You’d think that after a certain period of being an apprentice you would, as a matter of course, move on to the next level, no questions asked. I’d begun my apprenticeship at Shutterfairy Photography in August 17, 2011, and so when August 17 of this year came I expected to receive an e-mail or letter from my boss/mentor Malou Pages declaring the end of my noviciate and telling me to get ready for the next chapter of my journey with her (like, as associate photographer, perhaps?). Alas, that e-mail or letter never came, and instead all I got from her that day was a comment on one of my posts on Instagram asking if I was ready to shoot her. Yes, her—I, the aspiring photographer, was going to shoot her, the established photographer, and that was going to serve as my “final exam” of sorts. “Are you being serious right now?” was my initial reaction, to which she made it very clear that, yes, she was being dead serious. Never one to recoil from a challenge, I, of course, said yes—but that isn’t to say the whole idea of it didn’t get my hands all clammy.
Most people will agree that photographers make for very challenging subjects—and even Malou herself has admitted this at one point or another, having been subjected to a similar situation in the past—because there will always be that tendency for them to espy (and call out) the things you’re doing badly, to dictate your creative process, and to measure your methods/output against their own style. Said differently, “photographing the photographer” (or, as Malou’s contemporary Josephine Sicad likes to put it, “shooting the shooter”) is not an activity for all tastes, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. To me, it’s, like, ask me to shoot a band standing next to a fiercely burning fire and I’d gladly breeze through that without breaking out in a sweat, but ask me to take a picture of a photographer—and my boss at that!—and I might require a little towel to dab the beads in my forehead with. I mean, hello, I am fairly new to this craft, and even if some of my favorite anecdotes to draw inspiration from concern artists sitting for other artists (example: Irving Penn photographing Richard Avedon back in 1993), inspiration doesn’t always translate to howling courage.
Malou was quick to assure me she was going to be the opposite of everything that I’d had qualms about, promising to behave like the “ideal subject,” and to let me have my way with zero “backseat driving” from her. “Your equipment, your style of shooting, your style of editing,” she swore. But even with that concern out of the way, I still had another dilemma in my hands: How to approach this whole thing? My first impulse was to make it documentary-style—i.e., follow her around on a working day, and take photos of her as she took photos of actual clients. I scratched that, of course, once I realized that that would be like interfering with her business. I then considered approaching it like I would any other shoot—i.e., a styled session where I could dress her up and she could do some role-playing. But then I was afraid that that was going to make me focus more on the styling aspect and less on the photographing part, and that would be totally missing the point of this exercise, right?
Ultimately I decided to make it a personal style portrait session—her wearing pieces (up to 5 outfits) from her own closet, à la, well, personal style blogger, and tinkering with the stuff that she surrounds herself with. Perfect, right, since this would take styling out of the equation, and so I would have all the room in the world to mind my composition, white balance, aperture, and all that other good stuff!
I really like Malou’s style, although she would be the first to tell you that she doesn’t have any style to speak of, and that she’s “more of a tomboy” who would “rather go biking” than mind what she shoves into—or pulls out of—her closet. (When I came back from my summer vacation this year and I handed her a floral bodycon dress that I’d bought for her in California she gave me a funny look, like she would rather have received a Lance Armstrong book or something!) Funny how she doesn’t see that she can go on and on about having no stomach for shopping or clothing, but the way she puts herself together will always contradict her claim. On the day of the shoot I told her something to the effect of, “How could you say you have no style, when in fact you even have two?” There was the Malou that I saw everyday, whose deal was the warm-weather/California boho style—airy tunics or bright kaftans bloused up over vintage denim cut-offs, statement necklaces, and strappy flat sandals, plus the occasional straw sun hats, multicolor beach hobo bags, etc. And then now, after taking a peak in her closet and browsing through her picks for the shoot, it became evident that she had another side, one that had a thing for old, offbeat and fun pieces, like chunky grandmother cardigans, wool blend jackets in quirky floral patterns, bright colored skirts with applique detailing. After I deduced this she would admit that, yes, she did have a penchant for old stuff, and that she considered herself a kind of modern-vintage character born a couple of decades too late. So she was one of those who had developed her personal style subconsciously rather than studiously. Trust me when I say that’s the more interesting kind of personal style!
