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What’s next in fashion? The life of the mind.

Esme Palaganas talks to MANTLE about a life in fashion as a creative entrepreneur, designer, and Chevening scholar. She also shares her vision and ideas for the Philippine creative and fashion scenes.

“Whatever city I’m in—New York, Tokyo, or here in London—I love the trains. Especially here, the transport system is so efficient,” Esme Palaganas eagerly shares as we catch up over a transcontinental Zoom call. “London is such a big city, but it’s great in just under fifteen to twenty minutes, you’re able to meet different groups of people from one side of town to the next.”

It’s London’s energy and multicultural atmosphere that fuels her creativity, says the fashion designer, creative practitioner, and entrepreneur. Since she moved to the capital city about four months ago to study at the City, University of London, Esme has (safely) toured museums, attended musicals, and visited shops to her heart’s content—but she does so with a creative entrepreneur and visionary’s eye.

Esme is wearing embroidered pants by ANTONINA/Nina Amoncio (@ninaamoncio)

“Everytime I walk around London, visit a shop, or attend a musical, I always think to myself: ‘Hey, Filipinos are on the same caliber—if not better—as these artists and creatives. I would walk in these museum shops, and I could already see our Filipino brands here. I’d think, ‘oh, Tropik Beatnik would be great in this spot,” or ‘oh, this Filipino artist could thrive in this space. Just looking around London reminds me of the creative people that we have back home. That is really inspiring for me,” Esme muses. 

That Esme looks at London this way makes sense, given her decorated background: 

First, as the founder of Basic Movement, an experimental retail platform for collaborative product designs with artists and artisans;

Second, as the co-founder of PHx Fashion Conference, an initiative that pushes Filipino brands toward global recognition, and a platform for supporting creative ideas;

Third, as the Policy and Planning Chairperson of the Philippine Fashion Coalition, a business support organization that works with the Philippine government to lobby policies that will promote Filipino culture within the fashion industry and protect the rights of fashion and creative professionals, 

And fourth, as an eager student (her program at London is her second postgraduate degree; previously, she took up a graduate degree in entrepreneurship from De La Salle University as a part-time student) who is just brimming with ideas on how to contribute to the Philippine fashion and creative community. 

As such, the Chevening scholarship only catapults Esme toward realizing her goals not just for herself, but for the communities that she represents and works hard for. With such a multifaceted and active mind, it’s no wonder then that wherever Esme goes and looks, opportunities and ideas present themselves.  

A Holistic Education

It’s no easy feat landing a Chevening scholarship, a global program that enables outstanding emerging leaders to pursue a one-year postgraduate degree in their chosen university in the United Kingdom. In Esme’s batch (2021), from 64,000 applicants all over the world, only 1,638 scholars were selected, with 34 Filipinos making it to the mix. 

The local cohort follows the footsteps of prominent Filipino Chevening alumni such as Howie Severino, a multi-awarded broadcast journalist; the late Chito Gascon, former Chairperson of The Commission on Human Rights; Manuel Teehankee, the Philippine Ambassador to the World Trade Organization; and Baby Ruth Villarama, an award-winning filmmaker.

The 2021-2022 Filipino delegation caps a total of 521 Chevening scholars from the Philippines, the second largest group since the scholarship was made accessible to Filipinos in 1984. The latest batch is a diverse group of professionals, with leaders from the academe, private companies, government agencies, non-government organizations, the military forces, and creative industries. For the first time since its inception, 23 women scholars outnumber the 11 men, with five of the total identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community. (Note for interested applicants: this year, the Chevening scholarship applications will be open from August to November.)

“Most of the time, the Chevening scholarship was given to Filipino professionals like doctors, lawyers, journalists, and the like. However, I’ve seen in recent years that they’ve been including creatives in the mix,” Esme explains, citing British-trained milliner Mich Dulce as an example. “For our batch, two of us are in the creative field: he’s an architect who is focusing on urban design and policy, while I am going for creative industries, intellectual property, and fashion in general.”

Esme is currently taking an MA in Innovation, Leadership, and Creativity at the Bayes Business School of City, University of London. “It’s a mix of creative businesses, innovation, management and leadership, and Intellectual Property Law. It’s exciting because it all matches up with everything that I have been doing in the past few years,” she adds. “There were people who thought that I was going to gun for London College of Fashion or Central Saint Martins, but I decided on a creative and innovation business course to further understand how we could grow creative businesses and help creative leaders in the Philippines, mainly through the PHx Fashion Conference and the Philippine Fashion Coalition.”

