BAP TALKS: INTERVIEW WITH LEN CABILI
We were pleased to have Len Cabili and Al Valenciano for a discussion on diverse craftsmanship and techniques in textile. The conversation gave us insights into how they developed their brands.
Lenora Cabili is the founder of Filip+Inna, a clothing brand which works with artisans from various ethnolinguistic groups from the T'Boli to the Tausug. She is a former member of the Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company, through which she familiarized herself with the traditions of indigenous groups. She earned her bachelor's degree in clothing technology from the University of the Philippines Diliman. She began Filip+Inna in 2010 as a way to preserve indigenous traditions of weaving, embroidery, and beadwork by incorporating them into contemporary design.
"Ready?" Len asked me as I scrambled with the recorder. It was not difficult to understand why she was so widely admired by the communities she has worked with. Len spoke a great deal about the importance of creating a relationship with those she collaborates with and continuing Filipino heritage through the textile industry. One could say that quiet humility has a loud presence, especially in Len's instance.
Throughout the interview, Len Cabili outlines the role of local initiatives in preserving Filipino practices and helping indigenous communities. She describes the ever-evolving process behind Filip+Inna and how she approaches the concept of cultural appropriation. Cabili emphasizes the need for a business to continuously create in order to be financially sustainable.
What is the role of initiatives like yours in preserving and promoting Filipino heritage?
LEN: I’ve been working with artisans for the last ten years and for tradition to be passed down or to be preserved, it really has to be something that they’re able to earn from. It’s been dying the last – I don’t know how many years – because people just felt that there was no need to wear their traditional garments or because there was an option of wearing western clothes. When we came in, we really expressed our admiration of how beautiful all these different cultures are within the Philippines. We started working with the artisans using a skill that they already know since they were already embroidering their own garments. When we told them we wanted to work with them, the first question that was asked was, is it something that they can earn money from. Once that settled in their heads, even their kids were getting interested in the whole process. I feel like that’s what we’ve been able to do – show them that there’s something there for them, an existing skill that they don’t need to go to school for, one that is innate. The best thing that they can do is pass this skill down to their children and continue it. As we work with them, we’ve really seen how much they’ve become prouder of their heritage and of their culture. When they see someone who is coming from the outside, someone like me who is not T’boli or Mangyan, but who is so interested in their traditions, it makes them proud. The opportunity to make a living out of something that they already know is something that is very important to them. It gives them an option.
How does the brand enrich the lives of tribal communities?
LEN: Just imagine if you’re an artisan and you know how to embroider, but you’ve just been doing it for your own garments. Then, somebody comes in and says, “I’ll pay you as you embroider.” Again, I go back to the fact that it’s something that they know already, something that they don’t need to learn. It’s providing an opportunity for them to earn a living out of a skill that they already have. It’s giving them an option. And I think they’re grateful for that, and as they’ve told me in the past and during my recent trip, they’re able to help augment the income of the family. They’re able to send their kids to school. They also tell me that farming is very erratic, they don’t know if they’re going to have a good harvest. With embroidery, they know that when a garment is finished, it is equivalent to a certain amount.
How has your production process and your lines evolved? How do you envision your brand in the future?
LEN: It’s constantly evolving. I would be the first person to admit that our system is not perfect, but we’re constantly improving it. Right now, it goes through a very complicated process of working with the artisans. When they come, we look at the embroidery that they’re making and then we put it in a garment. Afterwards, we sew the garment in the Taguig workshop, then we pack it together with the design, threads, and all the materials that they need. Then, we ship it out to them which basically takes three days. By the time they have it, its distributed and then they work within the confines of their homes. They finish when they want to finish and ship it back to us. Next, we finish the garment and that’s when its ready to sell. As of right now, this process has been working well the last eight or nine years. However, it varies per group. We’re evolving in such a way that we’re implementing ATM cards for the artisans to make the payment faster. We make sure that we send specific styles to specific groups who are able to monitor the progress of the work. We’re the turtles in fashion, it’s a very slow process. Imagine, just sending the garments out to them takes a minimum of three days. In fast fashion, that’s already the sourcing, the production and the selling all in probably a day or two. For us, it’s just one way, just getting it to them, the shipping out, that doesn’t even include the design and the sewing.
What is the process behind selecting different weaves and how did you choose which particular indigenous groups to work with?
LEN: I don’t say no when indigenous groups approach me, I always challenge myself to look into whatever skill they have. Whether it’s in weaving, hand embroidery, or beadwork, that’s where creativity kicks in.
I don’t really choose. We just end up working together because we’re introduced by other people or I intentionally go out and look for them. The aim for Filip + inna is to work with as many indigenous groups as possible. So, in terms of choosing, I don’t even choose because whoever comes, I end up working with them.
In recent years, wearing local brands and traditional clothing has become a trend in the Philippines. How do you ensure that the audience sees the meaning behind the brand?
And how do you do deal with the question of cultural appropriation?
EN: As we rebrand (we’re launching in the early part of next year), we’re really trying to incorporate information into our tags and we’ll make sure that we’ll talk about it. On my part, I use social media to let people know and I constantly do research. And not only research, it’s important for me to visit the artisans because it’s one thing reading a book that was written twenty or thirty years ago. When I visit, I personally get to know about what their current status of their culture is. I see that its evolving, so I sometimes struggle with what I read and what I see as I visit the artisans. The key thing is helping them by being a tool to relate to the public. If we’re doing a certain pattern, we need the story behind it. I think that it’s research, talking, and visiting the artisans that are key in being able to relate to the public - through sharing what I know about the artisans or indigenous groups now.
Cultural appropriation is basically telling the people where it’s from. I work with the T’bolis already, so it’s appropriated that these are their patterns. It would be a misappropriation if I let someone embroider something that was a T’boli pattern in Manila. That’s what Filip + Inna is all about – when I say these are inspired by the T’boli garment, you can be ensured that it’s something that is hand-embroidered by the T’boli.
How do you ensure that your pieces are socially sustainable in the sense that they support the livelihoods of indigenous peoples?
LEN: It’s two-fold, I don’t claim to be a social enterprise. It’s a proper business. I have to make sure that on the other side of the fence, business is financially sustainable. We need to be able to raise enough funds to pay the artisans, give them incentives, or even give back to the community. In order to sustain the business, you really have to make sure you have proper margins. I’ve been talking to the artisans and working with them the last nine years and they always say that what’s important to them is consistency and it’s sustained. So, when we start working with the artisans, it doesn’t even matter whether we have an order from the U.S. or not, they’re constantly producing garments. The challenge for us is we always have to keep the funds rolling. As soon as we have some inventory, we have to sell it right away.