FROM living and working in Milan and Los Angeles, Filipina American accessories designer Carol de Leon packed everything up in favor of Manila this past fall.
A big question about her reverse migration that friends and industry colleagues have asked her is, ‘why?’ De Leon has worked as a shoe designer for brands in Italy and Los Angeles since the 1990s, and started her own successful lines that have been sold in major retails like Nordstrom and Bloomingdales.
However, the overconsumption in the fast fashion industry has shifted her focus to more handcrafted, small-batch designs and products using materials from her native Philippines and training future designers to have products that can compete globally and be touted as proudly Filipino.
“It’s almost like a renaissance, letting go of a lot of things in order to create new opportunities,” de Leon told the Asian Journal in an interview at her LA home in the midst of her packing. “The situation and potential in the Philippines motivate me to do more because I can just stay here [in the U.S.] and be comfortable and not grow or give back. I feel extremely lucky and blessed to have this opportunity to have reclaimed my Filipino citizenship and be able to move back there.”
Under her brand Angkan — meaning ‘clan’ or ‘tribe’ in Tagalog — she has developed a line of accessories and goods rooted in sustainability, championing cultural materials and providing livelihoods for indigenous communities and female enterprises.
“I’m using Angkan as a platform to position the ‘Made in the Philippines’ product in a very high, positive view globally,” de Leon said. “So we’re working on collaborations with different brands, whether they’re based in LA, in Italy, or Manila.”
One of her main missions for now being in Manila full-time is setting up a design center that will assist and mentor local Philippine designers in improving their work as well as providing linkages to sourcing materials, whether from other parts of the country or elsewhere around the world.
“Seeing these Filipino designers shows that creativity runs in our blood, whether it’s fashion design, art or music. The talent is definitely there in our genes. I believe it just needs to be on a more globalized level,” de Leon said.
Born in Manila, de Leon and her parents moved to Los Angeles when she was 4 years old. Though she didn’t imagine that she’d be in a creative field one day, she credits her architect dad as an artistic influence, as well as her mom and extended family’s sense of fashion and bespoke clothes.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in international marketing from Loyola Marymount University and a certificate in shoe design from Otis College of Art and Design, one of de Leon’s first jobs in her early 20s was designing a high-end women’s fashion footwear line in Milan, Italy with her then-husband Marco Delli.
“I learned how to make shoes in Vigevano, which is a small town outside of Milan. It’s the same town where Manolo Blahnik makes all his shoes,” de Leon recalled. “Going between LA and Italy, we’d find leathers and materials to prepare the collections. This went on for years and I had to adapt to the Italian way of doing business.”
De Leon eventually ventured off on her own with stints designing accessories at Wild Orchid and directing the design department at high-end footwear line Taryn Rose. She also dabbled in other mediums, like interior design, which included a gig with Missoni Casa.
“My vision was to completely make my own mark and I actually wanted to get away from the shoe industry 100% because I wanted to do everything on my own, meaning my own network, own everything,” she recalled.
But the calls back to the shoe industry were louder as old clients wanted to hire her as a freelancer. It was around the time when a growing number of Italian brands — even big, luxury names like Prada and Gucci — started to move a part of their manufacturing processes to China.
“You know how they talk about brain drain in the Philippines? In China, they needed designers who could do original designs because all they knew was how to copy things. So that’s when I ended up working in China for about 15 years,” de Leon said.
For six of those years, de Leon was the creative director of Blonde Ambition, an LA-based shoe line that combined the city’s laidback lifestyle and vibrant aesthetic with European timeless design and structure. The line was distributed in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
She launched another venture in 2013: FLOGG, a contemporary women’s footwear line that combined the comfort and cushioning of flip-flops and wooden structure and arch support of clogs. Priced between $80 and $250, over 120,000 pairs were sold in the first year at major retailers like Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Zappos and in 51 countries, including the Philippines.
“It was great for the first couple of years but I burnt out because it was so fast and furious the way it worked and it was very demanding,” she said, detailing the many hats she took on while handling all aspects of the business from finances to design to logistics.
