Mich Dulce re­turns home

Fash­ion de­signer and fem­i­nist Mich Dulce talks about mov­ing back home and form­ing her Gr­rrl Gang


“Yes, I’m back!” chirps Mich Dulce, con­firm­ing that she’s of­fi­cially stay­ing put in Manila af­ter years of trav­el­ing back and forth from London and, most re­cently, from Paris, where the peri­patetic milliner and de­signer was based for the last three years.

Work­ing be­side her de­sign he­roes and hav­ing her name­sake brand dis­trib­uted glob­ally and worn by celebrity style­set­ters like Anna Dello Russo, Leighton Meester, and Lady Gaga, Dulce seemed to be liv­ing the dream. “But there came a point where I was like, ‘ Ayoko na.’ Grow­ing up, I al­ways wanted to go places, do things, meet peo­ple, hang out with ev­ery­one I wanted to… but at 35, I reached a point where I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve done all that.’ I loved my life abroad, but cre­atively, I re­ally didn’t have the space to do what I wanted.”

It was a re­al­iza­tion that crept up on her as she was pre­par­ing for her de­cep­tively de­mure and de­li­ciously fem­i­nist art ex­hibit at Fi­nale Art File a few years back. “My team is here, my stu­dio is here, and that got me think­ing: do I want to be [trav­el­ing] all over the world, or do I want to cre­ate things? And Manila is the place where I could have the space and be most cre­ative.”

Back to Clas­sics

While she con­tin­ues to grow her brand in­ter­na­tion­ally, com­ing home al­lows her to fo­cus on projects close to her heart. “I was work­ing on hats for the last five years that I missed de­sign­ing clothes. And I love clothes!” But don’t ex­pect her sig­na­ture drape-y de­signs that are be­lat­edly all the rage. “I was ahead of my time. I would prob­a­bly make so much money if I made them now.” In­stead, she’s turned to vin­tage shapes. “I’ve be­come more clas­sic—a word I never thought I’d say!”

Yet her foray into pe­riod corsetry and her own evolv­ing per­sonal style fore­told this re­turn. “As I grow older, I’ve learned to dress for my fig­ure,” Dulce says. “I’ve al­ways loved the vin­tage look, and now that’s the di­rec­tion my de­signs are headed.” Along­side bridal­wear and be­spoke pieces, she will also be do­ing cap­sule col­lec­tions ev­ery sea­son, start­ing in Septem­ber. Clients can visit her ate­lier and or­der from a lookbook. “Each piece will be made-to-mea­sure, very old-school.”

A style icon who has al­ways marched to the beat of her own drum, Dulce de­plores fast fash­ion and cham­pi­ons sus­tain­abil­ity. “Two things I’m pas­sion­ate about are fem­i­nism and cli­mate change. I feel there’s a re-ed­u­ca­tion in fash­ion, that lux­ury doesn’t mean buy­ing a lot; that it means buy­ing qual­ity. So I try to cre­ate things that are well-made and will last long.” She de­lib­er­ately uses sus­tain­able and eth­i­cal Filipino raw ma­te­ri­als and com­bines them with tra­di­tional Euro­pean millinery tech­niques to cre­ate ex­quis­ite pieces that show­case Filipino her­itage and crafts­man­ship. “I’d like peo­ple to wear my pieces un­til they’re sira-sira na.”

Gr­rrl Power

Mov­ing back home also meant she could now flesh out a dream pro­ject: to cre­ate a safe, non-judg­men­tal space for women to talk about their is­sues, a sup­port­ive so­ci­ety known as Gr­rrl Gang.

“Ev­ery­one seems to be shocked about Gr­rrl Gang, say­ing, ‘Huh, hindi ka na­man fem­i­nist dati,’

but I’ve al­ways been one,” she ex­plains. In­spired by em­pow­er­ing riot gr­rrl bands, she formed her own band Death by Tam­pon—her orig­i­nal girl gang—to speak out against the pa­tri­archy, misog­yny, and gen­der in­equal­ity. Her own tough-as-nails mom serves as her fem­i­nist muse. “My dad died when I was five, and she raised me on her own. She’s a pow­er­house who made things hap­pen by her­self.”

