Mai Mai Cojuangco is no longer the It Girl you once knew
For Mai Mai Cojuangco, change came to her for the better
“I never thought of myself as an It Girl. It was flattering but [that title] doesn’t make one great. You don’t necessarily feel empowered just because people think you dress well. In the end, everything really has to come from how you feel.”
Mai Mai Cojuangco comes to the RED cover shoot with a simple grace that’s particularly hers: confident but not overbearing, warm without being too familiar. The charm she displayed when everyone first fell in love with her and her sisters in a clothing campaign back in the ’90s is still there. But seeing her doesn’t feel like a throwback or like an old memory coming to life; who Cojuangco is now tells of a different story, a different version of her.
She recalls how back then, it wasn’t always like this. Despite being given the enviable title of It Girl, Cojuangco had reservations about the recognition. “I never thought of myself as an It Girl. It was flattering but [that title] doesn’t make one great. You don’t necessarily feel empowered just because people think you dress well. In the end, everything really has to come from how you feel.”
Life is definitely much different now. A mom of a seven-year-old and a graphic designer with an app and a startup company under her belt, Cojuangco speaks with a certain wisdom that belies her still youthful glow. “For women, the older we become, the clearer it is that we need to fight [for ourselves] more than ever. We regret not having spoken up about ourselves or what we wanted more of before. We just become more established as women with age.”
Some things have remained the same, though, like her effortless style. In her white shirt, trousers, and lived-in sneakers, yet with fine details such as a Jul B. Dizon necklace and a Chanel Classic handbag (which contains an agenda full of scribbles and designs and “a lot of lipstick, because I change my mind about my lipstick throughout the day”), Cojuangco looks relaxed. Her style advice, given the flood of images on social media, isn’t about copying a person look per look. “There isn’t any specific person that [makes me] really say, ‘I want to wear that,’ or ‘I’m gonna buy that because I like the way it looks on her, so now I want it too.’ I like the ease of how a person wears an outfit.”
It’s all about attitude for her, apparent in how she speaks of her work and the anecdotes she shares to prove her point. Her newest venture, a handbag collection launched in collaboration with Idée, gets her the most excited these days. She relates how she would go back and forth between Italian warehouses, the studies she did, the years it took for her to finally say she’s a handbag designer. “I’m proud to say that when I went to the artisans of this handbag line, we understood that we had the same lingo. We had the same language because I also worked [on learning] it.”
In school, Cojuangco worked her way up under close supervision. “It’s worth noting that the fashion school [I went to] was really more for a general course. It wasn’t the factor that led me to this knowledge that I have today. One of the best, if not the best, education I had was at the
“I’m not this luxury girl. I’m completely the opposite of that.”
state-sponsored school that I went to for modelleria, which is the study of artisanal handbag-making. We were only 14 students, with three teachers. We learned how to cut leather. That was the best formal schooling I had, more than the usual fashion school that’s like two hours of cutting and sewing.”
Cojuangco considers this experience important because it taught her the value of giving work her highest consideration and a personal touch; she shudders at the thought of not earning her keep. One of the struggles she faced in the process of developing her bag line was figuring out the right thickness for the handle for one of her designs, and this led to discussions with the warehouse staff on certain techniques that might tear the leather. “As opposed to just drawing a bag and saying, ‘I drew it,’ I respected the process and totally recognized that it takes decades and decades of experience. You don’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m a handbag-maker.’”
The product of all of this work is Demetria, which also happens to be Cojuangco’s second name that she had gotten from her grandmother and now passed on to her daughter. “In a way, I wanted to use my name in the beginning, but it’s complicated. I also want my daughter there, hence Demetria.” Even the process of naming her newest venture connotes how Cojuangco has evolved. Demetria, both as a label and a design collection, is part of how she identifies herself, at least in her comeback to Manila’s scene.
As for why she left in the first place, she says it was about going out of a predictable cycle. “I just wanted to get away from what felt like a box. I just wanted to see the world. I decided to leave, which not many people would do because they are scared to leave.” What she has learned during her time away is more than what a write-up or a bag could encompass, but for Cojuangco, the turnaround was also a surprise. “My younger self would probably say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I could be like this,’” she says, referring to her current life.
It took 20 years for her to acknowledge with confidence that she’s a designer. Is there another change in the works? “I’ll never stop being creative,” Cojuangco confirms without giving much away. A workaholic who claims that she doesn’t stop even on weekends, she adds, “I’m not this luxury girl. I’m completely the opposite of that.”
She also admits to constant worrying because it gives her more reason not to stop, for her to grow. “This handbag thing, you never know how it’s going to turn out. To be honest, I’m just grateful. But I’m already thinking of what I want to do next, how to do it next. There’s never a time when I just think, ‘Good job, Mai. Good job.’ No. The bags sold out, so I was in church today to say, ‘ Thank you,’ but I’m already thinking how to make the next one better.” •