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Mitch Desunia: Cutting a Path

The Las Piñas-based designer talks about her newest collection–which showcases Ilocos’ inabel fabric–and the busiest days of her globetrotting fashion career thus far.

WORDS BY ANGELO CANTERA | IMAGES BY ADEN MICHAEL MANALO

M itch Desunia loves to give what a lot of people opt to withhold whenever they can: effort.

This almost goes without saying given the direction of her career as a fashion designer. Under her creative direction, the brand Mode (which she created to produce affordable, clothing) became something of a cash cow. She can focus on that side of her business and theoretically continue to make money. Yet, change is in the air for this Las Piñas-based designer.

In a couple of months or so, Desunia will be looking for someone to take over Mode so that she can focus on where her passion really lies: luxury clothing; highly-detailed fashion that takes painstaking effort and skill to make. It is through this that Desunia got her name on people’s lips, feeds and minds; the type of output that eventually allowed her to set up shops in the Metro, create off-brand businesses like Mode and get involved with fashion shows across the world.   

“That’s where my heart is,” she told me. “When you do something that requires you to make a lot of effort, it’s like loving someone greatly.” She wants to do things the hard way, she admitted. And in the past several months, that’s exactly what’s been happening.

Just last September, Desunia launched a collection entitled “Entwined.” Taking the spotlight at the fashion week proceedings of London, Milan, and Paris this year, the somewhat 50-piece collection of intricately woven and mildly playful clothing heavily features the inabel fabric of the Ilocos region. And now that it has been showcased on the world stage, it is making its way to Manila through Cars X Couture, a Palazzo Verde fashion show that will see Desunia’s creations being modeled next to luxury cars. The show will happen this month and the road to get to this point was far from easy.

To complete her collection, Desunia had to make multiple trips to Santiago, Ilocos Sur, a somewhat 7-hour drive away from her office in Las Piñas. There, she had to organize a community of weavers to stabilize her source of inabel fabric. Aside from these long trips up north, she also had to repeatedly visit a production house in Cavite where the coats and blazers for her collection were being made. And finally, there were the needed trips to Marikina in order for her to acquire bags and shoes.

“It was exhausting,” she admitted but at her office in Las Piñas that Saturday afternoon, behind a desk flanked by the clothes made for her newest collection, the supposedly fatigued Desunia was constantly grinning from ear-to-ear. Her hair, tied to the back of her head, was neatly crowning a face visibly free of blemishes caused by stress and exhaustion. And, while soft-spoken, one can hear the excitement in her composed yet swardspeak-laden pronouncements. She was in the midst of the busiest days of career thus far; several months of fashion week appearances with her new collection to culminate in a massive show at her home country. Nevertheless, she seemed happy. She was on her way to where she wants to be after all, and she gave a lot of effort to get there.

B orn in Albay, Desunia seemed to be meant for fashion. She was, after all, born to a mother who was a seamstress and, even at a young age, her enterprising and artistic tendencies were surfacing. Back in elementary, she created paper dolls she sold to her classmates to supplement her expenses. In high school, her capacity as an artist blossomed further through school projects like poster making.

“I think it’s been with me since birth,” she said. But for a time, it seemed as though she wasn’t going to take full advantage of it. In college, Desunia took up electronic engineering at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Manila. She then applied for jobs not directly related to fashion, fell in love and moved back to the province with her then-boyfriend. It was a life choice that seemed capable of completely veering her away from her eventual bread-and-butter but what it actually did was drive her back to it.

Living with her boyfriend, she made ends meet by manning an ukay-ukay store. There, she repaired and redesigned old clothes to make them fit for sale and it was during that time when she realized something important: “I liked it,” she said. “I liked how I made people happy by reinventing clothes.” And her destination was set after that.

Soon enough, Desunia was on her way back to Manila. She opened up a small shop while taking on a side hustle as a call center agent. Her shift was 7 in the evening to 4 in the morning and instead of getting ample rest once she gets back home, most of her time would go into designing, cutting fabric and occasionally watching over her shop. It was a hectic schedule and one of her walk-in clients warned her against.

“Someone went into the shop one day and when they met me, I was so groggy and exhausted,” she related. “They asked me why so I told them that I work at a call center. They said: ‘but you can’t serve two masters.’ And that’s when I realized that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.”

It was after this encounter when Desunia resigned and pursued fashion head-on. Of course, the road of professional artists—especially in a financially struggling country like the Philippines—is a road less traveled and because of this, hers was filled with speedbumps in the form of limited resources, unfamiliarity, and character-building incidents of force majeur. All of which greatly tested her resolve.