OK, I guess it’s time to brush the topic on clothes aside and back up a bit to how the actual exercise went. First of all, I appreciated that Malou kept her word that she was going to stay out of my hair and be really laissez-faire about the whole activity. This made me very happy because it allowed me to strike a balance between the techniques she had taught me over the past year and those I’d worked to develop on my own. It helped, too, that she turned out to be such a natural in front of the camera as she was behind it—I would later find out that she’d attended a couple of modeling workshops in her youth (it was the makeup artist Owen Taboada who disclosed this little tidbit, and I’m pretty sure Malou is going to hate me for putting this on record) and that she’d had some modeling experience (she was the original face for local accessories brand Gracie Q before Fretzel Buenconsejo came into the picture). I also loved how I finally got to see her home, and survey not just the stuff that she surrounded herself with but how she’d organized her workspace as well. This helped me a great deal because, as those close to me might know, I tend to be a first-class slob, and so seeing how Malou had arranged her tools, equipment, research material, and files forced me to reexamine my own system (or the lack of it), and made me realize that if you want to be serious about the business aspect of photography you’ve got to learn to de-clutter and get rid of the things you don’t need. (Some two weeks following this shoot I would find myself setting up a home office patterned after hers—with a little help from all that IKEA that I’d gotten from California, of course.)
But my absolute, absolute favorite part of this shoot was that I finally got to try my hand at shooting film. Yes, you read that right: I got to shoot film! In the days leading to this session, you see, Malou had asked me if there was anything more about this craft that I wanted to pursue, a “new thing” that I was dying to explore. I’d told her I could not think of anything except that “new old thing” called film—yes, I’d wanted to go back to basics, for the most part because I’d felt it was time to really tap into my father’s legacy. She’d proceeded to ask her film camera enthusiast friend Christian Enricuso to tag along with us, and that’s how I ended up with two cameras dangling from my neck that day: my DSLR, and a circa mid-‘80s Nikon FG-20 35mm (50mm f/1.4). I used a roll of Konica Centuria 400 film. I haven’t seen the outcome yet because that roll is still in Manila being developed as I am writing this, but I promise to post them on here if they turn out to be decent!
So now you understand how strongly I feel about this woman as my mentor. As much as she’s intent on instilling in me some of that signature Shutterfairy stamp, she is also keen on encouraging me to define my own style and carve my own path. I don’t say this enough, but everyday I thank my lucky stars for that one fateful day last year that she decided to take me under her wing (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but did you know that, before Malou came along, a lot of doors were slammed on my face?). I have learned so much from her, and grown so much under her tutelage. To say that I owe so much to her is an understatement. Right now, at this point in my career, I’m not exactly sure where I’m headed—but at least I know I’m going somewhere, and that’s thanks to her. If you ask me now if I’ve worked out some sort of long-term plan, I’d say no. But I can tell you that I’d love to stay with Malou (as associate or assistant or whatever you call it) for the next 2-3 years—that is, granting that I pass this test!
Maria Luisa “Malou” Pages | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City, Cebu, on September 23, 2012 | Hair and makeup by Owen Taboada | Special thanks to Christian and Mela Enricuso
It was bound to happen. You see, if you’re a photographer based in Cebu, it’s inevitable that you’ll be doing a session at the Plantation Bay Resort and Spa. I’d sworn I was never gonna let that happen to me, and not because I’d disliked the place—it in fact remains on top of my list of favorite places in this part of the world, despite the bevy of stagy pop-up resort hotels that having cropping up like mushrooms as of late, and I will forever be in love with the architecture (nothing is as bewitching as the view of colonial plantation-style cottages and villas through dewy palm fronds)—but simply because I’d wanted to avoid doing what everyone else was doing. What I’d failed to consider was that there was always going to be someone somewhere out there who couldn’t wait to come home to the Plantation Bay, and to share that part of their world with their newfound loves from another world.
Such was the case of Cherry, who came home from Dublin with her Irishman groom-to-be Niall O’Brien and their son Leo, and wasted no time in whisking them away to a nice little retreat at the resort. They didn’t have a lot of time before their wedding, and so they decided to invite the Shutterfairy team over so we could do their pre-wedding photos right there and then while they were on holiday.
I think it took us a good 30 minutes to convince Niall to say yes to being photographed. In our exchange of e-mails Cherry had warned me about this: “He’s not used to being photographed!” He would rather take a dip with his son or hit the in-house gym to pump some iron was what it was. Thankfully, after some gentle prodding and sweet-talking from his fiancée, he said yes (on the condition that he wasn’t gonna be wearing anything silly, and that no makeup brush was ever going to touch his face)!
