Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Designer RJ Santos was driving home from the gym when the idea for a collection — one that would eventually win him a Bench Design Award — popped into his head. “My iPod was on shuffle and ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA started to play and it started to bring back memories of roadtrips with my parents where we would listen to these kinds of music,” he says. “When the song played, I saw this image of a girl dancing in a teal colored room, wearing a pink dress, and that started the collection.”
One of his looks, a cropped sheer soft tulle beneath a printed bikini top, matched with denim jeans, alludes to Mariah Carey’s outfit on her “Heartbreaker” music video. The affinity to music is no surprise; after all, he’s known to inject pop culture elements into his brand Randolf.
Santos, along with Jenni Contreras and Jaggy Glarino, are flying to Tokyo on Oct. 19 to present their collections alongside Bench at the Amazon Tokyo Fashion Week, as winners of Bench’s first design awards. The local retail giant announced the awards during its own fashion week on Sept. 10, aiming to uncover the genius of young, Filipino designers, and have these talents showcase their creative flair on an international platform.
Bench announced a nationwide open call on June, and 10 designers qualified to showcase their collections during the brand’s fashion week. The collections were then assessed by Ben Chan himself, together with Akiko Shinoda, the director of international affairs for Tokyo Fashion Week, former model Teresa Ortiz-Matera, Mitsugu Sudo and Hideya Yokoi of Rocket Company, and Yoshio Yokobori, an international consultant for Slide Co Ltd.
When creating their collections, Glarino, like Santos, also tapped into a personal memory when he executed his pieces. “It is a collage of my childhood. This is a little different from the last ones I have done, I have tried to be less cerebral this time,” he explains of his spliced pattern pieces. His usual structural ensembles still appear, although textile used may not be as experimental as his typical choices of knit or patent leather. “I wanted it to be familiar and relatable but not something you can quite pinpoint and identify,” he adds.
Contreras’ collection, albeit also exploring the personal experience, had a deeper, emotive rationale. “Let's just say I was at a low point and I gave my parents a lot of headaches ... That time was very confusing for me and it was also a learning experience. That's kinda where I got the concept of ‘Problem Child,’” she says of her collection that includes exaggerated bishop sleeves, pleated mid-length skirts, and pullovers that have graphic-printed words, like sex, lined up on the front. “I feel like everyone can relate to it in a way, because I think everyone was a problem child at one point, or wants to be one and [they should] just say fuck it I'm gonna do whatever the hell I want.”
For Santos, Bench holding the design awards says a lot about the brand. “It’s not really expected from them or required of them to hold a competition like this, but they chose to support local talents and give them opportunities to be exposed globally,” he says.
Contreras agrees that competitions like this enable the public to understand the local industry better. “One thing I observed about the local fashion industry is that, there's a lot of potential and a lot of talent but not a lot of people can see that,” she says. “I guess it's not their fault that they don't know, but I do wish more people would, instead of buying and sporting goods from Forever 21 or Zara, educate or at least try to familiarize themselves about the local fashion scene. And I think Bench is heading towards that.”
CNN Philippines Life asked the Bench Design Awards winners about their creative processes, the kind of people who represent their designs, and what changes they’ll make for their upcoming Tokyo show.
What challenges or limitations did you face while doing your collection?
Well, I still don't have in-house sewers, so that's one. I outsource some production, but it's different when you see them work on it so you can correct certain parts while it's being done. Iba pa rin if you have [an] in-house [team]. Things would be faster if you have in-house.
What factors do you consider when creating this collection or any other collection for that matter?
I consider if the concept will fit the brand and the direction I want for Randolf. I, then, look at the sales from the past and determine which items to push and which ones to let go or edit. And then I add new things or tweak certain details. I like the idea of growing or evolving, instead of drastic changes per collection. Ultimately, it's still up to us what to release, we just use the info from sales so that we know which items to really push, because after all, it's [a] business. For us to be able to explore more ideas or concepts for Randolf, we need to earn.
You’re known to take pop culture elements into your designs. Why do you take this approach?
I guess because ever since I was a kid, I was already into it. My eyes were glued to MTV when I was a kid. And also Nickelodeon but more on shows like “Pete and Pete” and "All That.” I also like humor, and I find pop culture to be funny — celebrities and all.
What would you say exemplifies your brand Randolf?