At her office, years later, Desunia told me of her younger years, squirming occasionally when she recalled her mistakes and failures in business management. She then softened when she was remembering the number of times when she had to face heavy rains just to meet clients and secure jobs. It’s been years since those days but she has yet to forget them. So, it only seemed natural for her to remember what made all those trials worth confronting.

Sometime during her earlier years as a designer, during the phase when she was mostly known for making wedding gowns, one of her clients happened to be a merchandising authority for Vista Malls. After impressing this client, she managed to start selling her clothes in the shopping company’s department stores. Another big break came to her when she managed to dress up a high-profile figure: Venus Raj, the former Miss Universe contender, fresh off of her 4th place finish in 2010. Her work with Raj ultimately elevated her business and gave her the confidence to gun for a spot at the forefront of the industry.

“I’m ambitious,” she admitted. “I always want to be in the lead.” And it was this resolve that urged her to go further, to cross the borders defining her home country and make a name outside of it. She started with London Fashion Week in 2016; she submitted her designs and managed to land a spot in the event. She then went to school at London’s Central Saint Martins, studied trends and textile forecasting and used this to take the lead in local fashion movements. Because of her know-how, the see-through fabrics filling up social media feeds in 2017 and 2018, became a been-there-done-that situation for Desunia who had been using such materials in 2016. And, while Michael Cinco was launching his collection referencing the Palace of Versailles in 2017, Desunia was doing something similar. When Cinco began promoting his work online, Desunia had already completed hers and it ready for marketing, a circumstance that prevented people from falsely and convincingly accusing her of copying Cinco’s work.

Nowadays, there is a trend in local fashion that prioritizes the use of traditionally made materials. Desunia saw this coming which is why last year, she used the pinukpok fabric from her home province of Albay to make a collection, promote the local products of her birthplace and turn heads at the fashion show of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. This year, she’s doing something similar. This time around, however, she’s using a different traditionally made material.

W hile putting together the concept for her latest collection, Desunia didn’t initially plan to use inabel fabric. She was supposed to use something else but was eventually swayed to champion the Ilocos-made product.

“While I was on a plane, browsing through Instagram,” she shared, “I saw a print that I really liked.” And months later, that print would be used to create a jacket she designed herself, a piece of clothing that looked like a stack of gauzy layers representing the shades found on the Philippine flag. She tried it on, put it over the black dress she was wearing that afternoon and admired herself in the mirror saying: “it makes you look classy doesn’t it?”

Perhaps; classy is subjective, after all. As far as I was concerned, it made her look less cautious. The light colors counteracting her dress created the image of a woman who is conservative but is still unafraid to be just a little adventurous in a formal setting. And, the inabel fabric’s capacity to conjure such an image is precisely why she chose it as “Entwined’s” pièce de résistance.

Through Desunia’s artistry, this Ilocos-made fabric stands in the middle ground of multiple scales. It is not too timid and not too bold; it is made by traditional means but it is not antiquated. And, because of its composition, it can be worn comfortably here and abroad.

“Because the fabric is not too thick, it can be worn in cold climates and in formal settings here in the Philippines or in Tagaytay or somewhere slightly colder,” she explained. In other words, as far as Desunia is concerned, the fabric is “just right.”

Wearable—this is the primary criteria she wants to achieve in her fashion-related prospects. She’s not one to make clothes only for the heck of it; not one to put together fashion shows with outfits too outlandish or impractical to be worn beyond the runway. Because she feels that she has achieved this through her newest collection, she intends to make the most of it.

“We’re fixing our website and we’re planning to sell it online,” she said. “We will be competitive.”

Then came the question which caused her to pause for a bit: what is the driving force behind all the effort?

“Because it’s a better use of my time to work on this than to look for a boyfriend,” she responded before laughing. The serious answer, however, is this: Desunia, who came from a humble background, always wanted to be well off. She wanted to be in a state wherein she can give without having to worry about how much the act of giving would cost her. The woman herself is also a philanthropist, after all. It is a designation she earned through her actions over the years. For one, her involvement with the Rotary Club has allowed her to satisfy her desire to financially and morally aid the less fortunate. She is also part of a church group where her yearly donations (given for the benefit of underprivileged youths) can go up to about 50,000 pesos. And finally, there’s her business: a growing force that employs various people in Manila and provinces in Luzon (including the weaving community she mobilized for her inabel-centric collection.)

“I want to be able to keep giving,” she said.

It’s a good destination as far as she’s concerned, but she admitted that she’s not there yet but her focus on it remains intact. This month, her upcoming fashion show is yet another pit stop in a long journey that will require her to push her own limits. It will be hard, she said repeatedly. But, to her advantage, the success of this journey is mostly dependent on how much effort she’s willing to give. And she is—so her work explicates—willing to give a lot.

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