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