FROM THE HINTERLANDS TO THE WORLD
LEN CABILI SHINES THE SPOTLIGHT ON BEAUTIFUL HANDMADE ENSEMBLES BY WOMEN FROM THE INDIGENOUS TRIBES OF THE PHILIPPINES.
Len Cabili brings the craft of indigenous Philippine tribes to global consciousness through Filip+Inna.
D ozens of women sit giddily in their seats, holding pieces of cloth in their laps. They are members of the T’boli tribe eager to show off the products of their labor— beautiful hand-embroidered fabrics they have worked on for weeks at a time that will be used to create tops and skirts and dresses that will soon make their way to the other side of the world.
They are dressed proudly in their ceremonial tribal outfits too, beautiful cross-stitched tops and handwoven wrap skirts, beaded headdresses, and brass accessories. Welcome, they tell us, welcome to our home. We are in Northern Cotabato, in a town near Lake Sebu. We had flown to General Santos City, taken a van to our lodgings, and have come to this school via habal habal, that is, each one of us on a motorcycle hanging on for dear life to the driver assigned to us for the weekend.
Of the eight visitors, I’m the only one who has asked to use a helmet, and my driver, the youngest of the lot, isn’t too pleased. We’ve headed from main roads to dirt roads to grassy paths, bouncing up and down past gorgeous rice fields and sparkling streams.
And now we watch as the women show off their embroidered handiwork to the woman who has commissioned them to do such beautiful pieces, our host, Len Cabili of Filip+Inna.
The women clearly admire Len, the lovely woman who has taken an interest in their heritage and their culture and who has shared them with the world, going from barrio to barrio explaining her advocacy, and then later labeling each piece with the name of the artisan who created it when she pulls it out at one of her trunk shows around the world. Thanks to Len who visits them, appreciates their painstaking work and pays them by the stitch, the women now have a regular income that helps them put food on the table, buy roofs for their homes, school supplies for their children, and medicine for their parents.
Len started Filip+Inna seven years ago, though she calls her company “the turtle of fashion” since she says she never really knows when a line will be completed. The women in various tribal villages all over the Philippines usually work from home, amid the chaos of children and chores and life in general, so there are all sorts of factors that can contribute to delays in work.
Today, Len works with embroiderers, weavers, appliquers, and beaders from tribes from different parts of the Philippines: Ga’dang from the Mountain Province, Tinguian from Abra, Ilongot from Aurora, Ifugao from Kalinga, embroiderers from Lumban and Taal, Mangyan from Mindoro. In Mindanao, she works with Yakan from Basilan, where her mother is from, T’boli from South Cotabato, Blaan and Tagakaolo from Sarangani, Tausug from Jolo, Sama from Tawi-Tawi, Maranao from Marawi, and Manobo from Davao.
Len says she inherited her love for the weaves and fabrics from different parts of the country from her mother, Leni, for whom it was second nature to be dressed in traditional garments.
“When we were growing up, every year our family Christmas cards had all of us dressed up in different native outfits,” says Len, whose father, Camilo, was mayor of Iligan for many years. “My father would go on trips around the Philippines and bring me back different fabrics since he knew how much I enjoyed them.”
The love for Filipino culture and heritage was further ingrained in Len while in college at the University of the Philippines, when she, like her mother before her, joined the Bayanihan Dance Company, the national dance company whose thrust is “to preserve indigenous Philippine art forms in music, dance, costumes, and folklore.”
But it wasn’t till many years later that Len had her wake-up call. She had been working for over a decade marketing water jugs with her family business when she discovered she had cancer. It was unnerving to say the least.
“I would lie awake at night and think, ‘If I died tomorrow, would I be proud of what I have done with my life?’” she says.
Her answer to herself: No, she wasn’t.
The idea simmered in the back of her mind for several years. She worked with her siblings on a home accessories line inspired by indigenous patterns of the Maranaos and the Yakans, and later, on a clothing line with her best friend, Olympic swimmer Akiko Thomson.
In 2009, Len tagged along with her mother on a trip to General Santos City and Lake Sebu. She had just read the book Dreamweavers, by Neal Oshima and Mailin Paterno, and says she loved it so much that she became obsessed with meeting the weavers featured in it.
“When I went on that trip, I met five out of the seven weavers and was so inspired by them. I knew I could work with them and take what they were already doing and translate it into something more contemporary,” she says. But she was conflicted too. “I was alone on that overnight trip. I remember waking up and feeling so alone and thinking about whether this was something I really wanted to do. I knew this was a preview of what things would be in the future, and it was really lonely. But at the same time I was really excited. I was well aware of what this indigenous group as well as others were capable of creating and I wanted to work with them. I loved it.”
len says she brought dresses with her to the tribal women and asked them to let their creativity inspire them. Three months later her first samples arrived from lake sebu. “when i opened the box and saw the samples, i got this feeling that something good was about to happen. it was one of those moments in life when you just know that you are on the cusp of something very important. That feeling when you know that this moment will define certain aspects of your life,” she says. “opening that box and seeing something spectacular. The skill was there.” and so she moved forward with the idea. “i did the numbers. i knew i couldn’t sell them here in the Philippines because it was going to be expensive. i wanted to pay the artisans by the stitch, so that would make it very hard to sell the clothes here,” she says. To price her pieces, len went to the website of Tory Burch, and marked hers up higher since filip+inna had hand-embroidered details.
having spent time with premium shoe designer warren edwards in new york, len had learned that when something was really beautiful, there were people who would pay any price to buy it. and so len spent many hours and many days working on samples with the embroiderers at lake sebu. Their excitement was palpable. and when the samples were finished, len took a deep breath and booked a ticket to new york. This was it.