With a mix of face-to-face and online classes, Esme’s school days have been anything but boring. “On a given day, in the morning, we’d be discussing intellectual property law, valuation, and numbers, and in the afternoon, I’ll be working with clay and post-its because we’re working on a creative design and creative problem solving module. It’s a good mix of the two. So it’s been a very interesting semester.”

But what Esme likes the most about the Chevening scholarship is that the organization pushes them to enrich their life outside of school. “We’re located within Central London, and there’s just so many things to do here. That’s also one of the main things that Chevening is pushing for its scholars: to pursue your passions outside of your education and explore what the city has to offer.”

The Working Student

Esme’s extensive work in the Philippine creative and fashion scene played a big part in her admission to the Chevening scholarship. “Many people, especially in the creative field, have been asking me how they could apply for the program,” she says. “One of the main things that I needed to do was to answer four long essay questions, most of which delved into the goals that prospective applicants wanted to achieve through the scholarship. As for myself, choosing London and Chevening aligned with my objectives, as London is such a creative city with a strong financial and technology industry.”

The designer sees technology as a key driver in supporting more creatives and fashion designers in the Philippines—a mission that she has been consistently working toward at Basic Movement. “Even though I’m in fashion, I want to get into tech to understand how this can bridge market opportunities for designers, especially those who are outside of Manila—we have a lot of great talent outside the city,” she explains, referencing Etsy, an e-commerce platform primarily for handmade or vintage items, as inspiration. “It’s something I want to learn both within my course and within London’s tech hubs.”

Esme also looks forward to applying the lessons she’ll learn on intellectual property for culture and creative work. “Over the past few months, we at the Philippine Fashion Coalition have been working with Congress to create bills that can help protect our textile industry. My law and IP classes will especially be helpful for this, as we’ve constantly discussed in the hearings how IP can be applied to culture,” she explains, noting how cases like the fraudulent sale of fake Cordillera weaves and textiles emphasize the need for stronger IP laws in the country. “It’s going to be interesting how I can understand this part of the fashion industry from the perspective of the law and apply it to our work at the PFC.”

Additionally, with London being a creative and cosmopolitan city, the British capital is also rife with networking possibilities for Esme and Philippine fashion. “With the PHx Fashion Conference, in partnership with Tetta Ortiz Matera, the H3O Fashion Bureau, and the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions, we were able to send eight young and promising designers to Tokyo for mentorship and market opportunities. In a way, that’s what I’m also doing here: connecting with people and organizations that can help build a platform for Filipino talent here,” she adds. “It’s not just Tokyo that we want our emerging designers to be recognized in, but in more global cities around the world.”

And though she’s on the other side of the world right now, it’s work as usual for Esme in the Philippines—albeit virtually. “When I was applying for the scholarship, I wrote in my essay that I was ready to be in London—even with the commitments I had in the Philippines—because I have a capable team back home. From the operations side and the collaborators we have at Basic Movement, to the thought leaders we work with at the Philippine Fashion Coalition, I’m working with brilliant team members that are doing the groundwork. I could easily get in touch with them online.”

The Threads that Bind

Esme’s work and ideas make a case for going beyond the frivolities of fashion and looking into the groups that benefit from it. The PFC has been constantly in dialogue with several stakeholders about the sectors that can be uplifted with a stronger creative industry.

One such dialogue articulated the relationship of fashion with the country’s agriculture industry and diverse network of small and medium enterprises. “We have previously discussed how supporting our own textiles helps our farmers who produce the raw materials for garments and fashion pieces. Many SMEs depend on these industries for their livelihood, that’s why the PFC is pushing for more support especially since the pandemic wiped out income opportunities for most of these workers,” she adds.

One more pressing movement that Esme raises is buying more local. “We are actually quite progessive in supporting our own indigenous products—at least, based on the talks that I’ve had with people, scholars, and students from other parts of the world,” she notes. Everytime I tell them what’s happening in the Philippines—Artefino, Maarte, and the general interest in local creative industries and culture, they are amazed.”

However, the work doesn’t stop there. Esme admits that more infrastructural support must be done to support, market, and promote local products.For instance, Esme cites that there is a huge opportunity for the local shoe industry to thrive even more, as the numbers show that the Philippines imports so many shoes that it overshadows our own creations. 

“There’s a big market out there, and people would definitely want to buy local. But it would take a collective effort—from the government, the fashion media, to the photographers who feature local products in their creative projects—to step toward the right direction and sustain it moving forward.”

The entrepreneur hopes that the local fashion community, textile groups, and media efforts can join together in bringing more awareness toward building a solid creative and fashion industry, the issues hindering growth, the possible solutions, and the eventual benefits that extend toward other industries and livelihoods. 

