Fashion has long had an obsession with "dressing like a French girl," but the truth is that Paris isn't the only city with seriously stylish residents. In our column "International It Girl," we celebrate our fashion inspirations from all over the world. Next up? The Philippines.
Answering the question "Where are you from?" has never come easily to me. Depending on the day, I might say something like, "I live in Brooklyn," or "I went to school outside Chicago," or "I'm an American citizen but I grew up overseas." The slightly longer but more accurate answer, though, is that the Philippines is where I spent the majority of my life before the age of 18, and Manila is always going to feel like my hometown. I just don't always answer that way because I'm trying to avoid an "if you're from the Philippines, why are you white?" situation.
Growing up in Manila had a formative impact on my priorities and personality in about a million ways, not least of which was how I engage with fashion. The city is known for having "uneven development," which means that extreme wealth and extreme poverty exist simultaneously — sometimes less than a block apart. The wealth end of that spectrum meant that I was exposed to a truly global view of fashion via the expat community, even before the days of social media. My friends from Norway or Korea or wherever would come back from summer break with new clothes from their countries of origin, and we pooled inspiration in a way that broadened all of our style horizons.
On the other hand, the poverty end of the spectrum meant that extreme need was in our faces every day. I'm sure driving through a slum on my way to and from school every day for 12 years has something to do with the fact that I'm so committed to ethical fashion. Making purchasing choices that ignore the people who are most disadvantaged by the injustices inherent in our current social and economic system is a lot harder when you know those people's faces.
Regardless of whether they're rich or poor, one thing that's true of most Filipinos is that they value dressing up. Whether they're headed to the mall or church or the grocery store, Filipinos are unlikely to step out of the house looking like slobs. Perhaps that's why, despite being a tiny country that's not necessarily considered a global "fashion capital," the Philippines has still turned out so many fashion-forward women who influence style in Asia and beyond (including my coworker Maria here at Fashionista!). Read on to get acquainted with a few of my favorites.
Annette Lasala Spillane
As the founder of TARA, Annette Lasala Spillane is putting the best of Filipino design in the international spotlight with a label that's been called "the Legos of fine jewelry" for its unique ability to build on itself. But she's not stopping there with her impact: She's also working with local nonprofits and using her brand to provide opportunities for Filipino artisans.
Spillane spends most of her time in the U.S. these days, but she asserts that growing up in matricentric Filipino society emboldened her to wear whatever she wants. "I think Filipinos have a penchant for what's 'bongga' (extravagant) so there seems to always be that statement piece that becomes the focal point of the outfit," she says in an email, but adds that "because it's a pretty conservative and discreet society… it's a restrained extravagance."
DJ King Marie
Christine Marie Ventura Borda, or "King Marie" as she's known in the DJ world, was raised by immigrant parents in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, where she's currently based. Despite growing up in the U.S., King Marie feels deeply connected to her Pinay heritage. She has multiple tattoos related to the country and cites her parents' influence — and growing up in a Filipino community in Chicago — as having an impact on how she thinks about music and her own sexy-meets-streetwear style.
"My mother was a singer and entertainer, so she always had elaborate gowns for when she performed," King Marie tells Fashionista. "Many were the 'terno' or 'Maria Clara' gowns [traditional dresses] with butterfly sleeves. I designed a modern version for my cotillion... I wasn't required to have a traditional gown, but it was important for me to stay true to my culture and to also make it my own."
Kim Cam Jones
The Filipino-British model and blogger grew up in Australia before moving to the Philippines to become a TV host and eventually marry well-loved Filipino actor Jericho Rosales. Since then, she's become a fashion icon in her own right who's appeared in WWD, L'Officiel, The Coveteur and who counts Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs as clients.
Jones has also made a habit of styling pieces from young Filipino designers in outfits alongside global brands, making her a bit of a champion for up-and-coming designers like Bea Samson and JL Javier. "Having this platform and audience [with which] to share is one of the greatest tools of our generation and should be utilized beyond frivolity," she wrote on her blog earlier this year.
Lhuillier's fashion label is best known for its ultra-femme bridal wear, but her gowns have seen plenty of red carpets, too. Frequently worn by celebs like Kristen Stewart, Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyoncé, there's no question that Lhuillier has firmly established herself as a favorite among Hollywood and music industry darlings.
Her history may not be as well-known as her dresses, but Lhuillier comes from a well-to-do family on the Filipino island of Cebu, and has mixed French, Spanish and Filipino heritage. She frequently returns to the Philippines for vacation with her husband (and Monique Lhuillier CEO) Tom, along with their two children.
As the blogger and #influencer behind Grey Layers, Jeanne Grey's pared-down color palette and dreamy travel shots have gained her an international following. But spending time in gorgeous spots all over the world hasn't dulled her love for Iloilo, the seaside province in the Philippines where she was raised.
With a fashion and textile designer for a mom, it's perhaps unsurprising that Grey has pursued a career in blogging. "I still combine [my mom's] timeless pieces into my wardrobe, though she no longer practices," Grey notes. "I think the pineapple cloth known as 'piña' that she helped reintroduce should be continued and embraced more often."
Whether you recognize Liz Uy's name, you may recognize her face. As a street-style fixture at fashion weeks around the world, Uy is a favorite of photographers like Scott Schuman, Adam Katz-Sinding and the late Bill Cunningham. Formerly an editor at Esquire Philippines and Preview, Uy now works as a stylist and digital curator at Style Singapore in addition to appearing on E! Asia's reality TV show "It Girls."
For Uy, fashion media runs in the blood: Her sister Laureen is a fashion blogger with a notable following and her brother Vince is the creative director of the Filipino editions of Town & Country, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and more.
Stacey and Danah Gutierrez
For a long time, being called "mataba" (or fat) in the Philippines wasn't necessarily an insult. In a developing country, having enough to eat was considered a sign of prosperity and wellness that was often meant as a compliment, especially in lower-income settings. But as globalization has flooded the Philippines with images of the beauty ideals of the West — which usually include skinny, light-skinned women — so too have the body and skin-color issues of the West begun infiltrating the Philippines.
Twin sisters Stacey and Danah Gutierrez have stepped up to combat some of that by starting the first dedicated body-positive publication in the Philippines with their digital magazine Plump. The twins are outspoken about curviness and skin-lightening, in addition to a host of other body-politics issues. "I think it's crazy that we try to lighten our color when it's only natural to have sun-kissed skin living in the tropics," Danah says. "I'm naturally fair, and most girls [here] compliment that, but I think morena skin rocks. I wish more Filipinas embraced their color."