There’s more to Philippine fabric than meets the eye and social entrepreneur Anya Lim tells the story.
Once upon a time, there was a small girl who grew up hearing tales and bedtime stories that are out of the ordinary.
In lieu of fairy tales and princess stories, the parents of ANTHILL Fabric Gallery co-founder and creative director Anya Lim raised her with stories of different indigenous communities in the Philippines to put her to sleep.
“My parents are both very nationalistic and have such great love for the country. They made sure it was passed on to us and everything at home was made in the Philippines. I grew up with a huge awareness of the indigenous communities and appreciation of our crafts. Both my parents are also very creative so our home…para na syang Kultura,” Anya shares in jest.
Her parents also took the family travelling around the Philippines more than overseas.
“When we went travelling when we were young, we kind of saw that there really was a gap in cultural continuity or transmission kasi marami sa mga naghahabi, matatanda na and wala nang mga bata who want to learn the craft. To me, it was so important to address kasi I want to be able to have my children still wear weaves and not just have them in museums or coffeetable books. We wanted to address that gap in cultural continuity and to really make weave-wearing popular. Iyong mga sinauna naman nating mga ninuno would wear it as their second skin, and every day. Bakit tayo hindi na? Other countries are still able to wear their traditional clothes but how come tayo sobra nang na-influence ng colonial mentality?” she observes, clearly passionate about the thought.
Patriotism and Purpose
When Anya was a teenager, the family went to a weaving village in Banaue, which fueled her fascination. When she went back to the same village as an adult, she was shocked to find that the busy weaving village was already gone due to lack of economic opportunities.
“When I was thinking of a business idea, it was so important for me to understand why that thriving village became a ghost town. It was also coming from a personal motivation that when I have a family, I would want them to experience what our parents made us experience,” Anya says, hopeful that the future generation will not miss out on it.
Armed with her experience in community development through her works with World Vision and UNICEF, she and her mom established ANTHILL (Alternative Nest and Trading/Training Hub for Indigenous/Ingenious Little Livelihood) Fabric Gallery, a social and cultural enterprise working on elevating and preserving Filipino culture and supporting sustainable livelihood through community enterprise building.
There are a lot of ways to promote cultural transmission and continuity but Anya had special reasons for focusing on fabrics. In an interview for her InLife Shero of the Year nomination, she narrates in detail why she chose this route.
“We wanted fabrics because I was very drawn to the concept of cultural identity. What makes you who you are is based on, say, the color of your skin or how you look, and for our ancestors, it was based on what they wore. Each community had a different, distinct pattern and way of weaving their clothes. And to me, it was just fascinating that they themselves made that and our ancestors considered that their second skin. It was really what kind of identified them, their story and their heritage. We zoned in on that because at that time, there’s this huge poverty of identity among our generation,” she begins.
“Now there’s a huge movement of supporting local which is really good. Weaving kasi had so much to do and so much impact on the family dynamics of every community. Like iyong mga tela, it’s part of a ritual of passage. It’s very symbolic and interwoven in people’s way of life. The fabric is always present in gatherings and special occasions, in the day-to-day living—iyon iyong common thread that’s present. This kind of connects or forms the tapestry of a Filipino’s way of life. [With] our ancestors, may mga clothing na ginagamit for burial and may significance why they wear it a certain way. The patterns are symbolic of how they lived like if they’re in a farming [or mountain] community,” she continues.
For Anya, a fabric always tells a story and it is important to preserve and pass on a living tradition and tangible material like this as part of Filipino culture. She muses how we try to keep our culture alive with performing arts like singing, dancing, painting and alibata so it is essential to keep weaving and fabric as well.
The heart of social entrepreneurship
Now on its 11th year, ANTHILL is more than just cultural transmission. It also operates on social entrepreneurship that benefits communities.
The company first identifies communities that they can work with which led to partnerships in communities located in Abra, Bukidnon, Cebu and South Cotabato. They then invest in capacity building through their Community Enterprise Development Program (CEDP) to help the artisan communities professionalize their craft so they can ably serve markets.
Through the years, ANTHILL has procured fabrics from them and worked with production partners, designers and collaborators to apply these fabrics in contemporary designs. In addition, the company builds a steady community of B2B and B2C customers who will support the business. For the past five years, ANTHILL has gone global serving the markets in US, Europe, Japan, Australia and Canada, among others.
