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How Marga Montemayor-Nograles tells the stories of Mindanao

If everything happens for a reason, then reason is firmly on Marga Montemayor-Nograles’ side. Less than a year after she launched Kaayo, the fashion brand that promotes modern sartorial translations of traditional Mindanao culture, Marga is already enjoying a level of success most start-up entrepreneurs would envy. 

Launched in January of this year, Kaayo largely benefited from social-media and word-of-mouth promotion. Nograles’ brand joins the ranks of a handful of artisanal brands that have been actively promoting traditional local crafts, although Kaayo is the only one that solely focuses on Mindanao’s  rich indigenous culture. And no one is probably a more appropriate ambassador for modernized Mindanao fashion than Nograles. Born and raised in Davao, Marga was exposed to southern Philippine art and design through her mother Mary Ann Montemayor, who has been doing volunteer product development training work for Mindanao’s indigenous tribes for over a decade. “I grew up seeing my mom in Mindanao garb,” says Nograles. “Eventually I found myself more drawn to traditional designs, but always with a contemporary twist.” 

The plan to launch Kaayo was not alway clear-cut. Nograles has always been interested in fashion, but initially cut her teeth in consumer goods retail as distributor of flip-flop brand Havaianas in Southeast Mindanao. “I have always dreamt of having my own brand. My grandmother would tell me every year, ’Margarita I really think you should make your own clothes already!’ ” Waiting to come up with her own label eventually proved fortuitous, especially with the public’s resurging interest in traditional Philippine design, and the growing number of trunk shows and pop-ups heavily promoting local artisanal merchants. “I felt, and still feel, that there is so much talent out there and I don't think I am able to compete with that,” says Nograles. “But with Kaayo, more than making my own clothes, I am able to help communities, preserve and promote culture and weave that into fashion and lifestyle—really the best of both of my worlds.”

Kaayo’s signature pieces, including an intricately beaded, naturally dyed Tangkulo scarf (originally made for the datu of a tribe and his family) made by different women from the Bagobo Tagabawa tribe, and a woven jacket made by the Tboli, are now being worn by Filipinas spanning a spectrum of lifestyles, from politicians to society mavens to TV personalities. In the center of it all is Nograles, proudly wearing a Bagobo-made jacket in Milan (where everyone on Via Monte Napoleone asked where she got it) or wearing the Tangkulo to jazz up an all-black ensemble for an occasion. “I wear my pieces with pride knowing that this is our culture. My heritage.”

This is the same heritage she imparts to her three children, whose ages range from six to ten years of age. Though still in their tender years, Nograles’ brood are already aware of the importance of recognizing one’s own roots and culture. “My family and my children are so exposed to the brand and are very proud.” Nikka, her youngest and only daughter, in fact, wears miniaturized versions of the Tangkulo scarf and Bagobo jacket with the effortless flair only a self-possessed six-year-old can muster.

It is said that in the Mindanao weaving culture, “patterns come to the weavers in their dreams.” In a way, Nograles and Kaayo have given flight to many of these women’s aspirations. “With Kaayo, I am so proud to know that there is a little something I can do for our country. This brand is able to help so many tribes and so many women. We don't realize it, but this is their livelihood, their life's work. And I am committed to making this sustainable for all of us.” 

“Kaayo is not just mine, but the weavers, the beaders, the tribes, the young designers and all the Mindanaoans that help bring our stories to life.”