Martha Rodriguez, the founder of social enterprise Vesti, wants Filipinos to see the Mindanao that they do not get to see in national headlines.
Rodriguez’s company proudly designs and sells handbags made from handwoven Mindanaoan textiles. Through Vesti’s handbags, she aims to showcase the beauty and culture of Mindanao, which, she learned during her youth, is generally not what first comes to mind with Filipinos from other regions.
Ambassador for Mindanao
According to Rodriguez, she moved to Manila when she was 14 for high school. When she told her classmates that she was from Cagayan de Oro, an urbanized and capital city in Mindanao, they immediately questioned whether she was a criminal or even whether she would behead them.
Such reactions, even if said in jest from teenagers, do not seem that extreme when you take into consideration the general associations that Filipinos have with the region.
“Mindanao is often depicted as a place of danger, insecurity, hate, and chaos, especially now with the recent Mamasapano tragedy, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and heated debates on the Basic Bangsamoro Law,” she said.
Rodriguez, then, sees herself as a kind of ambassador for Mindanao. Her platform just happens to be entrepreneurship.
“Through Vesti, I want to show the world that Mindanao is in fact an island of beauty, an island brimming of magnificent cities with so much to offer,” she said. “I will fight for my Mindanao.”
A dying craft
Rodriguez, chose handwoven fabrics to help promote Mindanao because she views them as a jumping-off point into a much broader discussion.
“We see them in home furnishings, as an accent pillowcase or a table runner, but if we create something greater than just that, it becomes the conversation – it connects it to our heritage and the arts,” Rodriguez said.
Unfortunately, the handweaving that goes into making the textiles used for Vesti products is a dying craft. The young women who are usually weavers now prefer to work in urban cities, where the pay is more accessible and fixed.
To encourage and retain the weavers who partner with Vesti, Rodriguez shows them the bags that were made out of their textiles. Doing so gives them a sense of pride and belonging.
“There is a need to show them how important they are as these textiles form our identity, our past, and our future,” Rodriguez said, adding that she also assures them of Vesti’s plans to help them escape poverty.
Other areas in the Philippines also have their signature textiles. Luzon, for example, has inabel, while Kalinga and the Visayas has hinabol.
Rodriguez said that what differentiates Mindanaoan textiles is the focus on patterns, texture, and color. “Take the T’nalak and you will see its intricacies that the patterns were sent to the weavers in a dream,” she said. (READ: Lang Dulay, national living treasure)
Customers seem to agree with Rodriguez. Launched in October 2011, Vesti began by offering its handbags in bazaars and stores. It now exhibits at Manila FAME and even exports its products to other countries in Asia and North America.
The Vesti team has also developed a line of footwear and apparel like scarves and shawls. Rodriguez eventually wants to expand into home furnishings or furniture as well. “Of course, the Mindanao weaves will always be the hero of our designs,” she said.
A connection with Mindanao
Rodriguez has a very specific profile of who her target demographic is. “Vesti customers are women who have a strong sense of who she is: a conscious style of her own and never copied, an attitude of independence, and a character of a well-traveled person,” she shared.
These women buy Vesti products out of a sense of personal connection. “I hear from them that it reminds them of their childhood memories or their houses filled with Mindanao textiles,” she said. “It gives them a piece of Mindanao and that is what I want them to have.”
As the company continues to grow, Rodriguez continues to remain focused on helping the weavers at the heart of Vesti. The company is now working to restore and revive Mindanao Silk in Laguindingan, Misamis Oriental.
Mindanao Silk used to be an abandoned weaving house back in the 1990s. Vesti is renovating it in partnership with Department of Science and Technlogy – Philippine Textile Research Institute. Free weaving seminars will be given there to the youth, and Vesti will market these fabrics to their buyers.
Rodriguez admitted that she has her work cut out for her with this project. “It’ll be quite a long run but it’s worth the effort,” she said. “I always take a leap of faith and I believe this is just the beginning of what is to come.” – Rappler.com
Rappler Business columnist Ezra Ferraz is also the chief content officer at ZipMatch, a tech company backed by Ideaspace Foundation, Hatchd Digital, IMJ Investment Partners, and 500 Startups. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Connect with him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz