, these "dizzying" patterns distract the evil spirits that hover over sleeping souls.
Layered over her dress is a denim Masa Clothing jacket that features inabel textile from Santiago, Ilocos Sur. Masa Clothing's goal is to "revive a 'dying' industry, and to show the world the beauty of Philippine heritage."
Dress: Nina Inabel, Jacket: Masa Clothing, Accessories: Adornata Jewelry, Headband: Bondi Studios
Metro ladies, we encourage you to continue patronizing Pinoy products! Here’s a quick checklist of questions you can ask yourself, or the brand/designer to make sure you're supporting the local community:
1. Did the indigenous group give their consent to use the textile?
Philippine textiles are intricate, one-of-a-kind, and rich in heritage. And while incorporating them in fashion pieces is one way to promote our cultural pride, we have to remember that not all textiles can be used for commercial purposes. There are sacred textiles we must respect.
How do we know which is which? For starters, if you spot an indigenous-inspired fashion piece that you like, it’s best to do your research first before buying it. Ask questions like, “Which indigenous group makes this textile?", "Where are they from?”, “What is the story or meaning behind this pattern?”, and “How are they made?”
You can also approach the designer or the brand, and ask them if they directly work with the indigenous group—and if they get information straight from the community.
Assistant Professor Caragay recalls a time when a certain T’boli community from Mindanao gave a brand permission to use their T’nalak textile (a sacred, spiritual cloth used for weddings and births). However, they were offended when they found out that the textile was turned into shoes.
The T’nalak is very significant to the community—the T’boli believe that designs are passed on to the T’boli women weavers through dreams, earning them the title “dream weavers”. T’boli women even practice abstinence while weaving the T’nalak, in order to “maintain the purity of their art”. Because of its cultural importance, there are certain rules when handling the textile. The T’nalak textile should never be stepped on, or even used on the floor.
The T’nalak is just one of the many different sacred cloths our indigenous peoples have.
It’s best to read up about native textiles before donning them. Do your own research—the last thing we want is to be caught wearing a burial shroud to a wedding!
2. Was the community consulted?
Fashion should be empowering, not only to the wearer and to the brand, but also to the creators. Ask the brand or designer about their collaboration process with the indigenous groups. Were the communities involved in decision-making? Were they given an avenue to express their creativity?
“Consultation is key,” shared Lenora Cabili, the founder of artisanal brand Filip+Inna. Through her brand, Lenora works with 22 indigenous groups in the Philippines. Together, she and the communities transform ready-to-wear clothes by incorporating traditional embroidery.
“[When working with the community], it is important to do proper research and have a personal relationship with the artisans. [This] encourages communication. We need to be responsible in using the textiles, embroidery and beadwork,” she adds.
Model wears a Filip + Inna jacket and shorts made by the Mangyan using ramit fabric [for the sleeves]. The ramit, made by the Buhid and Hanunuo Mangyans, features intricate geometric patterns. Embroidered on the pockets are the Magnyan's cross-shaped pakudos design motif, which is believed to ward off evil spirits.
The model is also wearing Annie & Lori sandals that feature inabel textile. Through Pinto Arts Museum founder Dr. Joven Cuanang, Annie & Lori works with a community in Ilocos in creating inabel fabrics for their proudly local sandals.
Lenora takes pride in Filip + Inna’s positive working relationship with the indigenous artisans. “We work directly with the artisans. Our initial contact is to encourage their creative spirit, providing them a platform to express their creativity that stems from cultural traditions passed from generation to generation.”
“The artisans are given a blank canvas—free reign to work on the garment whichever way they please. Then we eventually come in and work together with them on the design, in a way that complements their skills and culture. We give proper value to their work, and give back to the community through different programs.”
“Finally, we create fashion in a slow and intentional way,” concludes Lenora. “We believe that the beauty of patience is [revealed in the] unmeasured distinct beauty of the product. Fashion is inextricably linked with identity. Through the clothes that we create with the artisans, we hope that the intertwining of tradition and contemporary will distinctly show what is Filipino.”
3. Are the communities compensated fairly?
Just because a piece is made by a certain community, doesn’t automatically make it ethically sourced. “You have to be conscious. You have to know where it comes from. Magtaka ka kung mura siya,” reminds Assistant Professor Caragay.
She continued by sharing a story of how she got involved in the study of textile. During a project with the Philippine Textile Research Institute, Caragay interviewed some of the weavers in an indigenous community. She asked them when was the best time to weave, expecting to hear romantic answers such as, “Kung kailan ko gusto” or “Kung kailan ko feel”. But instead, they told her, “Kung kailangan namin ng pera”.
