FASHION

Meet Owa Sylvia, the octogenarian behind Manila’s in-demand protective suits

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87-year-old Owa Sylvia makes some of the most Instagrammable and in-demand protective suits this side of Metro Manila. She makes only three pieces a day so the waitlist now stretches all the way to December. Photo by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Maybe the only way to sell me a pink PPE is to the tune of Sims Buy Mode. Or if they’re proven to be the preferred uniform of bedroom K-pop dance practices. But perhaps the most compelling reason is because they were cut and hand sewn by a funny, cranky, octogenarian who can still find the time to put on make-up, wear her best floral dasters, and begrudgingly put together a scone recipe for her fans on Instagram.

There is little else that I enjoy more than watching Instagram videos of Sylvia Borja, better known these days as Owa Sylvia. Almost all of the videos are shot from an angle that makes you feel as if you’re seated right across her. Often, these videos are documentation of a loving, exasperated exchange with her grandson Martin Yambao, whose simple questions (“What are you doing?”) often launch her into a lecture or a scolding (“I’m cutting! I’m cutting your PPE!”).

“Owa” Sylvia Borja was a renowned couturier. Her business became big enough for her to be one of the first suppliers of the then newly-opened SM. Photo by JL JAVIER

I don’t think I’m alone in my enjoyment. Even with the dearth of personal protective gear available in the market today, people still willingly sign up for Owa’s waitlist that stretches all the way to December. Maybe we all long for the level of comfort that can only be found during Sunday lunches with your grandparents. Or maybe there’s something about the image of a grandma telling me what I should or shouldn’t be doing with my life in 2020. But either way, @owasylvia is really a look into the intimate relationship between a witchy grandmother and her equally witchy grandson. Through Martin, we all get to call her Owa, and we’re all Owa’s grandkids.

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Whenever Martin, manager of his grandmother’s eponymous brand, asks Owa who her favorite grandchild is, she never says his name. “And that’s fine, because I know the truth,” Martin laughs. Martin’s parents separated while he was still young, so he often found himself left in the care of Owa. “While my mom was working during the day, I’d be at home in my lola’s factory, swimming in the tela. I grew up in the factory,” he tells me. His earliest memories of her are a series of scoldings. “She would always nag me at the lunch table and say put your elbows down, use your napkin,” Martin says. “She just has this personality that just wants to fight you all the time.”

Before her first grandchild christened her as “Owa,” Sylvia Borja was a renowned couturier, a profession she picked up out of necessity. Her husband died when her youngest of seven children was only three years old. So she thought of making clothes as a way to augment the money she made selling off her inheritance. But the business became big enough for her to be one of the first suppliers of the newly-opened SM. But even with all her skill with garments, she often makes the distinction that she isn’t a fashion designer. “She was always very interested instead in the construction of things. Like solving a puzzle that was a garment,” Martin says.

But when fashion got a lot faster and cheaper, the tradition of couturiers fell to the wayside. The business itself was no longer profitable, but Sylvia continued on in order to support the few sewers who have been with her for thirty years. When the pandemic hit, her few faithful kumare clients suddenly had no more events to attend, which meant no new outfits needed to be made. She wondered if it was officially time to close shop.

“But around week one or two of the lockdown, frontliners were having a really hard time finding suits,” Martin recalls. “My cousin who is a doctor needed one, so my lola literally pulled a shower curtain and made the first suit for him.” Some time later, over family merienda, Sylvia brings out three PPEs that she made just for her grandchildren. “I asked her, ‘Owa, what’s your plan for this?’ And she just said, ‘Wala, I just want to keep making.’”

A cousin suggested: Why not sell them? Then Martin stepped in with his own ideas: Maybe make them in cuter colors and have a cute Instagram to go with it. Sylvia then came up with the final design: Microfibre protective jumpsuits with a relaxed fit and garterized waists. Every suit has enough pockets for things or hiding your hands. She finishes every piece with embroidered cording and tassel tips. Beginning with the first few orders by Martin’s friends, Owa Sylvia’s PPE production began in earnest.