The trip was a disaster. she met with different people and visited different shops and showrooms to show off her work. But there were no takers.
deflated, confused, and utterly disappointed, len went back home to manila. “i remember coming home so devastated. i remember having this conversation with God. what am i going to do with all these clothes? i had invested a lot of money in them, and i felt like a failure. But i left it all in his hands,” she says.
one night, she was browsing through the internet and came across a site called indagare, a new york-based boutique travel agency that scoured the world for beautiful finds that
THE WOMEN IN VARIOUS TRIBAL VILLAGES USUALLY WORK FROM HOME AMID THE CHAOS OF CHILDREN AND CHORES AND LIFE IN GENERAL SO THERE ARE ALL SORTS OF FACTORS THAT CAN CONTRIBUTE TO DELAYS.
it sold in trunk shows to its high net-worth clients. And so on a whim, Len sent an e-mail to the website, sharing the story of Filip+Inna.
“I had nothing to lose, and I believed we had beautiful clothes, and so I did,” says Len. Minutes later, she received a response from its founder, Melissa Biggs Bradley, who was traveling in South America at the time. Melissa was intrigued by the story and requested photos. Len had some on hand and sent them off immediately via e-mail, and before she knew it, she had an invitation to take part in Indagare’s trunk show in the Hamptons a few weeks later.
Fortunately, Len had about 35 one-of-a-kind samples that she hadn’t sold in New York, about the number of clothes Melissa had requested. And so she packed them and sent them off to Indagare. The Hamptons show was a smashing success. With the money she made from the show, Len bought more fabric that she was able to send off to Lake Sebu for embroidery, which were then sent to shows in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Manhattan as well.
Two years later, Melissa persuaded shy Len to make a personal appearance at the trunk show at the Pierre Hotel in New York. Till then, she had just been sending clothes over in boxes, but Melissa said it would be good for the brand if Len showed up herself. At the show, Len chatted with a woman who bought a few pairs of shorts.
“I didn’t realize it was Tory Burch till Melissa told me afterward, and when she did, it was like we had come full circle. We had based our price points on the Tory Burch website, and now here she was buying our clothes. It was amazing,” says Len.
In 2013 at another show, at the Plaza Athénée, Aerin Lauder walked in and began looking through Len’s racks.
“I had just started following Aerin on Instagram, and then she walked into the souk. She was wearing regular clothes, no make up. I wasn’t sure it was really her till I went up to her and started talking to her,” says Len. “She bought all the tunics and shorts in size small. The next morning, we got an order for her store in Southampton. She ordered three more times that summer. It’s been such good exposure for us. She has such a good effect on the brand. We get calls from other stores all over the world because our brand is in her store. We recently received her order for this coming season—this time they are items from the Manobo, Maranaw, and Mangyan. Every year we are grateful that she continues to carry our brand.”
Len says though she has been feeling well, she still goes in for a checkup every six months.
“I know I need to pace myself, I know I need my eight hours of sleep,” she says. “I accept my cancer, really. Pain is God’s megaphone to the world. It is His way of reaching out. I look back at my life and see it was pain that brought me here to a good place. It’s all about how God can turn things for good.”
Today, seven years after she started working from her desk in her bedroom at home, Len has a little atelier which is a beehive of activity. She has a team of designers and seamstresses who work on Filip+Inna collections. Len herself is still constantly on the go, taking buses and jeepneys and boats and habal habal to meet the women from the different tribes in the hinterlands of the country.
The week I am meeting her at her atelier for an interview, she has just returned from meeting the Ilongot in Aurora and the Ifugao in the Mountain Province.
Recently, she went on a trek through narrow treacherous paths up and down four mountains to get to the Tagakaolo of Sarangani. It took her seven hours on foot each way and at many points she thought she would not make it, but she had no choice since no vehicles went through those routes.
But the next day, when she met the tribal women and saw their beautiful handiwork, she knew she wanted to share their skill with the world.
“It’s really about working with different tribal groups. I want to work with as many indigenous groups as possible. This is what our brand identity is all about. It’s our name, Filip+Inna, that points back to our country and its beautiful people,” says Len.
Len says one of the big turning points in her life was when she took an American friend of hers to visit the T’boli weavers in Lake Sebu.
As they listened to one of the women speak to the embroiderers, her friend asked her why everyone was crying.
“I looked around. He was right, they were really crying, and not just tearing, but sobbing, their shoulders were shaking. When I asked them why, they all started talking at the same time, telling me how they were so grateful for the work. They were crying with joy and gratefulness that they had work. They said their husbands on the farm never know whether there will be a good harvest, whether they will be able to feed their children and send them to school. But with Filip+Inna, they know that every dress they finish will give them income. It’s something they can depend on as a livelihood,” Len says.
“And when I saw that, I realized it wasn’t just about me, not just about my love for fashion and beautiful embroidery. It was about these people,” she says. “And I made a promise that I would do whatever I could do to make it work for these women. I have to do it. Working with these people is an honor and a privilege, and now that I have a relationship with them, I cannot let them down. I cannot fail. I have to do it.” «