While recent years have seen international retail brands crowd the local fashion market, the times have been witness to Filipinos combing the metro for nationalistic yet stylish items as well. It seems that there is no better moment to be proud of our heritage than now, with Filipino homegrown talents the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Monique Lhuillier, et al, gaining recognition worldwide.

Leading the renaissance of the local fashionalism fever is Collezione-C2, whose My Pilipinas label has succeeded in putting the Philippines back in the map—pun intended. Collezione-C2’s My Pilipinas label, a collection of collared and polo shirts that strategically used the Philippine archipelago as its main logo, is the brainchild of acclaimed fashion designer Rhett Eala, whom the brand appointed creative director in 2006.

“When I collaborated with Collezione, it was really a meeting of passions,” shares Eala, who recently celebrated his 20th year in the industry. “Our objective is to create products that merge art, fashion and nationalism, while being globally relevant in terms of quality and design.”

Ready-to-Wear is Key

The tables have turned, Eala answers when asked about how much the retail industry has changed since his career started 20 years ago. “Local retail was very good when I began. It was even bigger than imported retail, but now the latter dominates the market. As a Filipino designer, the challenge today is really to compete at their level.”

When resurgent fashion brand Collezione commissioned Eala in 2006 to come up with a line of mainstream shirts, the designer admits to having no background in shirt design. “I’ve always done women’s clothing and office wear, but never T-shirts so I had to learn fast,” Eala recounts. “When I conceptualized the map shirts, I never expected it to be that big. After a while, a lot of people began buying it in bulk, especially Filipinos living abroad.”

For the longest time, Collezione has been really quiet as a brand, but when the maps came out, it kicked off so many other designs that the company eventually rebranded to Collezione-C2. Focusing on ready-to-wear (RTW), Eala realized then, was crucial if the local fashion industry seeks to move forward. While local designers are gaining public recognition with their custom-made clothes, the discipline is quite limiting as it only caters to certain market segments.

“Most of our local designers are self-taught, and their training is usually specific to their chosen craft, like weddings,” says Eala, who also dabbled in custom-made clothing himself. “RTW commands an entirely different discipline, because sometimes you have to work on your design backwards, especially in terms of budget. If a shirt has to sell at P600, you break that down to consider how much you’re spending on fabric, how much detail you can afford to incorporate into the design. It may be limiting, yes, but if you look at the bigger picture, RTW actually helps boost our chances in competing with international brands.”

Reviving the Manufacturing Spirit

It is undeniable that Eala knows his way in and out of the fashion business. However, when asked if he considers himself a businessman is an entirely different matter. “No, hindi talaga!,” he laughs. “While I do have to manage the basic aspects of my collection, there really has to be somebody behind me in the business side. I’ve tried venturing on my own, but it didn’t work. I realized it’s best when I collaborate with a brand.”

Collaboration, of course, requires he compromise with the brands he works with. “You need to have their stamp of approval,” Eala shares. “There have been times when I would insist on a certain design or vice versa, and usually these things do not really work out well. Interestingly, the things that do are usually the ones that showed both our points of view.”

In celebration of his 20th year in fashion, Eala hosted a show that featured his partnership with Collezione-C2 and another prominent label called Jewelmer, which specializes in South Sea Pearls. Both are family-owned and micro-managed enterprises—a preference of Eala’s. “I love working with family businesses because you don’t have to go through a lot of layers. I work closely with both brands, and the funny thing is that they’re very much alike. Jewelmer is proudly Filipino and when they promote themselves abroad, it’s always as a Filipino company. It’s the same with Collezione even if clothing is more of a hot-ticket item. They’re different but essentially, they share the same values as I do.”

Having successfully marked an important milestone, the next decade is quite optimistic for Eala: “I’d really like to concentrate on the brand (Collezione-C2) some more. It can go any direction—we can start opening branches abroad, but what I’d really like to see is more people start manufacturing again in the Philippines, start giving more jobs to our countrymen, and appreciate the ‘made in the Philippines’ brand again. If we don’t catch on it early enough, our manufacturing industry might die along with others before it.”

Published in the December 13, 2010 issue of the Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda section.