Randolf is about letting loose and having fun. The reason why we love pop culture so much is because we find it funny. Just like what MTV did during the 90's, they were poking fun at what's happening, but at the same time, contributing to the whole landscape of pop culture. Ngayon kasi sobrang seryoso ng lahat.
Whenever you design, who are people that you envision to be wearing your clothes? Why them?
I think I'd say that Randolf is for the people who are not afraid to try new things. It's for the person who doesn't really care if it's menswear or womenswear. Randolf is about going for it and just having fun. I like these people because they make you realize that it's just clothing, and you shouldn't let anyone dictate if you can wear it or not. Just go for what you think represents you.
Do you think that Randolf (or you as a designer) has inadvertent similarities with Bench’s designs?
I think, aesthetically, both brands may not be the same outright. But I do think that Bench and Randolf share that same vision and passion in making local brands get recognition globally. Bench has already done that and is now sharing the opportunity with us, which we are very grateful for.
What changes will you make, if any, for your Tokyo collection?
We'll probably restyle the whole collection but still retain the vibe. We will also be adding additional looks for the show and for the pop-up exhibit.
Your collection is entitled “Eroplanong Papel” — why did you come up with this and what nudged you to explore this concept?
I grew up flying paper planes. I am always fascinated with the exhilarating feeling of flying, it is very carefree and childlike. I wanted to translate this feeling by creating pieces that are out of the usual and childlike.
What challenges or limitations did you face while doing your collection?
Time constraint. I think that has always been the biggest challenge when doing a collection. [The design process] is very organic, it shouldn't be forced. And there are days when ideas do not come naturally. I am always very intuitive when building a collection. I respond to restrictions and various factors. It is a part of the process and I welcome unpredictable circumstances. I think it gives the collection more life, soul and character.
What factors do you consider when creating a collection?
I always try to avoid overthinking things (details, cuts, form and technique) when creating pieces. I always try to go with my instincts. And so far it always works.
Your collection aims to awaken the wearer’s inner child. Why did you go into this line of thinking?
I just missed being a kid again; to go home early from school and play. You worry less about things when you were a child and I think it is good to go back to that feeling once in a while and I hope I have reminded my audience of that during my show.
Whenever you design a collection, what kind of wearer do you have in mind?
I know that my clothes are a little challenging to wear and maybe because they are for people who are self-secured, people who want to make a statement, people who are adventurous, risk takers, people who dare to bend rules.
What is something new that we can expect from your Tokyo collection?
Well, I'd get to explore and build up ideas better this time since I get to showcase more pieces. I think I'd get to work on my narrative more and I'd get to complete the story.
You used graphic design in your collection. What made you decide to do so and how did this help your collection come to life?
I've always had a strong interest in graphic design before I even got into fashion. When I was a little kid, I would do random illustrations and artworks using MS Paint before I learned how to use Photoshop. I have always wanted to do a collection that shows my experience in graphic design and this was the perfect time and opportunity for it.
You seem to take inspiration from photographers and virtual memes. Why did you put these things together? What is in them that fascinates you?
I'm mostly fascinated with the anachronism they present. I like the idea of putting something there that's not supposed to be there. Like hip-hop lyrics on a classic painting, or a portrait of a girl during the Renaissance wearing sneakers and holding a coke, or pineapple on pizza [Laughs].
What was the most important aspect or factor for you when creating the collection?
I think all aspects are equally important. When coming up with a collection, it's not just one thing over the other, it's everything. It starts with a concept, and even with just the concept you can already visualize the colors, the trends, the music, the look, and the fabrics you're going to use. So every aspect is vital to creating a collection.
What challenges did you face when coming up with this collection?
I work as a graphic designer from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekdays and that was really difficult because I'm not able to do the collection full-time and I'm only able to do it on the weekends. So that was a big challenge for me. And there's also the fact that I don't have an in-house tailor since I don't have a brand yet. My tailor lives all the way in Laguna and I only get to see her on Sundays.
What changes, if any, will you be doing for your Tokyo collection?
I'll be doing three menswear looks for Tokyo Fashion Week. It's my first time designing menswear, so this will be something to tick off my bucket list. I'm really excited.
What is would you say is the core of your creative process? Is it the conceptualization? The actual making? The presentation? The feedback from your audience?
Definitely the conceptualization. Everything starts with a vision or a message that I want to convey through my clothes.