Bay Area Filipino American Fashion Designers Using Historical Influence as Inspiration

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SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — Filipino fashion and history are driving forces for many Filipino American designers in the Bay Area.

Traditional Filipino clothing generally evokes elegance and extravagance. And for many, it’s not missing the iconic exaggerated sleeve.

Barong Tagalog and Filipiniana Terno are just two types of traditional Filipino historical fashion. Each is usually designed as evening wear for special events.

However, there is a resurgence of sculpted terno sleeves in everyday clothing.

“Everything is Spanish influenced” Chi Chai Mateo told ABC7 News. “But I will say when people see our iteration of these big sleeves, they know it’s a Filipina dress, or a top, or whatever. So I really like that look.”

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Mateo is a full time artist and is the originator of the Bay Area clothing brand Empire in the air.

From a rough sketch to someone’s closet, the pieces combine Mateo’s love for art and fashion with the Filipino American community and culture. His designs are intentional, Mateo has devoted much of his work to “pinays”, or Filipino women who are often depicted as landscapes.

“It’s a big part of my art style, because I think women in particular — we’re powerful enough to embody a landscape,” she shared. “We provide and we give, but we too – with that matapang face – demand that respect in return.”

Matapang, meaning brave or fierce. It is a deep meaning embodied for the purpose of educating.

Mateo said she created Empire in the Air as a teenager and didn’t develop a heavier intention of combining story into her designs until her mid-twenties. She said that at this point she started to really engage in a discourse about colonization and the effects on Filipino Americans today.

She described having also written a master’s thesis on “how to engage in works of art that are for us, by us, dismantle the colonial mentality”.

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Mateo mentioned a lot of stereotypes about Filipino women surrounding them being docile and submissive. “I like to think of myself as taking control of this narrative and inspiring others to do it themselves,” she said.

It’s also a responsibility she and other Fil-Am artists understand when they transform the historical and traditional look and symbolism of the items they sell.

“I find it fun that we’re learning about our culture and our history in a new and contemporary way,” Mateo told ABC7 News. “And in a way that is also relatable and accessible, and even aesthetically pleasing.”

“The idea of ​​me wearing a ‘Delano Manongs’ t-shirt and people saying, ‘What is this?'” Michael Dalupo explained. to have a conversation, to provide insight into our collective experience as a community.”

Dalupo owns Ugat Clothing, a San Jose-based online store. Ugat means roots.

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He said his company was born out of pure interest.

“It was 2009, Paquiao was winning, ABDC was going, Jabbawockeez,” Dalupo described. “So there was a demand for Filipino culture.”

Dalupo said his designs took off, even without his fully understanding Filipino American history or the cultural icons used.

He said he was not a professional designer and collaborated with a lot of artists.

However, that has changed. He has devoted years to research and expanding his knowledge. Now, its catalog reflects Fil-Am’s experiences, struggles and influence.

“There’s a theme in terms of Filipino American History Month, there’s a collection of images representing the I-Hotel, the International Hotel, the Delano Manongs,” he said of of his clothes. “Let there be the 1587 in Morro Bay, let it be the Manilamen in Louisiana.”

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He said the easiest part was putting the graphics on a shirt. As for the difficult part: “How to interest young people and the community in history?” He asked.

Today, the themes of activism and advocacy are now worn proudly.

“The education system here may not reflect our experience. So, you know, it’s my passion and it’s a must that I educate and continue to spread this information and empower our community,” said explained Dalupo.

Each item by these artists reflects the intersection of Filipino American history and culture, presented in a contemporary way.

“I just like to think, ‘Okay, what would I wear? What would my community wear,'” Mateo mused, “But how can I elevate it with this wink to the story?”

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