In between sets Cherry would fill us in with stories about Ireland, to feed my imagination of charming, bucolic Irish countrysides and thatched roof stone cottages (with the hypnotic drone of uilleann pipes playing in the background). How wonderful must it be to have a shoot there (I’m thinking à la Stella Tennant’s family portraits by Mario Testino in the October 2005 issue of American Vogue (OK, those were shot in Tennant’s home in a Caledonic countryside, and not in Ireland, but you get the drift)! Of course, that was just my imagination running away with me, because Niall and Cherry here were not from the country; they lived in a modern, bustling area of Dublin. She was quick to confirm, though, that beer was kind of “a way of life” in Dublin, which was why, even when visiting the Philippines, she would allow Niall to go out with her friends or relatives for a few beers every now and then—well, a little more often than every now and then, really. Niall declared that he liked the taste of San Miguel Beer Pale Pilsen.
It was quite entertaining when Niall got into talking about the stuff he loved about the Philippines or about Cebu (it was this topic that actually helped him warm up to the cameras)—and, no, it didn’t stop at beer. Asked if he knew a few Cebuano phrases or expressions, he exclaimed earnestly, “I know some! My favorite is ‘Party, party!’” We laughed and told him that that wasn’t even Cebuano. He just turned red and said that, well, that was what most of his Cebuano drinking buddies said all the time. He also shared that he found it amusing how, every time he goes shopping at a local store and he pays for something at the counter, the cashier would say, “Ma’am, sir, I received five hundred pesos.” Sometimes he’d even buy something useless just to hear a cashier say “Ma’am, sir, I received five hundred pesos”—and he would actually get disappointed if he ended up with a cashier who wouldn’t utter the line!
No, he wasn’t allowed to have a beer during the shoot, but I did get them some tropical fruit juice. Old hat, I know, but it was something I needed to have in the picture to set the mood—I was thinking The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” where it goes, “Bodies in the sand/ Tropical drink melting in your hand…” Niall admitted that he couldn’t get enough of our beaches, and that he was so looking forward to doing Boracay for their honeymoon. Here I was daydreaming of the Irish countryside, and here they were willing to give anything to be able to live here!
I won’t take credit for the styling because we didn’t pick their clothes until the day of the shoot, and everything came from their own closets—or suitcases, as the case may be (I don’t take credit if I didn’t work on it from mood board development to sourcing to pre-shoot fittings and all that good stuff). But I was pretty happy with some of the dresses—the neckerchief dress in particular got me weak in the knees, ‘cause nothing spelled plantation chic quite like it did. And thanks to accessories designer Grace Querickiol-Nigel for letting me borrow bags upon bags of archival and new Gracie Q stuff! You never know when you need accessories to save your life!
It wasn’t so bad shooting at the Plantation Bay, after all. This I concluded after finding myself standing right by the deck of their singular Riverboat Suite (situated on the edge of their Children’s Lagoon, right across the Tahiti- or Syechelles-themed villas, if I am not mistaken) and I thought, Wow, this place just gets more and more beautiful as time goes by! I even fell head over heels with the white wooden railings that led to their gazebos. One thing’s for sure: This shoot has prompted me to reassess the rules I’ve made for myself—a place as beautiful as this doesn’t deserve to be punished just ‘cause I was unwilling to do what everybody else was doing! What was more magical was the feeling that washed over me as I treaded barefoot down Orion Beach and was brought back to those times some 10 or so years ago when I’d come here to style some of the more important shoots in my career (one of them a collaboration with the great Wig Tysmans)—it was like I’d come home.
Niall Francis and Cherry O’Brien (and their son Leo) | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Marigondon, Mactan, on January 8, 2012 | Main photographer: Malou Pages-Solomon for Shutterfairy (click here to view Malou’s photos) | Hair and makeup by Carditho Sarcol | Accessories, Gracie Q
The theme they chose was cowboy/ranch hand—Carl Bual, the groom-to-be, was a veterinary sales rep who’d grown up in Bukidnon surrounded by horses, and he wanted to relive that time in his life. And who was I to say no to an equine-related concept (those of you who’ve been following my blog will know I’ve become terribly obsessed with horses)? Aside from horses and stables and cowboy boots, I was also imagining throwing a big bad pickup truck into the mix. You see, I wanted a “gritty” feel, if you know what I mean. Something action-packed, and somewhat reckless, even. Especially after Carl made it very clear that “I don’t want anything cheesy—no hugging, no squeezing, no kissing.” This assertion took Malou Pages (of Shutterfairy Photography, where I am currently apprenticing), the main photographer, by surprise, and I think we almost choked on our macarons when Carl said this. By the look in Malou’s face, I could tell she was thinking, But what’s an engagement shoot without the hugging, the squeezing and the kissing? But, well, as the saying goes, “To each his own.” Besides, what else were you supposed to expect from a guy like Carl, what with his stocky frame, thundering baritone, and hands the size of a giant’s? (I swear, at one point I caught myself thinking, I better give this guy what he wants, lest I want to end up being sucker punched in the face!)