During impact assessments, they found that members of communities – composed mainly of women – are empowered to handle and invest their profits on education, business and matters that serve their well-being.
One of the stories that touched her heart was that of one of the mothers in the artisan community who was supposed to leave the Philippines to become a domestic helper in Hong Kong. The woman chose to stay and weave, and apply her business and financial learnings from ANTHILL.
“When we first met her, she had just given birth to her son Angelo. Angelo is now 11 years old. Ate Paulina invested her savings for her son’s education so it’s just nice to see her stay and decide to become a present mother to Angelo,” Anya shares.
Strength Amid Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly tested Anya’s leadership, prompting her to reevaluate her options not only to keep ANTHILL afloat but also to remain true to its vision. She had to make the difficult decision of letting go of their RTW line which was a huge part of the business.
Instead of procuring fabric, they decided to invest in platforms that will allow their artisan communities to access the market directly.
“Our plans are geared towards empowering and giving our partners tools so they themselves can adapt to the digital age and directly connect with the market,” she says, stressing that community development is the core reason for their existence so it made sense to shift their efforts on helping their partners become digital-savvy amid crisis.
As a social entrepreneur, Anya believes that the important legacy of ANTHILL is on how they were able to spark movement and grow a community of proud weave wearers. It was also able to create an enabling environment for artisan partners to embrace their talents and craft, and grow their businesses to sustain their livelihood.
“You know, I feel like the reason why I’m still here and doing what I do is because I see the value of the work that we do. We’ve had such tangible impact in our communities and to be honest, being on the ground and on the field really makes me feel alive. Nafu-fuel iyong sense of purpose ko as a person. Also, this has been my creative laboratory. Here, I’m able to make mistakes, learn, experiment, jumpstart and spark ideas, and it’s a safe creative space. This year is probably a big evolution from the way we’ve been working in the past years but it’s so liberating to realize that we can change it and drive it in the direction that we want,” she confesses.
Having gone through the hardships and challenges of running a business in this global pandemic, Anya offered pieces of advice to fellow Filipinos who are going through the same ordeal and are about to make some tough business decisions.
“I think it’s very important for any social entrepreneur to have clarity of purpose and a strong commitment to purpose. People call it a strong ‘why’ and it probably won’t make sense until you’re able to clearly know what your ‘why’ is. When the going gets tough, you have to really anchor yourself in that and your purpose for you to be able to kind of endure it until the end,” she pauses.
“And having a strong sense of ‘why’ is rooted and grounded in an entrepreneur. If you don’t know yourself and don’t know what you stand for, then it’s going to be difficult for you to make decisions along the way. For us, that’s kind of what allowed us to make difficult decisions because we know it’s genuine to who we are as a brand and to me, I guess, as a leader,” she thoughtfully states, reflecting on the past year.
She concludes by encouraging other entrepreneurs to be more flexible especially when life is filled with uncertainties.“I think pinaka-important din is to have a plan but not necessarily stick to it. You have to have a roadmap of how you want to be able to achieve your vision. I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurs who are very attached to their plans and it causes a lot of limitations when you’re too attached to how you want things to happen. You always have to have room for flexibility and adaptability. Times are changing all the time. No one anticipated [the pandemic]. You have to give yourself room for mistakes and learning. I think it’s also important that every entrepreneur has a mentor and coaches so we can learn from other people’s wisdom and experiences and have a strong support system,” Anya smiles, hopeful for the future of Filipino culture as she soldiers on and supports fellow Filipino entrepreneurs.
About the Writer
Grace C. Diez
Grace Diez started as an AM/FM radio traffic reporter and broadcast supervisor of Trapik.com before pursuing a 5-year career in advertising and a 9-year (and counting!) career in public relations. With 17 years of experience as a writer, her works have been published on People Asia, Metro.Style, ABS-CBN Lifestyle, Star Studio, Metro Magazine, Manila Bulletin, The Philippine Star, Working Mom, Chalk.PH, League Magazine, Sense & Style, Woman Today and Manila Standard with editors entrusting her with cover stories and CEO/celebrity profiling assignments. She loves IU, Taylor Swift, coffee, milk tea, Dr. Pepper and cookies.
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