Esme is quick to acknowledge the leaders that have contributed much to the PFC’s success. “The progress that’s happening in PFC is also in due part of the leadership of the people in there—Carissa Evangelista Cruz (former DTI Undersecretary), Jackie Aquino (Fashion Show Director), Amina Aranaz Alunan, JC Buendia, Emi Englis (Davao-based educator) and Carmina Sachez-Jacob (Fashion Communications). It’s really a group effort—we have numerous amazing members in the PFC Policy Committee too such as Mike Claparols, Kitty Caragay (UP Diliman), Noreen Bautista and Gabbie Sarenas.”

“This is why I disagree when people say that fashion is just all about luxury—it is an everyday thing, an essential good, and a source of income for many groups and industries. Moreover, the act of buying anything, be it clothes or products, is a reflection of our values in life—buying locally, for instance, speaks of our support for craftsmanship and livelihoods. At the end of the day, we need clothes just as much as we need food and shelter.”

What’s Next for Fashion?

Esme’s blueprint for her creative career and education—and the challenges that she has to face, both industry-wide and personally—have been formed by over a decade of constantly studying fashion design and merchandising and working across different facets of the fashion industry, from costume and product design, public relations, to brand management. 

As such, she reminds young designers—especially those who are beginning their careers or are aspiring to do so in these times—that while their fervent passion is important, keeping an open mind to the different possibilities within fashion is just as necessary. 

“Most of the people in the fashion industry—especially the young ones—are driven by their passion and their aesthetic. It’s after they hit the ground running that they’ll begin to understand small and large-scale challenges of the field, and admittedly it can be overwhelming,” Esme notes. “That’s why I’d advise any young designer or fashion student to open themselves up to other people. Fashion isn’t a one-man thing. It’s either you need help from someone or someone needs your help.”

Esme particularly admires how many contemporary designers and creatives foster a strong sense of collaboration and teamwork. “There’s this local independent brand called Ha.Mu, which was founded by Abraham Guardian and Mamuro Oki. And if you look at their internal, production, and marketing team, they look more like a collective of creatives who decided to work on projects together, which I think makes for a stronger statement,” she notes.

While collaboration works wonders for brands and creatives to thrive, Esme also raises that this is also a form of competition in itself. “When you bring minds together, certain ideas will inevitably clash with each other. In a way, this pushes creatives to think outside their comfort zones and consider other ideas, which can make for something new.”

What Esme is leading up to here is that not every fashion graduate will always end up with their own brand or business at the get-go, and that is absolutely fine—it might even lead to bigger opportunities. “Say for example that you are part of a graduating batch of sixty fashion students. Will you expect sixty new brands to be formed after graduation? It’s highly unlikely, but that’s all right. I recommend determining what your strengths are first and seeing how you can push and elevate that through working for another brand, with a fellow creator, or even within a collective. From there, you can gain relevant experiences that can lead to creating your own brand, or even toward other better opportunities.” 

This sentiment goes back to one of the core reasons why the PHx Fashion Conference was founded: to provide continuing education and open possible directions for fashion professionals to take in and consider. Esme is eager to roll out more things that are set to happen for the PHx Fashion Conference soon. She adds: “If you have a creative business or idea and you need that support, direction, or extra push to kick off your vision, we’re here to help, either through our workshops or videos. It’s hard enough to be an entrepreneur, let alone being in the business of fashion.”

Business as usual

For 2022, all systems are up and ready for Esme’s commitments here in Manila:

Esme will be teaching a Fashion Marketing elective for De la Salle University’s Advertising and Marketing undergraduates; 

Basic Movement is working on two to three more collaborations before they take a short break to do some regrouping for the rest of 2022; 

The PHx Fashion Conference just launched eight Filipino designers in Tokyo last year and is preparing for the next round of talks, workshops, and events;

And work with the Philippine Fashion Coalition will double down on policy development, especially since the upcoming elections and the shifts in power will play a hand in the future of the creative industries in the Philippines. (As of writing, Congressman Toff de Venecia, Chair of the Creative Industry & Performing Arts Committee, recently shared that the Bill just passed the Second Reading in the Senate.)

And considering that she’s just only a few months into her program, Esme is amazed by how much her mind has been opened to the possibilities for Philippine fashion and creative businesses in the future. “London just makes me more excited to do more work in the Philippines. I’ve been sharing with my team all the ideas and perspectives that I have picked up from my experiences here via Zoom, but I can’t wait to get back home, see everyone again in real life, and hit the ground running!”