Conversely, the fiancée RJ Serafin (first cousin to my good friend Ace, Vice Mayor of Tabogon, Cebu—what a small world, right?) didn’t want the whole thing to be too mannish. For one, she didn’t want her outfits to be too western-inspired. Incredibly soft-spoken and ever the lady (she’s a preschool teacher, after all), she wanted a little girly touch, a little romance. I told her the cowboy boots were non-negotiable, and so were the cowboy hats, but promised I was gonna stay away from dirty jeans or anything plaid and/or gingham. At first I was tempted to slap a little Gigi Mortimer kicking back at her country cottage in Harrington, NY, against the mood board—i.e., romantic equestrian—but immediately I scratched that as soon as I realized that chunky sweaters and traditional knee-high riding boots would be too much for RJ’s slight frame (yes, she’s pint-sized, the polar opposite of Carl’s colossus). Thankfully, I was able to dig up a couple of floral dresses from The Fab Grab’s archives. I particularly fell in love with this ‘90s-style black floral prairie dress. It reminded me of what Cynthia Geary’s character Kellie wore some 35 minutes into the movie 8 Seconds, when she approached Luke Perry’s character as he was forking hay in a barn, and then she uttered the most beautiful lines: “Nothing you could say or do would make you less in my eyes. I love you. You don’t have to be perfect for me.” (It’s my favorite scene from that movie, especially since, after that, Perry’s character replied, “You may have to prove it. Right now, [when] I’m covered in horse shit,” and then they kissed, and Karla Bonoff’s “Standing Right Next to Me” started playing in the background, and then it was fade out, and fade in to the wedding scene.) For this reason alone I knew I just had to get this black dress into the picture, to add a little touch of 8 Seconds to my work! I didn’t want RJ’s wardrobe to be all dresses, though, so I took this one dress—the green floral one, which was a bit sheer—and asked her to wear it unbuttoned in the front, like as an open robe/maxi cardigan, over a little boy’s tank top and a pair of denim Daisy Dukes. I was taking a cue from the latest craze that had been sweeping the Lookbook.nu and Chictopia communities, which entailed, well, girls wearing their sheer maxi dresses (most of them from UNIF Clothing) unbuttoned in the front, as maxi cardigans. (Before this shoot I’d also adopted this style for one of the outfits that the model Fretzel Buenconsejo was going to wear for the Gracie Q catalog—click here and look for the series of photos where she’s frolicking with little children.) Add a Swarovski-encrusted seashell-colored stretch-jersey gala gown by Lotte Delima-Edwards to the mix, and we were on our way to being a far cry from the hackneyed cowgirl look that RJ wanted to avoid.
Funny thing happened on the day of the shoot. You know the macho Carl who’d said that hugging, squeezing and kissing in photos wasn’t his style? Well, that was still the same Carl who hopped into the van that was to take us to our location—he wouldn’t even laugh at the makeup artist’s jokes, he’d just chuckle and shake his head! When we arrived at our destination, though, as RJ was having her hair and makeup done, he was reckless enough to grab a bottle of Red Horse beer before seeking to get acquainted with, well, the actual horses that we were going to be using for the shoot. At first I was a little concerned about this, and about how RJ just sat there and encouraged this foolhardy behavior, but it would soon prove to work to our advantage: after a few bottles, Carl suddenly became so invigorated and cheerful—and he was suddenly OK with the idea of hugging and squeezing and kissing in front of the cameras! He’s gonna hate me for writing this down on here, but, hey, people are gonna see these photos, anyway, and are gonna wonder what happened to all the macho, so better put the whole backstory out there, right? I still got what I wanted, though, in the form of a badass pickup truck, which was “gritty” enough for me—I’m sorry, but there’s something about mud and dirt and off-road wheels (and mud and dirt on off-road wheels) that make me feel, um, alive (guess there’s still some macho in me, after all).