If Dulce thought she was es­cap­ing the small­mind­ed­ness of “Filipino guys mak­ing pakialam the color of our kili-kili or our dark knees,” in Paris, she ex­pe­ri­enced ha­rass­ment cou­pled with racism on a daily ba­sis. “There was a guy who took out his dick right in front of me in the metro and I couldn’t scream for fear of be­ing judged,” she re­calls. “An­other time, I was called a slut by girls—yes, girls!—for wear­ing a low­cut top. I’m sure they wouldn’t have said a thing if I were white.” She even­tu­ally found her tribe at var­i­ous meets and em­pow­er­ing women’s fes­ti­vals around the world. “But while march­ing against Don­ald Trump in New York, I thought to my­self, why I am do­ing this here, when we have our own misog­y­nis­tic leader back home?” With so many ac­tivist friends do­ing amaz­ing things, she won­dered, “Should I join my voice with theirs? Or should I be my own force, in my own cir­cle?” Re­al­iz­ing that her voice was big­ger in Manila, Dulce re­solved to chan­nel her ef­forts into af­fect­ing change in her own coun­try.

“In our cul­ture, there are so many fem­i­nist is­sues that are uniquely our own. We’re so far be­hind—we [have lim­ited ac­cess to] birth con­trol. My sew­ers [are against the use of ] con­doms be­cause it goes against the Catholic church,” she says in frus­tra­tion. “When you think of ac­tivism in the Philip­pines, there’s this

con­ser­va­tive, eli­tist mind­set. ‘ Why do we need to take things to the streets?’ But th­ese things af­fect you, re­gard­less of your so­cial class. Peo­ple think that we don’t need fem­i­nism, but al­most ev­ery­one has an ex­pe­ri­ence [with sex­ism], and there are so many sto­ries of girls who are afraid to speak out.”

The cat­a­lyst for form­ing Gr­rrl Gang was when Dulce de­cided to freeze her eggs and share her ex­pe­ri­ence on Face­book. “The guy I was dat­ing at the time got up­set when I posted my de­ci­sion on so­cial me­dia. He said I shouldn’t have posted that pub­licly, but I was like, this is my de­ci­sion, my fer­til­ity, and my body. I feel strongly about be­ing able to post what I want, es­pe­cially if it can lead to a dis­cus­sion that can help oth­ers. No one re­ally talks about freez­ing their eggs here.” Her in­dig­na­tion, com­pounded by her in­se­cu­ri­ties, lone­li­ness, and ex­treme mood swings due to the hor­mone treat­ment for the pro­ce­dure, made her long for good old girl bond­ing. “I needed to talk to women who could un­der­stand what I was go­ing through. And I re­al­ized that in the Philip­pines, there’s re­ally no space to talk about women’s is­sues, un­less the peo­ple are al­ready your friends. In our cul­ture, there’s a lot of re­pres­sion, a lot of sham­ing.”

When she knew she was com­ing home, she plot­ted with fem­i­nist friends—Marla Darwin, Claire Vil­la­corta, and Earnest Za­bala—to hatch Gr­rrl Gang. “We also had a lot of help from vol­un­teer groups. So Gr­rrl Gang is not just me. It’s [we], it’s ev­ery­one who is a part of it.”

At their first Gr­rrl Gang meet, is­sues ranged from daily misog­yny and gen­der bias to gy­ne­col­o­gists slut-sham­ing pa­tients. “Among the at­ten­dees, there were girls who were sex­u­ally ha­rassed and had no space to talk about it.” Dulce abruptly pauses, say­ing, “Wait, nai­iyak ako.” From is­sues of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence to rape, Gr­rrl Gang aims to cre­ate a space where women are not vic­tims but are just peo­ple re­lat­ing to each other, bond­ing in the flesh. And be­cause they’re not just “all talk,” the group ac­tively seeks so­lu­tions to women’s con­cerns. For ex­am­ple, they hope to help each other nav­i­gate a le­gal sys­tem that clearly isn’t pro-women. An­other pro­ject is to bring in a group of psy­chol­o­gists for those in need of coun­sel­ing.

It’s an am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing, but Dulce is en­thu­si­as­tic about Gr­rrl Gang’s goal of em­pow­er­ing one girl at a time, her­self in­cluded. “Fem­i­nism is re­ally about cre­at­ing change within your­self, and cre­at­ing so­cial change in your own place and in your own man­ner, which­ever way you can.”

Gr­rrl Gang Manila. Face­book.com/gr­rrl­gang­manila. Instagram.com/gr­rrl­gang­manila.

Ta­ble and vase, both Hay, De­sign Story, Uptown BGC.

Hat, Mich Dulce, Mich­dulce.com. Vin­tage dress, Mich’s own. Heels, Chanel, Mich’s own. Rug and vase, both Hay, De­sign Story, Uptown Mall BGC. Mich Dulce’s first foray in fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture was The Riot Gr­rrl Col­lec­tion.

Cover photo by Regine David

Hats, all Mich Dulce, Mich­dulce.com.

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