One of the unintended results of traveling from LA to China during this period was tapping into a renewed appreciation and curiosity for the nearby Philippines. “Because I was in Asia a lot, that’s when I started to rediscover the Philippines,” she said. “Bonifacio Global City (BGC) was being built and so I saw that and I thought like, ‘Wow, this is a really new Philippines,’ you know, and I liked that part of it.”
The rapid expansion and drive to increase production made de Leon take a step back and assess the impact she wanted to leave with her products. A major influence was watching Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, “Generation Wealth,” which explores the environmental and emotional consequences of fast fashion.
“It’s not just pretty designs because companies look at the increase in sales and profitability and I have a good track record with that…But then you see the results on our earth and our environment, and the fact that we have the opportunities to achieve great wealth yet spend the least amount of time with our children and families,” she said.
“So you gotta just think about that for a second and see what is really important: Is it the profitability or how you live your life? And what kind of imprint are you leaving for the next generation?”
‘Made in the Philippines’
In early 2018, again back in Manila to do research for another line, de Leon attended Manila FAME, a trade show organized by the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)’s Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM). She stumbled upon a closed DTI meeting about improving product design in the country so it could be on par with other markets, and introduced herself and pitched her experience.
She was then offered a contract as a product development specialist to lend her expertise to the DTI and its Go Lokal program, which helps Philippine micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) create products at a quality that can be sold in the local consumer market and eventually for international export.
“It was really refreshing to go to the Philippines and actually see smaller production and handmade things,” she said. “I got a new perspective of business with a sense of social responsibility…Fortunately, I think everybody was also kind of coming off of this hyper-consumerism. It was a perfect climate I saw for the Philippine MSMEs and small makers to survive and put…their products out in moderate quantities and they could grow organically.”
Some of the weavers and artisans that she visited around the country were trained and selected for a trade fair in Japan later that year, showcasing home decor, apparel, bags and more using traditional fabrics and materials. It also led to connecting with Sen. Loren Legarda’s work in funding livelihood and entrepreneurial programs for indigenous communities like those in Antique.
“In the Philippines, if you give consistent work to the artisans — it doesn’t have to be like thousands of pieces — they’re very grateful and it does affect their livelihood. So that’s the part where I feel very empowered also, because in China, I was at a point where I’m giving a factory 150,000 pairs of shoes to do and they’re still not happy. They still want more,” de Leon said.
Always the creative mind, de Leon at the same time saw another perspective of reframing her own brand that is artisanal, socially responsible and pays homage to her homeland.
Through Angkan — which she had already started in Los Angeles — she released a small collection of magnetic cuffs “connected with your energy, consciousness and spirituality.”
But her experience in the Philippines and linking with talent and materials motivated her to add a line of shoes and bags. Pieces debuted in 2019 have included sandals with textile designs made in Marikina, the shoe capital of the country, and waist bags using T’nalak, a traditional tribal textile made of natural abaca fibers hand-loomed by the T’boli indigenous community of Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.
“It’s still related to the DNA of the brand that I started because it’s a higher consciousness of not just putting products out for profit and selling things. You’re developing a product so that you can create livelihoods for a small community and for a consumer to buy into a story and be part of this social responsibility,” she said. “They’re buying a product that has a spirit, a story and a soul and it’s not just something that you wear one season and toss away.”
De Leon also launched apparel line Rich Gypsy, which uses 100% natural dyes and upcycled materials like linen and silk — as some studies show that plastic and other derivates like polyester can take over 400 years to biodegrade. Some of the line’s pieces are blouses embroidered by indigenous communities in the Cordillera region or hand-dyed using natural Philippine indigo.
“There are a lot of Filipino Americans who want to wear their culture and learn more about their culture and I think that’s really important in reclaiming our identity,” she said. “It’s not too late to learn all about being Filipino and teaching it to your children.”
She added, “At the end of the day, I want to be known for that girl that went back to the Philippines. After experiencing living in America and in Europe, being proud of where you come from is a baseline for happiness.”