We were going to do this whole thing in Bukidnon—this would’ve been my first out-of-town shoot (well, save for the occasional sessions in Ormoc) and my first time to visit that part of the country (i.e., Mindanao). But we’d ran into some scheduling conflicts (November last year brought in an exceptional run of green lights—click here to read about our jampacked schedule that month), which had left us with no choice but to do it a little closer to home. Thank God Carl’s good friend Marlo Causin, a veterinarian, had a ranch (that also doubled as a fishing pond) that was only an hour and a half southwest of Cebu, in Barili. At first I was kind of in a funk about Bukidnon not happening, but when we arrived at the Causin property I immediately thanked the heavens that it didn’t—one, Marlo a champion host (I won’t enumerate all the stuff he made us eat that day); and two, I got to meet and photograph the most beautiful horse I’d ever seen in this part of the world!
Sabina, that’s how they named her. Probably because she looked like a sabino-white. I say “looked like” because she’s not a true sabino-white—if you look closely (e.g., at her muzzle), you will see her underlying skin is somewhat grayish. Of course, goes without saying that this did not make her less stunning. She was so towering and regal, she reminded me of the Andalusians I’d met at the Kentucky Horse Park in the summer of 2010. And unabashedly affectionate, too—she was always trying to plant a kiss on Carl’s cheek, like she wanted to steal the show from RJ and be the bride-to-be!—and was a darling in front of the cameras, like she’d grown up around show business! She was just a joy to photograph that I didn’t want the set that featured her to ever end! Malou kept saying, “OK, next outfit! Next set!” but a lot of times I had to pretend not not to hear her, ‘cause I just didn’t wanna let go of Sabina!
The Causins had two other horses in the property: Venus, Sabina’s daughter, and a strapping stallion named Bravo. We’d been told beforehand that we couldn’t borrow Venus for the sitting ‘cause she’d been in a foul mood lately, so she had to be kept at bay (and true enough, when I went to see her, she kind of threatened to buck!). We were supposed to use Bravo for one of the sets, but then just as his caretakers were readying him we noticed that he had a nasty cut in his right pastern, and so we had no choice but to let him sit this one out. Shame, because he was a beauty, too, what with his shiny chestnut coat and all! But I’ll be back for you one day, Bravo (I hope)!
I love it when the theme is country or cowboy. And not just for the obvious reason that it allows me to be around and/or photograph horses, but also because it’s the kind of theme where my subjects can have a crazy good time and be spontaneous, you know? Like, they’re kind of in character, but at the same time they can just be themselves. No contrived poses or positions, no fidgeting because the outfits make them uncomfortable, no trying hard to borrow, say, Kristine Hermosa’s smile (swear to God, I can’t wait to see the day I’ll hear the last of couples wanting to “copy” the Kristine-Oyo engagement photos!). I guess this is the exact same reason why I love the grunge theme, too. It’s, like, there’s a theme, but it’s not there, you know? It stylizes your subjects, but doesn’t disguise them.
On our drive back to the city after the shoot had wrapped, Carl and RJ were discussing song choice—i.e., what song to incorporate in the slideshow of their engagement photos (to be played during the wedding reception). Although between the two of them they shared a couple of love songs that meant a lot to them, this time they wanted something from the country genre, in keeping with the theme. I was quick to dispense advice on the matter, just ‘cause two of the most beautiful love songs I’d ever heard in my life happened to be from that genre: the aforementioned “Standing Right Next to Me” by Karla Bonoff, from 8 Seconds (perfect, in fact, because didn’t they play it in the movie’s wedding scene?), and “I Cross My Heart” by George Strait. They’d never heard of these songs before, and I didn’t have my iPod handy, so I recited to them a couple of lines from both. Needless to say, they loved them, and Carl was quick to declare that, of the two, he liked the George Strait more. I don’t know if they ended up using either, but I sure hope they did.
Carlos Bual and Rachelle Jean Serafin | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Barili, Cebu, on November 20, 2011 | Main photographers: Malou Pages-Solomon for Shutterfairy, Charisse Darlene Calo and Paul Armand Calo for Calography (click here to view some of Malou’s photos) | Hair and makeup by JingJing F. Maching | Amaranth pink floral-print cotton-blend dress with cap sleeves, black floral-print button-front prairie dress, and hunter green floral-print button-front stretch-silk shirtdress (worn as maxi cardigan), all from The Fab Grab | White tank top, Forever 21 | Swarovski-encrusted seashell stretch-jersey gala gown, Lotte Delima-Edwards | Accessories, Gracie Q
There are those who let their so-called achievements, however insignificant, get to their heads. And then there are those who, no matter the high places their career has taken them, keep their feet firmly planted in the ground. Go ahead and count the model Fretzel Buenconsejo in the latter category. Modest to a fault—i.e., to a point of being self-deprecating—and never one to attract attention to herself, she would rather talk about her humble beginnings than, say, pull out her imposing portfolio, or joke about her flaws than brag about her good looks.
