When Carl Jan Cruz finished his internship at Phoebe Philo-era Céline and packed his bags for his hometown of Manila, far from the industry connections he had forged in Europe, he knew he was taking a big risk. But he dreamed of doing something other than climbing the ranks of an already-established house. Cruz had a different plan: to start a brand of his own that could bring together the skills and luxury sensibility he picked up at Céline with his uniquely Filipino roots.
Three years later, that's exactly what Cruz's eponymous label showcases. His elegantly undone pieces have already attracted an intensely loyal following amongst the Filipino fashion set and been worn on the red carpet by FKA Twigs. Now, Cruz is beginning to pursue the global market in earnest with a seasonal showroom at Paris Fashion Week and a newly-inked deal with Maryam Nassir Zadeh as his first American stockist.
"I really see it as a global thing," Cruz tells me the first time we meet. We're sitting in his showroom in Manila, the city we both grew up in, flanked by potted plants and attended by an intern from Australia who first found Cruz's work via Instagram. "But then, you can't really have strong external ammunition without having a great core, and our core is really rooted here."
Part of that core flows naturally from Cruz's habit of referencing Filipino visual motifs in a way that feels recognizable to natives, without compromising universal appeal. His "Khudah" dress, for example, borrows a construction technique from the rags sold in Filipino open-air markets, while the delicate organza used elsewhere in his collection calls to mind the "barong," a part of the country's national dress that was traditionally made from pineapple fibers. They're references any Philippines-raised fashion fan would catch, but they're a far cry from the crafty weavings that "Filipino design" is so often reduced to. Most cosmopolitan Manila-dwellers, after all, don't dress primarily in tribal-looking weavings even if they do like the idea of shopping local.
"I remember standing on top of a friend's building, looking over the rooftops in Poblacion [an area in downtown Manila] and thinking, 'I can see [his] clothing in this patchwork,'" emerging Filipino designer Isabel Sicat of Toqa tells me via email. "For me, that's why his work is so good, and a reason to rally behind it."
Considering that the World Bank declared the Filipino economy one of the fastest-growing in Asia at the start of 2018, Cruz's local market is nothing to scoff at. But as much as his pieces make sense in Manila, they're just as eye-catching in other major cities. There's a clear appeal for Filipino-Americans, who now comprise one-fifth of all Asian Americans, according to the New York Times, but you of course don't have to be Filipino at all to love Cruz's clothes. Fashion entrepreneur Annette Lasala Spillane of jewelry brand Tara once told me off-handedly that she can barely leave her apartment in New York wearing Carl Jan Cruz jeans without someone stopping her to ask where they're from. And Carnelia Garcia, retail director and buyer at Maryam Nassir Zadeh, says she knew immediately that Cruz's work belonged in MNZ's carefully curated New York store.
"His work is just beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent and spoke to us right away," Garcia says via email. "His point of view and direction is fresh."
If his aesthetic references are one part of what makes Cruz's visual language compelling, another part is pure process. Cruz has been developing his own textiles with a Filipino mill since he was a design student at the London College of Fashion, and he still manufactures all the brand's pieces at an in-house atelier. As a result, Cruz's collections tend to look more personal, like they've been touched by human hands rather than spit out by a row of unfeeling machines.
These hands-on methods also lend Cruz greater credibility in a fashion climate increasingly attuned to the ethics of production and sourcing. Though Cruz is hesitant to claim the label "environmentally sustainable" for his brand, one of his first internships as a teen was with an eco-friendly Filipino brand that used natural dyes, and he's clearly mindful about his impact.
"I think resourcefulness is one of the most sustainable things that I could do," he says. "I just work around what we have, and at least make things that will last for my own lifetime."
The last noteworthy element of the brand is perhaps the hardest to pin down, but one of the most crucial: Carl Jan Cruz has created a bona fide scene. Just as New York's self-described "young art hoes" flock to Eckhaus Latta shows or Telfar parties, Manila's coolest creatives inevitably end up in Cruz's orbit.
"He's an inspiration to young fashion designers to always think global, but act local," explains Manila-based stylist and international fashion week fixture Liz Uy via email. "He also stands for and with young Filipino talent... everyone has been clamoring to be part of his #carljancrewz." (That's the hashtag Cruz uses to track pictures of the cool kids who wear his clothes and run in his posse.) Everyone in the know wants to be associated with him, even if, at 26, he's not a household name yet.
Kim Cam Jones, a Manila-based creative who regularly collaborates with global brands like Louis Vuitton, is another of Cruz's ardent admirers (and frequent customers, opting to buy his pieces for herself even as she's flooded with offers of free product from other brands). She hints that part of Cruz's appeal for Filipinos — whether they live in the Philippines or abroad — is that he's uncovering roots that were buried by colonialism and an undue glorification of Western culture.
"[He has his] sights set on highlighting the Philippines as a legitimate and core reference point for design, given our geography and rich history," Jones says via Instagram DM.
But through his new partnership with Maryam Nassir Zadeh, a retailer beloved by the likes of international stars like Solange, Cruz is ready to prove that his clothing can indeed transcend the culture that birthed it. And if it doesn't? He's not too worried.
"If this doesn't all work out, or if I know it's all going to shit, I'll stop. I'll go back to the employment mill," Cruz says earnestly. "But for now it surprises me how the company keeps growing organically. I started with just one person and me. It feels nice that our table gets fuller every year."