Filip+Inna's Lenora Cabili Talks About How Her Proudly Pinoy Brand Thrives Despite The Health Crisis
No longer able to continue business as usual due to a global pandemic, Lenora has contended with the difficulties of business innovation, exploring technology, and changing priorities—but has embraced the deep self-reflection and introspection that has come with the experience
When crisis strikes, the human instinct is to gather—that is, to amass something as much as possible to safeguard against anticipated scarcity.
The "me" instinct kicks in, too.
If it was already hard to look and go beyond the self in more tranquil times, the challenge to be selfless becomes triply difficult when self-preservation shoots up the priority ladder. The world begins to feel like an "every man for himself" kind of place, and in a place like this, those who show compassion and choose to slow down to prop up those who stumble finish last—or so they say.
But for Lenora Cabili, creator of Filipino-made apparel brand and social enterprise Filip + Inna, this time of global crisis has unlocked very different parts of her, contrary to the predictions that cynics have made.
Of course, she worries about her family and herself; Lenora is still human after all, one that feels anxiety and stress and loss as much as her kapwa Filipinos. However, instead of rushing to protect her personal interests, her lifestyle, and her individual future from the scary uncertainties of the present—or the race to security where the vulnerable struggle to win, or to even finish at all—she widened the scope of her efforts, ensuring not only her own security, but that of those most in need of it.
More than ever, Lenora's deep-seated desire to share resources (be they in the form of her time and energy and hope, or of material assistance) burns brightly in the darkness.
She didn't gather and collect to stock up on her own storage—she did so, so she could be able to help as many as possible, filling the storage of many as possible.
It's the true mark of a social entrepreneur; when the going gets tough, the question Lenora asks is not how the tough can get going, but how the tough can help the weak get going with them. It's not even a race at all for her, but an act of bayanihan; it's only when we act as a united front where no one gets left behind that a victory can be declared.
And boy have times never been tougher than they are today.
COVID-19 has hit the Philippines as mercilessly as a tsunami with all sectors of society struggling to keep their heads above the water, with business owners like herself being one of the most flooded with problems.
She says, "We are all in this together. There is no me. It is we. We work together to survive and pull through the difficult road ahead. Once we have resolved that things will be difficult, then it actually gets easier as we have the proper mindset to face what each day and what tomorrow brings."
For those who have yet to discover Lenora's beloved Filip + Inna, it's a fashion label built on promoting, preserving, and honoring weaving and textile traditions from all over the country. Having spent her childhood in Mindanao, the exposure to and appreciation of rich cultural heritages and tradition became part and parcel of who she is as an adult.
She saw the value in bridging centuries-old, and uniquely Filipino, textile and weaving practices with the 21st century woman's global, modern taste. If there could be a way to design locally produced fabric art as products to appeal to this woman, magic would surely ensue.
And so, Filip + Inna was born and the rest is history.
For years now, Lenora and her dedicated team and their partner artisans have created many stunning pieces including traditional Filipino garb, blouses, dresses and skirts, trousers and shorts, outerwear, purses, and even sandal and sneaker designs, among many other pretty things.
The enterprise is a product of Lenora's lifelong love affair with fashion and her belief in the talent of the Filipino craftsperson. For her, there was no better way to express this passion than through the hands of her partner artisans as their work is not only beautiful to the eyes, but feeds the soul, too, thanks to the stories embedded in every thread and stitch.
"So often I receive emails from Filipinos who express their delight in discovering the beautiful work of the artisans we work with around the Philippines. It brings me a deep sense of fulfillment that we are able to work with such an amazing group of artisans and also bring a deeper appreciation to Philippine culture," she states.
However, with a global pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, there are questions that beg to be asked: Can these stories continue to be told? Can the storytellers behind them manage to keep telling them, when problems on how to put food on the table, how to put their children through school, and how to say safe from infection hang over their head?
Lenora says yes—but they cannot do it alone.
The answers to these questions are hardly linear and straightforward, but as social entrepreneur and not simply a business owner, Lenora has tried her best to find them.
First and foremost, Filip + Inna has not stopped operating. Despite almost three full months (and counting!) of a stressful "money out, and no money in" situation, production has continued in order for artisans to have steady work. More so, they've also received different kinds of care packages tailored to their needs—a different challenge altogether, given that artisans come from different regions with different levels of access to necessities and varying availabilities of resources.
Lenora adds, "Thankfully our structure is composed of three areas: Design Studio, Workshop and the Artisans. The artisans work from home so they were not affected, the workshop ladies live around the area so they walk to work while the designers in the studio shifted to working from home, up to a time when I decided to cease all operations and take the time to take a break."
As for Filip + Inna's biggest and new fans alike, they can help too—by continuing to patronize their products, and by staying tuned for a new client program being developed as well as a brand new online platform to be launched on July 4. (Overseas supporters of the brand can look forward to something too. On June 12, Lenora and her team are opening an online store for foreign buyers).
And there's a little surprise coming to selected front liners, too!
"We are in the middle of choosing 30 front liners and say thank you to them by surprising them with a gift. We hope it will encourage them as well as make them appreciate the work of the hands of the artisans around the Philippines," Lenora reveals.
It's a learning process, really—for the brand, and for Lenora herself.
There have been many things she has been forced to contend with and accept as inevitable (like embracing the role of technology in innovation, despite learning about it being a taxing experience—innovation that an enterprise like hers needs to adopt to survive and thrive in a new era of fashion and shopping).
But like fellow Filipinos from far and wide and the world at large, she takes things one day at a time, finding reasons to be grateful despite these growing pains.
She has taken the time to reflect on what COVID-19 has meant to her, too, underneath all the negativity that it has brought upon the world.
"We cannot continue as we were before," Lenora says.
"We should proceed with intention. We have been reckless and without much thought on the consequences of our production process," she continues, taking the stance of hundreds of other business owners who have transformed the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to do a "hard reset" on their businesses.
"I am looking forward to seeing the good that will come out of this pandemic. I look forward to learning and looking back at this period with a sense of gratitude for what it has taught me," she shares.
She wishes the same for her fellow Filipinos, too.
And while it's difficult to ask the Filipino who might have lost a job or family member, or stays up till the wee hours of the morning deeply stressed by an uncertain future to also treat this is a learning experience, it would do well for them to do so.
There's an important lesson on resilience to be learned here—and it's not to remind all Pinoys that they're some of the most resilient people in the world.
What they must come to realize is that resilience alone is insufficient. It must be paired with a willingness to change. The goal is not only to keep getting up on our feet when we are pushed to the ground—but also to become strong enough to push back against whatever force, situation, or person who wishes to see us flat on our backs.
"Resiliency will have its optimum impact when it is coupled with an action to change for the better. It is not just being resilient as we go through a difficult time but also to make changes personally, as a family, as a community, and as a country," Lenora says.
There's much work to be done at Filip + Inna.
It will never end for Lenora, in fact, even when the COVID-19 crisis has come and gone. Because this is a lifetime commitment that she made, and this is where her heart will always lie—with the artisans, with their work, and with all the beautiful things she knows her country's people produce.
She keeps these in mind as she enjoys hours of uninterrupted family bonding, quiet time by herself in her garden, and unhurried meals.
"It was a good opportunity to go through my apartment and take stock of what I have and let go of things that was not needed anymore. It was all about creating space in my life," Lenora says.
"It was realizing what was enough," she adds.
And in this time, Lenora proved the cynics wrong, many times over.
Times of crisis do not always result in selfishness and in a cruel battle between the haves and have nots, but can also make the best of the best of humanity even better than before.
The future isn't all that bleak, after all.
Photos from @filipinna