Such was what went down when she showed up for the casting call for the accessories design firm Gracie Q’s spring/summer 2012 catalog shoot. I kept nudging her so she would take her portfolio out of her tote and spread it out on the table, but she just sat there, beaming, and talking about her childhood. In my mind I was thinking, What is she so scared of? Why is she not sharing her book? Had I been in her place, the portfolio would’ve been slammed against the tabletop before I could even think of sitting down, the thickness of it enough to cause a thundering BOOM!, and so there would be no need for my mouth to do the talking. When I say she’s been to high places, you see, I really mean high places: After a 6-year stint in Cebu, she’d moved to Manila sometime in the mid-2000s, and that’s when she’d reached a really prolific peak, appearing in high-profile ad campaigns for the likes of Gatorade, McDonald’s, Paradise Mango Rum Liqueur, even Pampers. Perhaps her best-known appearance was for a campaign for instant coffee behemoth Nescafé—one of my favorite stories to tell was how, standing the in Buendia station one day a couple of years back, I’d broken into goosebumps when an MRT train with Fretzel’s face (holding up a cup of coffee) plastered on its side had pulled up in front of me. I had to pull this anecdote out of my pocket that evening of the casting call because Fretzel couldn’t bring herself to do it!
Well, as it turned out, my story proved to be near useless, because all the Gracie Q team had ears for were Fretzel’s stories about growing up in a small town (Dalaguete), and about the little-girl antics that gave her this one scar on her elbow and that one scar on her knee (other girls would go to great lengths to hide their imperfections, but this girl is proud of hers!), etc. Gracie Q proprietor/head designer Grace Querickiol-Nigel was completely blown away by her modesty and sense of humor, and wasted no time in declaring, “We have found our girl! I want her for my catalog!” (And Malou Pages [of Shutterfairy Photography, where I am currently apprenticing], who’d been commissioned to photograph the whole thing, would later recount that something about Fretzel had given her “a warm fuzzy feeling deep inside,” and that “she’s the kind of person who could tell me stories all day long while I chase her around with my camera!”) Just like that, the search was over, and the team didn’t even bother looking at the other names the list.
For what it’s worth, I knew right from the start that they were going to pick Fretzel—I just didn’t know they would pick her for her “backstory,” and that the looks factor would only come secondary. When Grace told me at the onset of this project, you see, that the collection we were shooting was “inspired by all things Cebu,” I immediately thought, They’re gonna need a very Filipina-, very Cebuana-looking model, and so I wasted no time in contacting Fretzel (perfect timing, too, ‘cause she’d just moved back to Cebu to start a new business venture with her boyfriend Jeff). It wouldn’t be until later on in the production process that I would understand the message that Grace wanted to convey via this collection: “I want to bring out the island girl in the wearer. That’s pretty much the effect I want this collection to achieve. I want the Gracie Q woman to wear these pieces and—WHAM!—she is transported to another place in time, [that place being] our beautiful island of Cebu.”
The Cebu in her mind being the Cebu she grew up in—the virgin beaches, the windy hills, the colorful “jeepneys” (and not the tall buildings that you see now). Which was why Fretzel’s stories of her childhood in a small beach town struck a chord with Grace—Fretzel’s Cebu echoed a lot of Grace’s Cebu, the Cebu that the Gracie Q team wanted the world to see. The more I think about it, now the more it makes sense to me: Of course, it was only natural that they would pick a down-to-earth girl to represent a truly down-to-earth collection. It’s a match made in heaven!
Already wrote about this a couple of months back, but it’s worth mentioning again that, yes, Fretzel did me proud on the day of the shoot, too! And I’m not just talking about how she surprised me by bringing a copy of the book Filipina: A Tribute to the Filipino Woman (2004), which included a photograph of her by the great Wig Tysmans from a shoot that I’d styled more than a decade ago (yes, I can now safely say that at least one of my works have made it into a bona fide book!). She displayed utmost professionalism, arriving 30 minutes before everybody else, moving at a bullet-like pace, helping with the styling, dispensing invaluable shooting advice (like only a seasoned model could), and just being a lynch pin—all this while winning everyone over with her sunny personality, and allotting the right amount of goofiness to keep the mood light. What we thought was going to take two days to shoot only took one day (7 hours to be exact), thanks to her!
