By  on February 19, 2008

As the Philippine economy surges forward, it is not just the international fashion brands that are enjoying unprecedented growth. Local designers and homegrown labels are asserting their presence in the market as never before, and retail developers are taking note.

Early last year, Archaeology was unveiled at the upscale Power Plant Mall in the Makati City Lopez family-owned Rockwell development, a dedicated retail space for innovative Filipino designers and retailers such as Irene's Closet, Marni's Room and Ilaya Couture.

Ayala Land was thinking along the same lines. In October, the latest addition to the award-winning Greenbelt complex, Greenbelt 5, opened with two levels designated as "The Filipino Zone."

"We wanted to create a space that would showcase the best of Filipino design," said Rowena Tomeldan, Ayala Land's malls manager. "Many of these designers have made a name for themselves overseas — Budji Layug and Kenneth Conbonpue in furniture, Rafe and Celestina in bags and accessories — while many more have been supplying top designers abroad for years, like Victoria Marin, Ana Rocha and Amina Aranaz. But until now, they were not widely available in their own country."

"You could say that it was a kind of returning to their roots," agreed Ayala Land president Jim Ayala. "The elite of the fashion world have recognized their talent. Now it was time to bring them back home."

However, it was not as if Filipino talents were ignored in their home country. Many designers, like Joji Lloren, Religioso, Dennis Lustico and Ivarluski Aseron, have long provided custom service to private clients, but the idea of being in a mall, according to Tomeldan, "made them hesitant. They had this notion that it would mean commercializing their talents. But we are helping them reach out to the public while maintaining their quality."

Anton San Diego, editor in chief of The Philippine Tatler, which chronicles Philippine high society, recalled, "In the Seventies and Eighties, top department stores like SM and Rustan's promoted local talent. The vanguards of Philippine fashion today started out at these stores — Lulu Tan-Gan, Jeannie Goulbourn, Rhett Eala, Larry Silva, for instance. But this trend died out somewhat when the economy collapsed in the early Eighties. Good-quality fabric became difficult to come by, and quality suffered."Today, there has clearly been a renaissance. "We took our cue from places like Bangkok," San Diego continued, "where you see Thai fashion showcased proudly in malls with labels like Greyhound and Soda. Greenbelt 5 is a world-class space, and it's a fitting showcase for our most creative talent."

Mass market brands are also thriving. One of the most prominent homegrown labels is Bench, which started in 1987 as a T-shirt line conceived by Ben Chan and now includes jeans, polos, accessories, innerwear, scents, bath and body products. There are Bench and HerBench boutiques, and distribution in department stores and wholesalers. It is one of the most recognizable brands in the country, aided no doubt by its provocative ads. Its latest innerwear campaign features Pussycat Dolls' lead singer, the part-Filipina Nicole Scherzinger.

Using Hollywood stars to front ad campaigns for local brands is a fairly recent development. A few years back, another local mass market chain, Penshoppe, began the trend when it brought in Mandy Moore as a model. Kamiseta followed with Kate Hudson and Natalie Portman.

Bench operates more than 50 Bench Body boutiques in China. Chan concedes that's "still very small, considering the market." But he's looking beyond China. "We are also available in the Middle East — Abu Dhabi, Al Khobar, Dubai, Doha, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. This is the new retail playground in the region and we see considerable expansion in the area. The U.S. offers a lot of potential. We recently opened a store in Serramonte Mall in San Francisco and are considering other cities on the West Coast."

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