Philippine Fashion: These Local Labels Incorporate Piña, Abaca, And Other Renewable Resources Into Modern Wear
Welcome to the era of slow and sustainable fashion!
The time has (finally) come—Philippine indigenous fabrics aren’t the only textiles reclaiming their throne in the local fashion industry. Renewable resources like piña (pinapple), abaca (banana leaf fiber), and rattan (palm) are also having a major revival!
While using these materials isn’t new to fashion, modern day Filipino designers and brands are creating a movement, empowering our local artisans while restoring heritage. By incorporating proudly Pinoy materials into contemporary, wearable pieces, they are bringing traditional fashion back to relevance, helping keep age-old techniques alive.
In an exclusive interview with Metro.Style, we asked designers Gabbie Sarenas, Jor-el Espina, and retail brands Filip+Inna and Island Girl PH on how they work with communities in reinventing traditional materials. For your dose of (sustainable) fashion fix, scroll ahead! And while you're at it, don't forget to check out our comprehensive guide on how to wear Philippine indigenous textiles responsibly, according to a textile expert.
The scarce, refined piña has been gaining prominence around the world, but Filipinos have already been been using pineapple fibre as textiles for centuries. In fact, its history dates back to the early 1500s, even before Spaniards landed on Philippine shores!
Stiff, translucent, lustrous, and expensive, the piña was favored among the affluent back in the day. Through the years, the fabric lost its popularity due to the rise of the much affordable cotton—but the good news is, it is getting traction once again.
Barong Tagalog-inspired top: Jor-el Espina, T’nalak-inspired skirt: Filip + Inna, Sandals: Annie & Lori, Hair clip: Bondi Studios, Earrings: H&M
The piña is rich in culture and history. During the Spanish occupation, only the Ilustrados (wealthy Filipino families) were allowed to wear the Barong Tagalog, a piña shirt featuring standing collars. Some believe that Spaniards required the Ilustrados to wear the sheer Barong Tagalog in order to prevent them from hiding weapons under their shirts.
There are also theories suggesting that Filipinos were not allowed to wear the Barong Tagalog tucked in. This practice was done to distinguish the Ilustrados from the colonizers; a reminder that Filipinos still remain “Indios” despite their economic status. However, other researchers believe that the Filipinos wore the Barong Tagalog untucked not due to discrimination, but because of practicality—wearing it untucked was more suitable in a tropical climate.
Barong Tagalog-inspired top: Jor-el Espina, T’nalak-inspired skirt: Filip + Inna, Hair clip: Bondi Studios, Earrings: H&M, Ring: Adornata Jewelry
While the history of the Barong Tagalog remains controversial until today, wearing the modern version of the Philippine National Costume is a different story altogether. It is now patronized not only by men, but also by women! Thanks to the rise of androgynous fashion, ladies today also don fashionable Barong Tagalog-inspired pieces in formal occasions. One Filipino designer known for crafting Barong Tagalog-inspired tops, skirts, and jackets for women is Iloilo-based designer Jor-el Espina. “My style is a fusion of eclectic and classic. Part of my brand’s DNA is using natural materials such as piña and other indigenous textiles, because it is a representation of our culture as Filipinos.”
Terno-Inspired Bolero: ANTHILL Fabric Gallery, Top: V.Alice Clothing, Tiered Piña Skirt: Jor-el Espina, Shoes: Stylist's own, Bag: Stylist's own, Accessories: Adornata Jewelry
Terno-Inspired Bolero: ANTHILL Fabric Gallery, Top: V.Alice Clothing, Tiered Piña Skirt: Jor-el Espina, Bag: Stylist's own, Accessories: Adornata Jewelry
And thanks to innovations in style, the piña is not limited to the Barong Tagalog anymore. Using the traditional fabric for contemporary, couture pieces is now in vogue! Take it from Filipino designer Gabbie Sarenas, who showcases Philippine history and craftsmanship on the international stage through fabric, embroidery, and story.
Top: Gabbie Sarenas, Jeans: H&M, Sandals: Annie & Lori, Earrings: H&M, Ring: Adornata Jewelry
“We always use piña because of its feel—luxurious, quiet, and Filipino," quips the couturier. “Our objective is to think of the future and the longevity [of design], but at the same time holding on to tradition." Injecting pride and nationalism into her pieces, Gabbie describes her brand's aesthetic as a love letter to the Philippines. “It is our own loving interpretation of the grace of our culture. We involve a lot of techniques done by hand in each piece.”
Gabbie's artisanal creations involve different types of piña combinations. For maximum volume, she likes to mix piña and abaca, but for casual, wearable pieces, piña and cotton is her go-to. “We experiment with different mixes; each design has a different behaviour which can suit different occasions.”
