A stereotypical thought process has always followed the mention of the word “fashion”: statuesque models working the runway, designers traveling from Manila to Paris to New York, colorful attitudes, expensive clothes, dynamic trends, and of course, money.

However, there is more to the fashion industry and the perceived culture within it. Made up of a mass amount of people, places, suppliers and organizations, the fashion industry means more than just being “makers and sellers of fashionable clothing.” Fact of the matter is, there is a lot riding behind the garments we oh-so-carelessly buy.

A Fruitful Livelihood

While Camarines Sur may be more popular because of its much hyped tourist attractions, a mushrooming industry of piña fabric suppliers in Camarines Norte may just change that.

“We needed to come up with activities to get noticed,” says Ernesto Pardo, provincial director of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). “There are currently 3,000 hectares of pineapple farms in the province, but the main product has always been the fruit. Now we are encouraging all the plantations to stop Leafthrowing the leaves. We are raising the awareness that every leaf of piña is a money-making opportunity.”

Piña fiber, derived from the leaves of the Queen Formosa pineapple variety, produces the finest and most expensive of all Philippine hand-woven fabrics. Naturally glossy and ivory in color, the delicate and lustrous piña is hand-loomed by only a few weavers in the country. “It’s a young industry (in the Bicol region) that started only in 2007; Camarines Norte is currently the only province in Bicol making piña fabric,” shares Mario Espeso, general manager of the Labo Progressive Multi-Purpose Cooperative (LPMPC), whose loom workers painstakingly scrape, knot and weave the fabric by hand.

Because production is labor-intensive, it helps provide jobs for the unemployed population of the province—including more than 200 inmates of two district jails and a provincial prison. “They help knot the piña fiber into continuous thread,” shares a proud Espeso, who pays the inmates a rate of R4,000 per kilo of knotted piña fiber. “They split the proceeds every week, so they now have income to provide allowances for their children. Even our local students help out with scraping pineapple leaves by hand; we pay them and they use the money for their graduation expenses. Napakatindi talaga ng impact sa mga tao (There is really a strong impact on people).”

Making a Difference

The challenge for Camarines Norte’s sunrise industry lies in marketing the product and improving fabricon its quality. “We have an abundance of supply and production is year-round, but because it’s a new industry, we still need to raise our market’s awareness that we are quality piña cloth producers,” Espeso says. “Sabi ko sa coop, hindi na kami pwedeng umatras dito kasi grabe ang social responsibility (I told the coop we cannot back out anymore because of social responsibility). I really hope this is our breakthrough and that progress will ensue.”

Luckily Piñagayon, one of Camarines Norte’s pineapple suppliers, had the idea to collaborate with 10 of today’s popular designers, including Louis Claparols, Frederick Peralta, Veluz Reyes and Charette Regala. Owned by the mother-son tandem of Flora and Marco Abadesco, Piñagayon stemmed from the idea to keep everything in their pineapple plantation organic. “Everything from our farm is integrated and sustainable. We make use of everything—pineapple peelings as fertilizers, the cores for cattle feed, and because I didn’t want to throw away the leaves, I thought about getting into garments,” shares Flora Abadesco.

In order to prosper in the garment business, however, Piñagayon needed a market for it. This is where recent fashion show “Fashion Forecast” stepped in. “Marco got in touch with OneCore Productions (the event organizer) and we began planning for it,” shares Abadesco. “When we realized our farm will not be able to supply enough cloth for an event this big, we coordinated with other pineapple producers and it became a province-wide activity.”

Fashion Forecast, held recently at the NBC Tent, is set to become a yearly event that highlights the social and economic impact of Filipino fashion and creativity. The show not only displays the top 10 designers’ collections, but the big goal is to raise the buying public’s awareness about how versatile and contemporary the cloth is. Ends Abadesco: “An increasing demand means more jobs for piña cloth producers. Ultimately, we want to use Fashion Forecast as an avenue to support our local fabric-producing communities.”

Published in the December 26, 2010 issue of the Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda section.