But enough about Fretzel. Let’s talk about Gracie Q. One of the reasons this project was special to me was ‘cause it gave me the chance to work with a fashion brand “with a conscience”—not only do they teach skills and provide opportunities to people who need them the most, they are also making noble efforts to be responsible stewards of environmental conservation, taking other manufacturing firms’ scrap materials and turning them into beautiful little trinkets. It’s an admirable feat, really, and truly one worth emulating. But don’t just take my word for it. Below I have included the note that Grace wrote to accompany the catalog. Read on and you will see why Gracie Q is something you as a Cebuano can truly be proud of.
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The Gracie Q journey began five years ago when an accessories designer friend instilled a passion for craftsmanship in me. She had asked for a help and I obliged, not knowing that one afternoon in her table would spark a fire inside of me. What an exhilarating feeling to find out I could come up with things of beauty with my own bare hands! I would soon run into the need for help myself, and, as I was commissioned by an outdoor furniture manufacturing firm to conduct skills transference classes to indigents (yes, I was a livelihood coach in a past life), that was when I discovered the joy of reaching out—i.e., of teaching people some skills, and of rewarding them in the end by giving them the opportunity to make their lives better with their newfound craft. Safe to say that that was how this microenterprise was born—by marrying my thirst for creating beautiful things with my desire to help my brothers in need.
Halfway through our ride, my team and I became conscious that we were missing a very essential ingredient, and that’s when we decided to embrace a commitment to environmental sustainability. Partnering with the aforementioned outdoor furniture manufacturer, we found ways to take their scrap and leftover materials to help reinforce their zero-waste/zero-landfill policies, put these very pieces in our own depots and drawing tables, and incorporate them into our own design methodologies and end products. No easy feat, but came with a sense of gratification like no other knowing that, in our own little way, we were contributing to efforts to protect the environment and to make this planet a better place for generations to come.
After five years, and having fulfilled three very important goals—to immerse our hands in the thrills of craftsmanship, to provide meaningful opportunities to those who need it most, and to be responsible to the environment—you’d think that Gracie Q is pretty much where we want it to be, and that we could not ask for more. Tempting as it is to stop and rest on our laurels, we felt we owed it to Gracie Q to give it some semblance of a brand—in other words, to go back and zero in on our creative direction, now that our social responsibility objectives had been carried out and set in stone. We wanted Gracie Q to be more than just an “exporter” (if you come to think of it, “exporter” was no longer a fitting term, anyway, as we were starting to make our products available locally, too)—we wanted to turn it into a bona fide brand.
And so here we are today, with a new creative team at the helm. We now have people who help us make valuable branding and image decisions, forecast trends, study the market, generate design concepts, and inject a little creative discipline into our operations. Whereas for the past five years our creative process took a rather haphazard route, relying mainly on whim and hasty bursts of inspiration, we now have instruments to funnel and filter all these to make sure the resulting messages/concepts are stylish without being inconsistent, and enduring without being stagnant.
The collection that you are seeing now via the catalog that is in your hands—and, if we may add, the catalog itself—is a product of this new creative process, a process that, although very painstaking and rigid, no doubt takes Gracie Q to new heights, which is no less than the plateau that it deserves. I will admit that at first there were reservations in my part, and the whole thing proved to be too overwhelming at times, but I knew it was all worth it when I saw that it only elaborated on rather than disguised the Gracie Q aesthetic. Think of it as a makeover of sorts. The same old Gracie Q, only this time with more discipline, more structure, and, consequently, more substance! People ask me, “But isn’t it like you’re starting over again?” Which was precisely the point. The walls have been built—the skills, the dedication to help others, the commitment to protect the planet—and so now it was time to go back to the foundation and strengthen it. It really is like coming full circle. A lot like coming home!
