Town & Country (Philippines) - - CONTENTS / APRIL - By Yvette Fer­nan­dez

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


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.” «


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