There are a variety of ways to build a fashion brand people want to be a part of, but one of the most surefire routes is through fun. If you can make people laugh and get them to genuinely enjoy themselves, the sales, word-of-mouth recommendations and social media sharing that every brand hopes for will follow naturally. It's this strategy that motivates brands to feature mini-concerts at their shows and send Cheetos down the runway. Pretty is nice, but a combination of surprise and delight may be even better.
And while "fun" isn't necessarily the first word that comes to mind when many people think of the ethical fashion scene, just-launched label Toqa is one of the players poised to change that. Started by a design duo who learned their trade at Telfar and Alexander Wang, the brand brings together humor, club-kid-cool and sustainability to create a label unlike anything in the space.
Toqa's founders Aiala Rickard and Isabel Sicat first met while attending undergrad at RISD. Having both moved to the Northeast after growing up on tropical islands — Rickard is from Hawaii and Sicat hails from the Philippines — immediately gave the two something to bond over as they tried to navigate winter dressing. Before long, a shared aesthetic and a value for challenging the fashion establishment's exclusive focus on Western cities like London and Paris gave birth to the idea for their brand.
"RISD is supposed to be the best art school in the country, but all the critics were always the same type of person from New York or wherever," Sicat says on a call from her hometown in Manila, Philippines, where Toqa is currently based. "There wasn't any diversity in the critiques that we were getting... There is so much cultural capital invested in these Western fashion cities, but no one is paying attention to other equally viable, equally inspiring places like the tropics."
The desire to combat that insularity gave Sicat and Rickard a bold idea: Why not move back to the Philippines together and start a fashion label from there, re-interpreting the stereotype of the "island girl" into something more nuanced, true to their own experiences and appealing to cool kids in cities and on beaches across the globe?
In their first collection, released Saturday as part of Manila's first Biennale, the two made it very clear that their vision of what it means to be an island girl is far from the aloha-shirt-wearing, indigenous-weaving-covered tropes that mainlanders might imagine. Swimwear abounds, sure, but the collection as a whole is more sporty than boho; more sweat-it-out-on-the-dance-floor than white-girl-hashtagging-"wanderlust"-on-Instagram.
"The island girl is someone who is comfortable in her own skin, is the life of the party and who values function," Rickard explains over the phone, laughing at the fact that she and Sicat are both wearing nothing but swimsuits as they chat at the end of a long, humid Manila day. Sometimes, practicality means wearing as little as possible in the heat.
"No shitty tiny pockets that you can't keep your phone in," Sicat adds. "It doesn't speak to a specific age bracket, but more to a youthful spirit." She says that she's no more an island girl than her mom is, or than the older women she and Rickard came across in an outdoor Zumba class near the Manila Bay early one morning.
Still, Sicat and Rickard do seem the perfect embodiment of their brand. Prior to interviewing them, I met up with them twice in Manila. Both times they wore coordinated outfits of their own making and had a tendency to finish each others' sentences and be demonstrably affectionate with one another. But the point isn't their relationship so much as the matrix their relationship creates and invites others into: an aura of casual cool, sexiness that's not incompatible with T-zone sweat, general disregard for traditional relational norms and a healthy combination of business savvy and creative inhibitionlessness.
The duo's tongue-in-cheek humor and inventiveness shines through their first collection at every turn. One fabric has been dyed with Tang (the powdered drink mix), which is popular in the Philippines, while multiple pants feature collar-like fronts that the duo says were inspired by the way the front of your pants flop open when you've eaten too much and need to unzip the fly. The subtle comedy inherent in the clothing was carried through into Toqa's afterparty, which featured gargantuan banana bunches hanging from the ceiling like organic disco balls and cocktails that utilized the aphrodisiac flower "clitoria ternatea," named for — you guessed it — the clitoris.
This comic edge helps the brand transcend language, extending as a kind of bridge between Rickard and Sicat and the new Filipino friends they're making who might have learned English as a second language. And the unique combination of funny and sexy — combining food-baby-appropriate pants with slinky backless swimwear — is reminiscent of downtown brands like Eckhaus Latta, Vaquera and Barragán that have revitalized New York's own young design scene on the other side of the world.
That every item in Toqa's collection was made from deadstock fabric makes both business sense — it's cheaper to buy fabric leftovers — and sustainability sense. Though they look more at home amongst the denizens of Manila's creative underground than they might amongst its environmental advocates, Sicat and Rickard insist that being aware of their carbon footprint is deeply important to them.
"When you're from a tropical place, you see the effects of global warming much more violently and immediately than you do elsewhere," Sicat explains. "Having it be so tangible in our own backyard made it an imperative for us."
"You can see the development happen before your eyes in just a couple of years, in a bad way," Rickard adds. "I think we have a responsibility."
With waste management in mind, the designers not only relied on recycled deadstock fabric for their first collection, but also sewed all of their scraps together to create a patchwork-like fabric that appears in the collection and even in the oversized seating the designers made for their afterparty (which was also stuffed with recycled material). Though this meticulous scrap-saving can be time-intensive, Sicat and Rickard can't imagine doing it any other way.
"It's very much a part of how we conduct our lives," Sicat says. "We hate wasting shit, we hate not using something to the fullest extent. Every cut is an opportunity for something new."
So what's next for the brand after its first collection? The designers have been in communication with a potential investor in the U.S. after self-funding their first show. They have dreams of relocating, at least short-term, to Hawaii for a future collection, to draw more heavily from Rickard's roots after spending a season leaning on Sicat's. An e-commerce site is coming soon, too. And while they're committed to using deadstock for the foreseeable future, the designers are open to finding other scalable environmentally-friendly fabrics as their line evolves.
"The ultimate driving force is showing people that there is an alternative," Sicat says. "You can situate sustainable high fashion in a tropical country that isn't 'developed.'"