The first hint was a giant billboard visible while driving along Manila’s main artery, the traffic-clogged avenue known as EDSA, proclaiming the forthcoming Rafe x Bench collaboration.
Then came the one-night only, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion show at the basement of the Bench Tower, a multipurpose space known as the Playground, that showcased Rafe to longtime followers patiently waiting for his comeback clothing line, as well as a completely new audience.
Almost three decades after Rafé Totengco packed his suitcases and left his native Philippines to chase his designer dreams in New York, the accessories designer — who in June exited Nine West, where he was creative director for handbags, to concentrate on his namesake label, Rafe New York — returned to Manila to launch a new capsule collection for one of the country’s largest homegrown fast-fashion chains, Bench. The chain’s retail presence extends to Singapore, China, the Middle East and the U.S. and the collection includes ready-to-wear for men and women as well as accessories.
“What was really exciting for me was, because I hadn’t done clothes since I left in 1989 — 27 years — to see people react to the product after the show,” said Totengco, whose Rafe brand is known for its minaudières. Although it was a seasonless collection consisting mainly of easy separates in a relaxed, loose silhouette — denim, striped T-shirts and cotton poplin shirts in white as well as a signature geometric black-on-cream print that had appeared in a calf-hair iteration on clutches in previous collections — the presentation followed fashion’s current sales model of see-now-buy-now.
“There was no price resistance,” said the designer’s sister and Rafe brand manager Tesa Totengco, noting how quickly the stock at the Playground sold right after the show.
“It was like a feeding frenzy,” said Totengco, “but at $20 for a cotton poplin shirt and $30 for a backpack, it was very reasonable. And no one wanted to wait to get the clothes at the stores.”
The collection was some two years in the making, the result of a casual conversation he and Ben Chan, the entrepreneur behind Bench, had one evening in New York. A year later, Chan, a frequent visitor to New York — Bench’s parent company Suyin Corp is the Philippine distributor for a wide portfolio of brands including American Eagle Outfitters, Aldo, La Senza, Charles & Keith and Cotton On — brought up the prospect of a collaboration again and discussions began in earnest.
The collection — not to mention the show — reflected Totengco’s love for his adopted city, New York. He wanted to communicate its vibe and energy, “the sensory overload you experience, my first impressions when I moved….The small-town kid coming into the big city…I wanted to convey that somehow.” Indeed, the show ended with “Native New Yorker” as the soundtrack.