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.” •

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