A long time ago, Martin thought he wanted to be a fashion designer. After college, he spent a year with Owa in her small factory, learning how to cut and sew. His first official job was working for designer Rajo Laurel as assistant brand manager, where he worked for three years. “That’s when I realized that I couldn’t be a designer,” Martin says. “There’s a certain creativity, and I recognized that it wasn’t for me or it was something I couldn’t bring. Which is why I transitioned to fashion journalism.”

According to her grandson Martin, who manages Owa's brand, the business will never scale. He says, “We only do 30 or so jumpsuits a week. Nobody is doing overtime, nobody is stressed. It’s a comfortable pace, and it’s a pace that she sets and it’s something we really value.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Martin wrote for YSTYLE, the fashion section of the Philippine Star, for five years. He eventually became managing editor while co-founding his own venture called Milk Man Marketing. It was also during this time that he became communications editor for the Sunnies Studio empire. Martin left YSTYLE and Sunnies in December 2019 and July 2020 respectively.

“How has your work in fashion and these big brands affected how you run Owa Sylvia?” I ask. Martin tells me that it informs almost every aspect of his work now. “My work often involved looking at other brands. Brands that had it all, packaged perfectly, thoughtfully made for you. And for a while we bought into that ethos, but I think even this is nearing its end.”

This constant exposure to the aesthetic and language of these perfect, faceless brands have served as a roadmap to what Martin doesn’t want for Owa Sylvia. “There are no rules,” Martin says. “No real style guide, no limits. It’s just me asking myself and Owa: Wouldn’t you think this would be fun? Just comparing my experience now to the brands I’ve helped build in the past, there was always this crippling sense of, should we do this, should we do that, is it the brand, is it not the brand. But doing away with that is such a freedom and I hope that reflects in what we do.”

Photographer BJ Pascual in one of Owa Sylvia's protective jumpsuits. Photo courtesy of MARTIN YAMBAO

The result is a brand that is an amalgamation of Martin’s years in fashion and his relationship with Owa. In between the mirror selfies, grocery portraits, and — as Owa calls it — sexy PPEs, there’s a video of Owa telling her followers to register for the 2022 elections. There’s a video for a grilled cheese and tomato jam recipe. It’s the way Martin emphasizes Owa’s unique vocabulary and onomatopoeia with superimposed text, the only way an observant, Very Online, and doting grandson can. Jumpsuit as “dzhümpzuït,” aubergine as “aüberdjzene,” and the manner and frequency that Owa says butter.

Owa Sylvia’s Instagram has about 2,000 followers as of writing. Freaking tiny, Martin calls it, but none of this matters to him or to Owa. “Because of this project, I get to see, talk to Owa all the time. It’s really just become an excuse to see her more. And I always tell her that if ever she thinks it’s becoming too much, too overwhelming, we can stop, and that’s the beauty of it,” he says.

If Martin had his way, he’d want Owa to live forever. “I mean I’ll settle for 100,” he says. “She’s 87, can you believe? But really, my wish for her is to be as healthy as possible, and for her to live as long as she wants. She always says, I could be gone tomorrow. And for me, that’s fine. I’m ready and you shouldn’t be sad kasi I’ve lived a full life.”

Owa Sylvia initially made the jumpsuits for her grandkids until someone suggested to sell them. She then came up with the final design: Microfibre protective jumpsuits with a relaxed fit and garterized waists. Photo by JL JAVIER

But this is really Martin’s priority and devotion. This is why, he says, the business will never scale. The whole operation of @owasylvia is designed to keep Owa as safe and as healthy as possible. “We only do 30 or so jumpsuits a week. Nobody is doing overtime, nobody is stressed. It’s a comfortable pace, and it’s a pace that she sets and it’s something we really value. That’s why the waitlist for orders is so long.”

“I hope people know that every piece is made with love. They’re also useful and functional. And moreover, someone’s really cute lola made it.”

In a short video dated July 28, Owa scowls and rolls her eyes at our avatar and invisible cameraman. Martin tells her that people are “obsessed” with her jumpsuits. As the video goes on, she thanks us for our patronage, and says that if people weren’t interested, she would have gone crazy with boredom. “Because of you people,” she says, almost threateningly, “I am very busy. And this is keeping me alive.” As Martin thanks her, she responds with a frown and turns away. The video ends with her opening her door, beckoning Martin — and in turn, us — to stop playing around and come inside. “Come in, come in.”

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Orders are through @owasylvia on Instagram.