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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Philippines

© PressReader. All rights reserved.