Let's support our local artisans by supporting brands and designers who truly support them!
Model wears a Nina Inabel by Nina Corpuz ensemble. Her top features a thick brocade from Santiago, Ilocos Sur—a textile usually used in blankets and table runners. Her skirt uses inabel from Paoay, Ilocos Norte. It features the binandera or banderado, consisting of colored stripes. She also dons modern bakya sandals from Annie & Lori.
Broadcast journalist Nina Corpuz founded Nina Inabel to encourage people to use inabel, a fabric from Ilocos. “The more people wear inabel, the bigger the potential for livelihood for our local weavers,” she explains.
Nina works directly with the weavers and cooperatives in Ilocos. She sources the textiles from a handful of weaving communities—all of whom, she knows personally. Most of her textiles come from her province in Ilocos Norte—but sometimes, she also sources them from Ilocos Sur and Abra.
“There is no middle man that takes away most of their earnings. We make sure they are paid a fair rate for their work,” she assures. “They have become our friends and we are excited to work with each other. Aside from the weavers, our sewers are also paid well.”
When Nina started her brand, the words 'buy few, live purposefully' came into her mind. "We want to provide an alternative to fast fashion and to motivate people to maybe spend more but have less, quality pieces in their closet."
Headband, gold cuff, and bag, stylist's own. Earrings: H&M
To enlighten us further about wearing Philippine textiles, we also asked Assistant Professor Caragay more questions:
Is it okay for foreigners to wear our indigenous textile?
"If we will think about the weavers, their motivation to weave is economic. More market would mean more profit for them, so this is good, at least through their particular lens. And of course, it all boils down to context. Are the [consumers] treating the [indigenous] culture with respect?"
Model wears a Herman & Co boxy button-down top and skirt featuring ramit weaves from the Mangyan community. Herman & Co by Bea Constantino aims to bridge the gap between the communities’ products and the global marketplace in order to help weavers and artisans find livelihood and sustainability. The brand also aims to educate mainstream consumers on the history and symbolism of weaves to help sustain traditions and the ancient art.
“Is it okay to mix textiles from different communities together in one piece?”
"The best way to go about this is to ask the communities directly, because we don’t have set rules at the moment. And even if we did have rules, since culture evolves, puwedeng mag-iba rin sila later on.
Philippine cultures are diverse—and it’s diverse even within the community itself, iba-iba rin ang sasabihin nila. Ngayon pa lang nag pi-pick up ang mga ganitong products, so it’s important that we pick up more conversations and dialogues."
How can I know if the brand or designer I am buying from is ethical?
"The direct link to the community is the designer or brand, so they must be very transparent and honest about the context of textile. After all, if the brand is sustainable and ethical, there should also be transparency. That’s the role of the designer and the brand in the supply chain.
You can also ask government agencies like the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Philippine Commision on Women, or non-government agencies that work closely with the community (eg. Non-Timber Forest Products Philippines)."
Model sports an elegant, tiered ANTHILL Fabric Gallery dress featuring the Kantarines weave of the Mang Abel Ti Abra community in Bangued, Abra. The Kantarines comes in plain, stripe, and plaid patterns.
Bracelets and Ring: Adornata Jewelry, Earrings: H&M, Bag: Island Girl Philippines, Bakya: Annie & Lori, hair clip, stylist's own.
ANTHILL stands for Alternative Nest and Trading or Training Hub for Indigenous and Ingenious Little Livelihood. They are a social and cultural enterprise that addresses cultural degradation, unemployment, and urban migration. ANTHILL Fabric Gallery works to preserve and promote Philippine hand loomed fabrics and weaving traditions through creating contemporary, zero-waste designs that will provide sustainable livelihood among their partner artisan communities.
And there you have it, Metro ladies—the 101 on wearing proudly indigenous Filipino fashion pieces. Let’s continue to empower our local artisans by patronizing brands and designers who support them. And of course, by adding sustainable, ethically-sourced pieces to our wardrobe!
Produced, styled, and written by Hershey Neri (@heyhershey)
Photography by Ria Regino (@riaregino)
Creative Direction by Butchie Peña (@jpendesign)
Sittings Editor: Kate Paras-Santiago (@kate_paras)
Model: Arabella Nepomuceno (@_arabelly) of IM Agency
Makeup by Rodolfo Sitchon (@rodolfositchon) using NARS Cosmetics
Hair by Jessie Maghuyop (@jessiem_hmua) of Culture Salon
Editorial assistant: Angelica Montoro (@eliimontoro)
Intern: Joff Villareal (@_joffangeli)
Special thanks to Assistant Professor Kitty Caragay of the University of the Philippines