Top: Gabbie Sarenas, Jeans and Earrings: H&M
This Gabbie Sarenas creation features removable puff sleeves featuring a combination of piña and abaca. It is adorned with hand-embroidered sampaguitas, and highlights the ramit textile of the Mangyan community. "The goal is to promote and showcase the [indigenous] weaves, but at the same time, giving our own spin to the patter," shares the designer. "I did a black colorway so it would look embossed."
Sourcing piña fabrics from Kalibo, Aklan, Gabbie works directly with the community for her pieces. “I always want to see the communities' best before disassembling anything. I respect what they have done, and would like to showcase and champion their craft.”
In line with this, she encourages the use of Philippine textiles—both renewable materials and handwoven fabrics from indigenous peoples—to elevate the local fashion industry. "Using Filipino textiles is great. It challenges [designers] to see what else can be done. Both the challenge and the goal [we face] is keeping in mind the sacred process and the traditions [behind these native textiles]. These are not just mere fabrics, but years of craftsmanship. We hope to keep the tradition alive and as pure as possible."
Piña top: Gabbie Sarenas, Skirt: ForMe, Earrings: H&M, Headband: Bondi Studios, Sandals: Annie & Lori, Clutch: Island Girl PH
Here’s something to take pride in, Metro ladies: the Philippines is the world’s largest producer of abaca! After all, the abaca, also known as the Manila Hemp, is extracted from the fibers of a banana species native to the Philippines.
While the fiber is commonly used for paper and furniture, it is also popularly used in the fashion industry to create dresses, tops, and even accessories.
Terno-inspired abaca top: Jor-el Espina, Jeans: Model's own, Shoes: Model's own, Earrings: Stylist's own
Couturier Jor-el Espina, who works with embroiders and weavers in Lumban (Laguna), Taal (Batangas), and Iloilo, is a firm believer that Filipino craftsmanship is world-class. “Pieces with cultural influences can still be functional, and can be showcased to the entire world. And by working with local communities, we help empower artisans—and even promote their own stories through their craft."
Lenora Cabili, founder of local label Filip + Inna, shares the same sentiments. Through her brand, Lenora works with 22 Philippine indigenous groups in transforming modern-day clothes by incorporating traditional touches. “Fashion is inextricably linked with identity. Through the clothes that we create with the artisans, we hope that the intertwining of the traditional and contemporary will distinctly show what is Filipino.”
Abaca Terno Dress: Filip + Inna, Headband: Bondi Studios, Shoes: Stylist's own
Rattan, Wood, Coco, and Other Renewable Materials
Who says bags made of natural, hand-crafted materials can’t be modern and trendy? A lot of chic, local brands today shine the spotlight on native materials such as rattan, abaca, and coconut.
One Filipino label worthy of your attention is Island Girl PH, a Cebu-based start-up that mainly works with housewives in the province. “Many of the women we work with cannot find work, "shares founder Janice Chua. "We empower them by giving them a means to contribute to the household income, without taking them away from their first priority: family."
According to the entrepreneur, one of the challenges the Cebu fashion industry face is the scarcity of skilled weavers and artisans.
"As more and more export businesses close down, weavers, workers, artisans have abandoned their respective crafts to pursue other industries. Many of the men go into construction work or agriculture, while the women choose to stay at home to look after their children, or to work in factories. Of course, these are not bad things—but if Filipino designers could support these skilled artisans by seeking them out and working with them to create fresh, contemporary, and covetable products out of natural materials, then these skills will not be lost."
Terno-innspired ?Bomberong: Jor-el Espina, Top and Shorts: V.Alice Clothing, Shoes: Stylist's own, Bag: Island Girl PH, Bangle: Adornata Jewelry, Earrings: H&M
Aside from supporting local artisans, Janice is also passionate about promoting our country's renewable resources. "With the skills of our local weavers and artisans, coupled with high-grade natural materials, we are able to elevate the aesthetic of Philippine bags and accessories beyond what's typically known as ‘native’."
Terno-innspired ?Bomberong: Jor-el Espina, Top: V.Alice Clothing, Bag: Island Girl PH, Bangle: Adornata Jewelry, Earrings: H&M
She concludes by encouraging Filipino designers to step in and and embrace natural resources. After all, taking initiative will help revitalize the industry. "I watched Netflix shows like Chef's Table and Street Food, and I realized that the common thread in creating stellar cuisine—whether it is for a Michelin-starred restaurant or casual, everyday fare—is to start with the best ingredients.
"In creating a fashion line using natural materials, [know that] we already have the best 'ingredients' here in the country. Our natural materials are abundant, beautiful, and of exceptional quality.”
Indeed, Philippine craftsmanship is intricately one-of-a-kind—and the fact that local fashion is gaining momentum is something to take pride in.
Brands featured: ANTHILL Fabric Gallery, Herman and Co, Filip+Inna, Nina Inabel, Masa Clothing, Jor-el Espina, Gabbie Sarenas, Island Girl PH, V.Alice Clothing, H&M, Annie and Lori. Know more about Philippine fashion by reading this.
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)