MANILA, Philippines – On December 10, veteran journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa made history as the first Filipino to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
While in Oslo to take part in Nobel week events, she represented the best of what the Philippines has to offer in every way – including clothing. When she delivered a speech at the Nobel Peace Prize awarding ceremony, she literally wore the Philippines on her shoulders, donning a silvery-gray blazer in an eye-catching geometric pattern.
The blazer was made by Nina Inabel, a Filipino brand that works with the weavers of Ilocos to make designs that honor Filipino culture.
Nina Inabel founder Niña Corpuz shared that the fabric they used for the blazer is called binakul – a textile design native to Ilocos – and it was extra special because it was created as part of the Pinto Art Museum Collection.
“Museum owner Dr. Joven Cuanang asked the weavers to use organic cotton from the farm in Pinili, Ilocos Norte. His idea was to use the natural color of the cotton so the thread was not dyed. This made it different from the typical bright and contrasting colors of binakul. Since the fabric we used was undyed, even people familiar with inabel will be surprised to see the subdued color which makes it really natural and organic,” she told Rappler in an email interview.
“When I saw it on Maria while she was delivering her lecture, I was quite emotional. Her message was so powerful and inspiring, and the blazer complemented her very well onstage. The binakul design was striking but at the same time subtle because of the natural color of the fabric,” she said.
Dressed by Filipinos
That blazer was just one piece out of a full wardrobe designed and made by Filipinos. Nina Inabel made three other blazers for Maria, including the black blazer she wore to a press conference and a hologram recording for the Nobel archives.
“Can you imagine, a piece of our Filipino history with Maria in the archives…forever!” Niña said.
Two of the blazers were made in the Pinilian design – made in Ilocos Sur and described by Niña as “a brocade-like weave that features designs that seem to ‘float,’ giving it an embossed texture.”
The other two blazers – including the one Maria wore for her Nobel lecture – featured a psychedelic pattern called kusikus, meaning whirlwind. Niña explained that the pattern “represents the waves of the sea since these were used as sails during the Galleon Trade.”
“In the old days, it was meant to protect the user by confusing ‘evil spirits’ – maybe the kind of protection Maria also needs!” she said with a laugh.
Niña, a journalist herself, shared that she was “super kilig (giddy) to see something I made with local weavers and sewers up on stage for the world to see.”
“The fact that she wore a piece of Filipino culture and chose inabel at that was a clear statement of support for all the weavers and people who champion local, sustainable products,” she said.
Pieces by another local brand Filip + Inna also made their way to Norway, including some of their ready-to-wear items and two custom pieces: a Tboli-embroidered opera jacket worn by Maria to the royal visit, and an intricate piña terno she wore to the Nobel banquet – a design Filip + Inna calls “the Ressa terno.”
For the brand’s founder Len Cabili, dressing Maria for Nobel week was “a dream come true.”
“When she won the Nobel Prize, I had briefly mentioned to my Mama how I would love for her to wear Filip + Inna,” she told Rappler via email. “It was quite special to see our pieces on a global stage and for a very special occasion – the first Filipina Nobel Laureate.”
The opera coat Len had designed added a touch of elegance to Maria’s day-to-day no-nonsense attire. She said the embroidery was inspired by the T’boli traditions of nisif (embroidery) and binswit (beadwork) using shell beads. The piece itself was embroidered and beaded by hand by the T’boli artisans of Lake Sebu.
As for the Ressa terno – the design came about as a way to match Maria’s style while also working within a four-week deadline. Len shared that they chose the terno because it was “a visual icon for Philippine fashion” – which worked for the banquet’s “national garb” dress code.
“We had this terno coat that for years has been hanging in our sample closet, I had taken it out some months back, thinking I needed to work on it. When we presented it to Maria, she liked it and it fitted her as if it was made for her,” she shared.
They then made some minor adjustments to the design and added piña (pineapple) fabric on top of the terno’s raw silk base, as well as embroidery inspired by the architectural details of the San Sebastian church.
“We wanted a classic look on her and we were happy with how it turned out,” she said.
‘Farm to fabric to fashion’
To see Filipino-designed and Filipino-crafted clothes worn on the world stage at a historic event is quite the moment for both Niña and Len, who started their brands to champion Philippine fashion and textiles.
Niña started Nina Inabel in 2017, as she sought out clothes for her daughters that represented their culture. Inabel is Ilocos’ weaving tradition, and Niña wanted to use cotton inabel fabric from her hometown in designs that were comfortable and wearable.
After her daughter’s clothes were spotted online by the Pinto Art Museum’s director, she was able to collaborate with another Ilocano designer using inabel, and after a few fashion shows and exhibits, she had more and more people asking her to make clothes for their kids using the fabric.
Several years later and Niña now has a happy client base and, perhaps more importantly, proud weavers who have found the enthusiasm to keep the inabel tradition going.
“The weavers are filled with pride to see all these celebrities, models, professionals, and personalities wear their hard work. They are now more excited to create inabel because they see that there is a demand for it. Hopefully it will encourage the younger generation to take up the craft so the tradition does not die,” Niña said.
Niña shared that their clothes help support not only the weavers but also the cotton farmers, from whom they source their material.
“By buying from small businesses like us who source directly from weavers, you’re also helping provide livelihood for communities and families. We not only promote weaving but also cotton farming. Dr. Cuanang, whom I work with, has helped a community transform from planting tobacco to planting organic cotton. From two hectares, there are now 50 hectares of cotton farm in Pinili, Ilocos Norte, which also uses a solar-based irrigation system,” she shared.
Niña added, “He calls the work that we do ‘from farm to fabric to fashion,’ and the dream is to make a sustainable livelihood for the farmers and weavers by giving value to the art and craft of inabel.”
Sharing culture through craftsmanship
Like Niña, Len works directly with Filipino artisans, who do weaving, embroidery, and beadwork for her designs. She started Filip + Inna in 2008, a time when there was little interest in the kind of clothes she designed.
She initially sold her clothes to international clients first. Locally, she found an early client in actress-turned-politician Leyte 4th District Representative Lucy Torres-Gomez.
“It was through word of mouth that we started to sell here in the Philippines,” Len shared. Little by little, her Filipino client base grew.
“We are very grateful for each and everyone who continues to support Filip + Inna and our work with the Filipino artisans. It is hard to please the hometown crowd, so every sale or order from the Filipino consumer is a building block of the brand,” she added.
Beyond supporting local economies, Len underlined that slow, artisanal fashion is also a vehicle for culture to be passed on.
“The work of the hands engages all the five senses throughout the creative process as the artisans breathes life into it. They share their culture through their craftsmanship to show the desire to do the best of what they are capable of creating. It is made respecting the time needed to create, not in a hurried way,” she said. “There is a shift now to putting the right value on something that is handmade because it lasts, and the story behind it makes it even more valuable.”
Len shared that she recently wore a pair of pants from Filip + Inna’s first collection 13 years ago – an example of how handmade clothes stand the test of time.
“Artisanal fashion has depth that encourages you to keep it. In a world of globalization, when it is all about speed and quantity, we prefer to focus on quality because we want our pieces to be handed down through generations,” she said. – Rappler.com