Local milliner uses heritage to reach a global clientele
From third-world to first-world and back, Mich Dulce continues her quest for global domination
Mich Dulce is the first to admit it: “Working with me is a process.” She says this smiling, as if to mitigate whatever terror that process would involve. She continues, “I’m a control freak with my branding and anything that evokes me, from my makeup to the way my hats are presented. I’m not afraid to say if I don’t like something. Actually, if I could do everything by myself, I would, but I’m not a robot. If something won’t live up to what I want it to be, then I’d rather not do it.” This penchant for particularity has caused terror among some people she has worked with, and she is also the first to admit it. “I’m hard to work with, a nightmare. In my head, I want everyone to be happy, but in reality, I’m pushing everyone.”
But this trait has also been the secret behind her success. At 34, Dulce has made strides none of her contemporaries has been able to. From making clothes, she’s now fully a corsetiere and a milliner—the first Filipino designer to do so—to cater to a niche market that nevertheless has the cash to spare. Her hats are a hit in Korea, Japan, and London, and they’ve been seen on the heads of the likes of Anna Dello Russo and Adam Ant. In fact, her Londonbased brand frequently gets mistaken as British because of its unique, global aesthetic. It’s a misconception she takes in stride. “In the aesthetic sense, my goal has always been for the brand to be recognized internationally as Filipino at heart—but you can’t tell just by looking at it.”
Yet while her design and branding perspective has long been globally inclined, Dulce’s first-ever stint as a proper employee of a French luxury label’s hat brand still had a few invaluable insights to impart to her. “Since I’d never worked for anyone, I knew only what I knew. I mean, I’ve been to schools everywhere, done internships everywhere, from London to Paris to America, but not within the context of, ‘ You have this much responsibility.’ Not with a big, big company.”
And a big, big company means considerable available resources. For her first job, which was to make a hat to be worn by royalty to an event, the language barrier inadvertently revealed to her how first-world fashion operates. “They gave me the phone numbers of the suppliers, so I called the fabric supplier. No one there spoke English, so it was like, ‘ Oh my god, stress!’ I’d been studying French for only two weeks then so all I could say—in French—was, ‘ Fabric. Princess. I make princess hat. Give fabric.’ I couldn’t understand a thing the person on the other end was saying, probably asking me what kinds of fabric, so I just said, ‘ All fabric. Three meter.’” The same thing happened when she tried to order flowers. “No one spoke English, so I just said, ‘ All camellias.’” The next day, there arrived at her office rolls and rolls of fabric,
lots of flowers, and a bill of 24,000 euros for the former and 14,000 euros for the latter. “I thought I was gonna get fired! It turns out that was normal. That kind of product development cost is nothing, because these big companies have equally big budgets. It’s as first world as fashion gets, the pinnacle of working with all the greats, the flower makers, the pleaters whose works are almost historical.” It was a shock to her, but of a good kind.
But as amazing as it was and as international Dulce’s approach to marketing her work is, she’s still very much tied to home. “Working there, I kept thinking, I’m designing hats using materials from the Philippines, hats that would sell for millions of euros. That doesn’t really tie in with my goal.” And this goal, consistently evident in the projects she’s spearheaded in her career, from 2005’s We Are The Third World postcards project to winning the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur in 2010, is proper global recognition of Filipino resources and creativity. “We’ve been supplying the world with hat-making materials for centuries but there had been no Filipino hat-maker until I became one—and that’s insane to me! The late Alexander McQueen had used piña
calado before any international Filipino designer did, and no one knew the fabric came from the Philippines; they just credited it to the genius of McQueen. So when are we going to use our materials?”
This propelled Dulce to refocus on her own brand. Since July, she has worked closely with the Philippine Textile Research Institute to develop new fabrics and strengthen local industries. She also once again commissioned local weavers and craftsmen for this latest endeavor, explaining, “It’s always been important to me that the core identity of my brand has a social enterprise in the manufacturing sense.” The result is a new collection of hats made with t’nalak (a long-time constant among Dulce’s pieces),
buntal, buri, and the occasional rabbit felt. Streamlined and understated—for Dulce, at least—they also mark her maturing understanding of the business, which is another by-product of her Paris stint. “I used to make hats that I like because I’ve lived in London, I’m obsessed with Japan, my hats were a hit there and in Korea. But when I moved to Paris, it’s like. . . no one’s gonna wear my stuff! I realized I make hats for a specific type of person, i.e. me. Age came with the understanding that while I should do what I want, I also shouldn’t go broke doing that. Now, I don’t design thinking of just myself but also those who won’t wear five million ears on their heads.” Her next project is a small line of hats done in collaboration with The Moldy Peaches’ Adam Green, which will be launched in New York soon.
There are those who think Dulce’s method of promoting Philippine design to the rest of the world is too roundabout to be effective because of her non“Filipino” aesthetic. “They think I’m losing my identity,” she says. “But let’s be honest: ‘ made in the Philippines’ isn’t a product’s selling factor. Now, every stockist who sells my stuff and every person who buys them like what I do—that’s what’s important.” Making globally competitive designs with local means and resources is a process, but Dulce has never been one to shy away from the challenge.