MANILA, Philippines ? Efforts to promote organic fabrics in high style date back to the ?60s, when designers worked with ramie, hablon and pineapple. The interest died with the weavers who spun the fabrics.
At a time when the idea of using sustainable fabrics in ready-to-wear clothing was still unheard of in the West, Filipino designer Fernandina ?Dita? Sandico-Ong made her mark 25 years ago with abel Iloko, a textured cotton material. But it was an uphill battle for the fabric to gain wider acceptability.
?Growing up and visiting Vigan, Ilocos Sur, I was surrounded by woven fabrics?blankets, curtains, napkins, and place mats made from abel,? Sandico-Ong recalls.
In the summers, her father would take her to hiking trips to Mindoro and expose her to another way of life. ?I felt disconnected. My cousins were in the discos while I was here in the boondocks. I asked myself what I was doing here. That experience stuck in my mind.?
The impressions subconsciously influenced her imagination when she became a designer. In 1986, she debuted with a collection that elevated the humble blue-and-white patterned abel Iloko into fashionable coordinates and haltered dresses. She then researched on producing natural fabrics from weavers and produced piñalino and linens. Her clothes were retailed at the family-owned COD Department Store in Cubao, but the middle-class market, influenced by foreign fashion, was not receptive to her label.
Dita moved to Makati department stores and to Greenhills to offer Filipiniana clothes in piñalino and linens. Although she started gaining acceptance among the sophisticated market, she felt stereotyped as a Filipiniana designer. ?The clothes were in beige. I didn?t want to get boxed in so I ventured into working with brighter colors,? she says.
Dita continued to research by working with weavers from Catanduanes to make her signature banana fibers and textured Mangyan cottons. Ten years ago, she experimented with a piece of banana fiber fabric by slashing the armholes, then wrapping the body by following the flow of the material. The stiffness of the material gave it shape and a few twists on edges changed the shape of the top. The versatile top has become a staple in her collection.
Her trademark silhouettes are the bustiers, corset tops, peplums and shifts that skim the body. ?I want to show the form of the woman, but I don?t want to overwork a style,? she says. For the working clothes, her materials are rendered into blouses with fabric applications combined with plaid shorts and wide pants.
Last year, Dita returned to her roots by working with abel Iloko as part of Ilocos Sur?s drive to revive its weaving traditions.
?It?s practical, versatile and maintenance-free. You just wash and wear. Abel Iloko can be made into day-and-night dressing with the infusion of metallic threads,? she says.
Abel Iloko is embellished with such treatments as pleated banana fabrics that are wound into designs. For the younger market, Dita created abel Iloko shifts paired with leggings.
?Filipiniana is not just for the matrons who wear it as a costume. You can wear these native fabrics with shorts, leggings or with layering. The idea is to think out of the box,? says Dita.
?After showing the female form, I can play with scarves and add wraps on top for color and accent. One can get away with this look in church, the market, or a luncheon. When you?re in a crowd, you stand out and feel sophisticated,? she says.
Its uniqueness attracted foreigners. Dita has a regular in Denmark, and also supplies the Banyan Tree Resort in Singapore. She held a tea show in Amsterdam and is invited to green fashion fairs.
Dita paved the way for sustainable fashion and is now experimenting with hemp and bamboo. Jeannie Goulbourn has been producing luxury silks while Patrice Ramos-Diaz has her own piña line. Since fashion echoes the fragile times, designers are now searching for lasting ways to protect the environment and support indigenous weaving communities while still setting trends.