Speaking of coming home, that was exactly what we had in mind when we were designing this new collection. In the past, you see, we’d looked literally everywhere for inspiration—e.g., a certain collection would evoke a bit of Paris here, a little New York there, etc., as a result of me trying to encapsulate all my travel memories into one receptacle—and that’s probably why we’d never had a “structured” collection, ‘cause our references were too varied! This time, though, we decided to look at just one place—and we decided for it to be a tropical island paradise. Why? How? Well, it all started when we were thinking of a muse. What type of woman did we want to see these pieces on? Who did we want to design for? The quirky cool London woman who lived for Glastonbury, like, say, Kate Moss? The sophisticated yet mischievous Manhattanite editor who loved to hit the shooting ranges during her downtime, like Helen Lee Schifter? The preternaturally leggy Czech whose, as the song goes, “hair was Harlow gold,” like Karolina Kurkova? It was tremendously difficult having to pick just one woman when we wanted to do them all! And then it struck us: What did all these women have in common? We recalled a series of photographs of Ms. Moss kicking it at a beach in Phuket. Dug up images of the regal Ms. Schifter unwinding at St. Barth’s. Paparazzi shots of Ms. Kurkova in Ipanema. All of which led to the conclusion that, no matter what type of woman you were, and wherever in the world you were from, you were always going to be an island girl at heart. That’s how we came up with the idea of island-inspired pieces. And where better to look for inspiration than in our own backyard? Yes, to those of you who are not aware, Gracie Q was born and raised in an island paradise—that’s the island of Cebu to you.
Dubbed “Paradiso,” this collection boasts of hues inspired by our cool blue waters and, well, some of their creatures (the neon damselfish of Sumilon had a shade of blue that proved too irresistible), gradients that evoke breathtaking sunsets seen from a Lapu-Lapu beachfront, and textures that recall, say, afternoon hikes up the bucolic flower-growing hills of Busay. We have chandelier neckpieces that allude to Sinulog festival costumes, patterns borrowed from hand-painted native guitars, finishes that pay proper tribute the ever-vibrant “jeepneys” that roam our streets. But perhaps the most Cebuano of the bunch—our pièces de résistance, so to speak—are those pieces with accents inspired by the pusô, a native dish in which rice is cooked in a diamond-shaped packet made of woven coconut leaves. Really, when these little accents jingle-jangle around your wrists or against your collar, what other place on earth comes to mind? (What’s more, they are made from scraps of the material used to create hand-woven chairs—stylish and sustainable!)
Of course, there is one thing more Cebuano than even the pusô. 10 years ago I read a passage in a local magazine that said something to the effect of: “Few things are as redolent of that classic Cebu charm as…the Cebuana smile.” How very true! When I am in a different city or country and I see a Filipina woman smile in a way that makes my heart skip a beat, I immediately think, “This woman is Cebuana”—and almost always I am proven right! That was exactly what I had in mind when we were scouting for a face to represent this collection and grace this catalog. When the model Fretzel Buenconsejo stepped into our offices for the casting call, with a smile as warm as an island breeze, we knew right then and there she was exactly who we were looking for. Fretzel is the quintessential island girl—grew up riding bikes along the coastal roads of Dalaguete (a beachfront town some 50 miles southwest of Cebu City), a sucker for seafood and tropical fruit, and proud of her skin, which happens to be the color of brown sugar. She’s the kind of girl whose laughter tells stories of endless summers, whose laid-back, unassuming nature reminds you of sweet little siestas, and whose zest for life has that characteristic tang of a tropical fruit juice. In other words, she’s the kind of girl we hope every woman transforms into once they slip on a piece or two from this collection.
On behalf of the Gracie Q team, allow me welcome you to our island home. As one famous line from a movie goes, “Trust me, it’s paradise.” And we’re glad we have the chance to bring out the island girl in you and make you look the part.
Fretzel Buenconsejo for Gracie Q | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Lapu-Lapu, Cebu, on November 19, 2011 | Main photographers: Malou Pages-Solomon for Shutterfairy, Charisse Darlene Calo for Calography (click here to view some of Malou’s photos) | Hair and makeup by Joe Branzuela | Special thanks to Jeff Enecio and Vanity Salinana | Maya blue/grey unishoulder drape goddess dress, Lotte Delima-Edwards | Orange red/sienna/carrot striped top, Forever 21 | White jersey multi-way dress, EJ Relampagos | Persian green/lime floral-print silk chiffon kaftan with Indian silk trimming, Kate Torralba | Cyan/chartreuse zebra-print cotton/jersey blend keyhole-neck floor-length kaftan, Lotte Delima-Edwards | Black strapless corset minidress, EJ Relampagos | Strapped wooden wedge sandals, Shandar