When she tells you she’s a corporate lawyer by profession, it’s easy to imagine Ria Alazas being up to her eyes in paperwork most of the time, or her closet skewing towards boardroom chic in conservative palettes (you know: sharp pantsuits in black or grey, maybe some pencil skirts, white button-front shirts or secretary blouses, year-round black pumps, etc.). And then you learn that she actually manages to find time in her hectic schedule to dabble in making clothes: “It all started two years ago, in early 2011,” she shares. “I felt I needed to do something creative to sort of balance out the seriousness of my law practice, so I thought, Why not make clothes?” And we’re not talking office staples in drab here, no. We’re talking the opposite end of the spectrum: getaway-ready pieces that run the gamut from carefree—kimono wrap tops, flowy palazzo trousers—to glamorous—little slinky dresses—in vibrant colors and adventurous (and at times whimsical) prints!
The line’s aesthetic draws on Ria’s resort city roots; born and raised in Cebu, she is a sucker for lazy weekend afternoons spent boating to nearby islands and/or lazing around on the beach, and, perhaps a little more often than she should, she flies in (she lives in Manila now, ‘cause that’s where the law firm she works for is based out of) for these fixes. It also reflects her globe-trotting tendencies; she likes to punctuate her busy seasons with grand trips with her family. In fact, the line’s name Habibi “is something I picked up from one of my travels—from a trip to Egypt, to be more specific. It is Arabic for beloved, sweetheart, or friend. A form of endearment in those parts.” Safe to assume her thirst for escapism has become sort of a vice, but it’s a good vice because it only provides her with inspiration for this second enterprise of hers. You can say that each Habibi piece is an articulation of the adventures of a wanderlusting soul.
Habibi first appeared on my radar late last year, as I was preparing for a beach culture-themed engagement shoot for a surfer couple, and I wanted some Talitha Getty-esque pieces in the picture to compensate for the tomboy elements, and I stumbled upon an online catalog showcasing their gorgeous kimono tops and kaftans in punchy tropical and geometric prints. As luck would have it, by the time we called them to get our hands on some of the pieces, they had already sold out. Ria would end up rebooting that collection—“The kimono tops are our bestsellers,” she enthuses—early this year, and that was how I finally got the chance to use them for a shoot (an in-class shoot that I staged for the graduating Fashion Design students of the University of San Carlos Technological Center’s College of Architecture and Fine Arts as part of a styling seminar that I’d been commissioned to conduct). Working with those kimono tops, it was easy for me to tell why they were their hottest sellers: they were so versatile you could style/wear them a hundred ways—you could go from tomboy skater to Carly Simon-style boho-folk in a blink of an eye, and still make them work!
Banking on this virtue—i.e., of versatility—Ria proceeded to put together her Resort 2014 collection, perhaps her most ambitious collection to date. She’s shied away from her signature kimono tops and other tried-and-true pieces/silhouettes for now, for fear of coming off as clichéd, but that doesn’t mean the versatility quotient has been compromised—as a matter of fact, it is now more palpable than ever and has become the collection’s main selling point! They’ve got “infinity jumpsuits,” named such because you can literally wear them countless ways: one-shoulder, halter, keyhole, deep or plunging V—you name it, you’re covered! In the same manner, their “infinity harems” can be reswizzled up to six different ways, too (you can even yank them up so they becomes jumpsuits). And then there’s the reversible dresses, which can take you from day to night (or from boardroom to beach, if you will) with just a few twists and turns! And by swearing by this virtue, they have stumbled on another virtue: that of sustainability. Making what they call “multiway pieces” has allowed them to debunk the notion that fashion is frivolous. “Now I’m obsessed with them because you can own just a few pieces and you can ‘recycle’ them over and over,” Ria gushes. “There is no need to throw them out, too, because, as long as you have an agile imagination, you can make them adapt to new trends!” In other words, fashion with a conscience! So it’s not just about putting into good use her travel experiences now—it’s about changing the game, too! Is it ambitious? I would be inclined to think so, if my judgment weren’t so clouded by the awesomeness of Ria being this wise beyond her entrepreneurial years. I mean, only two years into this business, and already she’s talking about sustainability? That counts for something, right?
