Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Before entering Ilya’s website, a purple pop-up makes sure that you are 18 or above. You click "enter" — and the words “come and play,” scribbled in sharp cursive, are bannered in front of a flesh-colored background, with someone’s yellow-gloved hand holding a rather appealing pastel-dipped banana. It’s a site for a candy store, you think, if your hopeless naiveté hasn’t been shattered yet, what with the youthful typefaces, the bright colors, and the cute drawings of apples, target boards, and winking smiley faces putting you in a light, playful mood. “Which toy should you try?” It asks, in fat pink lettering. “We assure you, this will be a quickie,” it adds discreetly, and at this point, a realization dawns: this website may not be a toy store, or a candy store, though it could pass off as either. Ilya’s array of products is displayed below, all tastefully arranged against a white background as if you were just shopping for quirky furniture or new headphones. Only you’re actually staring at a fancy wand vibrator. That looks like a really nice pink pen. With detachable bunny ears.
As of this writing, Ilya (a random name without meaning or baggage, according to its founders) is a 3-week-old online shop that sells sex toys. Shopilya.com — its brightly pastel-hued website designed by the branding firm Serious Studio, who is also behind the branding of the lifestyle store Satchmi and restaurants Cyma and Sultan — is where Ilya displays its wares. If the words “sex toys” or “sex shop” summon images of seedy come-hither corners to be avoided like the plague in some random back alley in the wrong part of the city, in Ilya, there are images reminiscent of carefully designed greeting cards or painstakingly curated flatlays one might find in the most exacting of Instagram accounts. The newcomer local brand might be the first to attempt to package sex toys away from the sleazy and the lewd, into an earnest understanding that questions why there should be shame or embarrassment in the first place for a topic that has inspired a cultural revolution in the ‘70s and is a permeating part of popular culture.
For Arvin Alvarez and AJ Osmeña, Ilya’s founders, there is nothing to be ashamed of. The two worked previously for social enterprise Hapinoy, and found themselves joking around, then taking seriously, the idea for an online sex shop that approached sex and sex toys properly. They are guided by the belief that there should be an opportunity to discuss sex openly, to change the mindset, overcome the taboos. The website — and the brand as a whole — does not only sell toys for pleasure; as they told CNN Philippines Life, it invites you to a healthy understanding of your curiosity, through imaginative and cheeky guides backed by previous research, countless reviews, and positive discussions about exploring one’s sexuality. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
As newbie entrepreneurs for this brand, how did you first perceive sex toys?
AJ Osmeña: From online, the brands that we’ve seen — the ones on our website, actually – they’re pretty fun and cute. You wouldn’t necessarily get that they’re sex toys, immediately, because they don’t look like it. The branding’s great, as well, they really explain stuff: nothing lewd, healthy, fun intimacy.
Arvin Alvarez: It won’t make you feel embarrassed looking at something of this kind, for example. It wouldn’t shame you or anything. We saw brands that were really playful, that encourage you to get to know yourself some more. So it was in a healthy perspective, it was presented that way. We realized that there were many innovations outside, these technologies are advancing, but not what we saw in the sex shops here [locally].
Why take matters into your own hands, and start Ilya?
Arvin: It was a joke! [laughs]
AJ: Yeah, in the beginning, we were thinking, what if we created a super awesome shop that will meet our expectations? That will help fight the stigma?
Arvin: Change the world one toy at a time. [AJ laughs]
AJ: We figured it was also an opportunity. Let’s face it: when it comes to sex and sex toys, it’s a big industry, and it’s a big part of all our lives. So why not do it right? Let’s be the ones to do it right because nobody else is doing it.
Arvin: This was a fun challenge. It was a matter of presenting things, like sex toys … they’re not supposed to be taken in a bad light, but they are, usually just because of how they are presented. It was a fun challenge to try to change the minds of people, the entire idea of a stigma.
How did you start collaborating with Serious Studio for the look of the brand?
Arvin: One thing that was very clear from the beginning, even when it was still just a joke, was that it had to presented in a proper way — of course we eventually took it seriously and started developing exactly how we want to present our brand and products through discussions. We had a frustration and realization na, okay, that’s not what we want people to feel like.
AJ: When we talked to Serious Studio it was already a bit more refined. We had a vision and saw this as a marketing and branding exercise. We have to get people to accept sex toys and how do we do that? Ilya has to be trustworthy, competent, and easy to approach. We also realized that sex toys aren’t about perversion, that they’re actually about sexual health and intimacy. So those were the two things we focused on when we went into discussions.
Arvin: We also had this word, “swallowable,” which guided us. So what that really means is we make everything okay — if you want to explore this part of your sexuality, that’s okay. We’ll give you all the resources you need, so you can do that in a safe manner. What we realized is that a lot of people are not comfortable with their own curiosity. Like, “Should I, really? But I’m going to be judged!” Making things “swallowable” means also that you’re okay with being curious about these things. That’s the entire idea from the very beginning.
How do you translate that characteristic of being “swallowable” into the brand’s focus on sexual health and intimacy?
AJ: One way we do that is we make fools of ourselves. We make jokes and puns. It helps make people comfortable, to ease them in. We take that approach to make it light. [Regarding the website,] we were concerned about it being fun and engaging, so it’s a bit bright. There’s the elegant and sexy approach while we’re more focused on being fun and engaging.
What we realized is that a lot of people are not comfortable with their own curiosity.
Beyond showcasing your products in a playful way, your website is informative and contains educational guides, such as the one approaching Kegels as a healthy exercise. Why take this responsibility to educate?
Arvin: It was definitely an easy decision for us to do the education part, because when we were looking at the industry, we realized there were no resources available, or if there were, they were not available locally. Whereas if you go searching for reviews, you’d have a ton of reviews from reviewers abroad, so it would easy for the person to decide what he or she might want, and it’s easier for the person to explore. Throughout the process, we realized the more you don’t talk about these things, the more dangerous it becomes. Being able to talk about it, may it be in a joking manner as how we do it, it takes out everything from the shadows, brings it out to light. For us, we just wanted a good experience for our customers.
Throughout the process, we realized the more you don’t talk about these things, the more dangerous it becomes.
AJ: When we started this, we didn’t know much about it. So in the beginning, we went through thousands of toys, and we were overwhelmed. There were so many toys. What to put in? How does this work? Who’s the market for this? There were so many questions. We figured, if we were in the dark on so many things and we were already researching, then probably a significant portion of our market wouldn’t know as well. So it made sense to help them figure out what’s best for them and what works for them.
Arvin: In the matter of health naman, we stumbled upon Kegel exercises, one of the things that we focused on for the brand. We realized Kegel exercises, more than anything, it’s a health matter recommended by ob-gynes. It’s not something we should consider lewd or embarrassing, but it is considered [as such] because it is linked to the idea of sex toys. There are a lot of things we miss out on because we refuse to come out on these things, so our answer there is to make it fun. Swallowable again.
It’s already 2016. Why is there still a need for your brand to be introduced this way?
AJ: It is 2016 and we are moving forward but we’re still a pretty traditional country. There’s a need to ease people in because there’s still some stigma associated to sex, especially sex toys. Also, it’s more fun to do it this way — imagine all the puns we can get away with.
Isn’t there a risk that comes with branding adult toys this way, like a possibility of it being taken the wrong way?
Arvin: It is a risk the moment we thought of entering the industry. We saw that it was an important thing to focus on, more than anything. We took this business seriously that’s why we did a lot of research, we interviewed people, we got a lot of insight. It’s a risk, but isn’t it riskier if no one talks about it? If people don’t have resources for it, or if they don’t have a safe place to get these things, to explore?