Bay Area Filipino American fashion designers using historical influence as inspiration

Amanda del Castillo Image
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
Filipino American designers sharing history through fashion
Filipino history is driving a force for many Filipino American designers across the Bay Area, as they transform traditional looks on items they sell.

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

Traditional Filipino clothing typically emotes elegance and extravagance. And for many, there's no missing the iconic exaggerated sleeve.

Barong Tagalog and the Filipiniana Terno are only two types of traditional Filipino historical fashion. Each are typically designed as formal wear for special events.

However, there's a resurgence of sculptured terno sleeves in day-to-day attire.

"It's all Spanish influenced," Chi Chai Mateo told ABC7 News. "But I will say that when folks see our iteration of these big sleeves, they know that's a Filipino dress, or top, or whatever. So I definitely love that aspect."

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Mateo is a full-time artist and is behind the Bay Area clothing brand Empire in the Air.

From rough sketch to someone's closet, pieces combine Mateo's love for art and fashion with Filipino American community and culture. Her designs are intentional, Mateo has dedicated much of her work to "pinays," or Filipino women who are often depicted as landscape.

"That's a huge part of my art style, because I think that women especially - we're powerful enough to embody a landscape," she shared. "We provide and we give, but we also - with that matapang face - are asking for that respect back."

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

Mateo said she created Empire in the Air as a teen and only developed a heavier intention of combining history in her designs in her mid 20s. She said at that point, she started to really engage in discourse about colonization and the effects on Filipino Americans today.

She described having also written a master's thesis on "how engaging in artwork that's for us, by us dismantles colonial mentality."

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Mateo mentioned a lot of stereotypes about Filipino women surround them being docile and submissive. "I like to think that I'm taking control of that narrative and inspiring others to do so themselves too," she said.

It's also a responsibility she and other Fil-Am artists understand when they transform historical, traditional looks and symbolism on items they sell.

"I find it fun that we get to nerd out about our culture and history in a new, contemporary way," Mateo told ABC7 News. "And in a way that's also relatable and approachable, and aesthetic even."

"The idea of me wearing a shirt that says, 'Delano Manongs,' and people are like, 'What is that?'" Michael Dalupo explained. "It's an opportunity to have a conversation, to provide an insight in regards to our experience collectively as a community."

Dalupo owns Ugat Clothing, an online shop based out of San Jose. Ugat means roots.

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He said his business was born out of sheer 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 him fully understanding the Filipino American history or cultural icons used.

He said he isn't a professional designer, and that he collaborates with a lot of artists.

However, that's changed. He's dedicated years to research and expanding his knowledge. Now his catalog reflects Fil-Am 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, International Hotel, the Delano Manongs," he said about his clothing. "Whether there's the 1587 at Morro Bay, whether it's the Manilamen in Louisiana."

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He said the easy part is putting the graphics on a shirt. As for the challenging part: "How do we get the youth and the community interested in history?" he asked.

Present day, themes of activism and advocacy are now worn proudly.

"The education system here might not reflect our experience. So you know, it's my passion and it's a must that I educate and continue to push this information and empower our community," Dalupo shared.

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

"I just like to think of, 'Okay what is something that I would wear? What would my community wear,'" Mateo reflected, "But how can I elevate it with that nod to history?"

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