Speaking of game-changing, there is also something to be said for how this “multiway” thing also promises to jell well with—and nudges them closer towards—one long-standing aspiration/vision of Ria’s, which is to be able to create clothes for women of all shapes and sizes, whether you’re a size 1 or a size 12. “It’s something I’m really passionate about,” the designer shares. “If you look at our old catalogs, you will see that, since the start, I’ve always had this fondness for asking real women to pose for our pictures. I like to call them my muses. I’ve had Marian Quitevis pose for us, as well as Mie Shinozuka, Ina Alazas, and Marge Pegels. Well, I’ve used Marge Gutierrez, who is a ramp model, but that’s it! Other than that, it’s all women and girls who are not really professional models, but who are as crazy about dressing up as I am! Because that’s the message that I want to get across to people: we are trying to make clothes that can flatter different body types!” (Writer’s note: Aside from Gutierrez, Cebuana model Joneilyn Alburo has also appeared in one of their catalogs—the one that I shot two months ago—but that wasn’t Ria’s call, that was mine.)
Makes perfect sense, then, that they chose Alessandra Ghidoni to be the face of this new collection of theirs: not only is the 20-year-old Filipino-Italian beauty (if she looks familiar, that’s because she’s appeared on a couple of magazine covers and print ads, most notably for CRB Derm Center) an avid traveler like Ria (she likes exploring Barcelona, Florence and Paris when she’s taking short breaks from business school in Milan, and whenever she’s in our part of the world she makes it a point to make quick escapes to Boracay or Bantayan every once in a while), and not only did she grow up a lover of nature and the environment (a good chunk of her childhood was spent going on tree-planting and coastal cleanup trips, or going on nature trips in the Italian countryside with her father), she also shares the same dressing philosophy as Ria—that is, a woman shouldn’t work to alter her body in order to fit into certain clothes; rather, she should go for clothes that work to flatter her body type. “I loved the ‘infinity jumpsuits’ and the palazzos,” she would later on reveal. “They make me look taller than I actually am by making my legs look longer!” She would also later declare that she got a kick out of the eclectic/exotic prints. “I can actually picture myself wearing these [prints in real life]! They’re the kind of prints I would go for when I’m packing for a tropical getaway—like to Bali or Boracay or something.”
Shooting a catalog/look book for “multiway” pieces can be really tricky because you have to showcase the different ways they can be worn (because that’s the whole point, right?). I promised everyone we were going to be done with this shoot in under four hours, because that was how long my previous catalog assignment had taken, but then we ended up extending another four hours! It was a necessary price to pay to make sure no stone would be left unturned, though—I had to make Ria take full control of the styling aspect, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to cover decent ground! Good thing Alessandra was such a trouper and did not complain one bit! Frightened me a teeny-tiny bit, too, when the clock struck six and we were almost out of available light and still had six pieces/outfits waiting to be shot! Good thing my friend (and Ria’s cousin) Jay Chiongban Young showed up at the set with his 86-inch parabolic umbrella (Jay is a photographer, too, and in fact it was him who did most of Habibi’s previous catalogs, and for some reason he likes to take his studio lighting equipment with him wherever he goes—and thank God for that, right?)!
It was a long and tiring assignment, but that is not to say I did not enjoy every minute of it. Like Alessandra, I would stop for a while to marvel at the prints and patterns. How could I not, when they reminded me of those churned out by the legendary Swiss textile house Abraham Ltd. , favored by the Parisian greats back in the day—suddenly my mind was awash with images of mid-‘60s Christian Dior and Givenchy, and mid-‘80s Yves Saint Laurent! And, for a while there, as I was shooting the jumpsuits, I got to pretend that I was in Saint-Tropez circa 1973, working with Helmut Newton and Grace Coddington on a poolside cocktail-themed fashion story for British Vogue. Yes, as Alessandra was thinking Bali or Boracay, I was indulging in a little escapism of my own, transported to another place in time. This was Habibi’s effect on us, and I’m sure it’s the same for everybody else who wears or sees these clothes. Not rocket science: what, to begin with, is inspired by escapism is bound to evoke, well, escapism—it’s a vicious circle, apparently.
Habibi by Ria Alazas Resort 2014 catalog/look book | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City on August 25, 2013 | Styled by Ria Alazas and Angelo Kangleon | Model: Alessandra Ghidoni | Hair and makeup by Owen Taboada | Accessories by Gracie Q | Special thanks to Jay Chiongbian Young