By Dennis Ladaw
Minimalism is his style, but Seph Bagasao is always open to learn from the world’s best designers. At the end of the day, it’s the customers’ reception of his signature designs that defines the true value of Bagasao’s pieces.
International buyers and fashionistas at the PHx Tokyo 2020 fashion exhibition in Tokyo, Japan gave Filipino fashion designer Seph Bagasao’s collection an enthusiastic reception throughout the entire three-day show.
Famous for his streamlined ready-to-wear creations, Bagasao joined seven other Filipino designers to participate in the fashion exhibition jointly organized by CITEM, the Philippine government’s trade promotion division; and H30 Fashion Bureau, a fashion showroom based in Tokyo.
“The feedback from them was very positive. They loved the quality, the craftsmanship, and the designs and there have been offers from buyers,” he happily announced. “But I’m not yet at liberty to elaborate on them. We’re still about to start negotiations.”
The designer also marveled at the overall success of PHx Tokyo despite the ongoing pandemic.
Bagasao noted that the pandemic also brought about numerous challenges to both the organizers and the participants. For his part, he created 12 outfits that he had to work on twice as hard and in twice the time to prepare for the show.
“It took us about nine months to complete,” he recalled. “I had to ask my staff to live in the studio in Quezon City. This was in the middle of the lockdowns and it was too risky for them to be commuting to work every day.”
Bagasao and his staff had to hurdle the more stringent travel requirements and protocols when it was time to fly to Japan. Nevertheless, this collective labor of love led to the show’s success. This is a welcome piece of good news for Filipinos who, for over a year now, have been constantly beset with challenges and endless financial and health woes.
When Bagasao established his own RTW brand just five years ago, the country’s fashion mavens quickly took notice. Ditto with a top local fashion magazine which put him on its list of new designers to watch out for.
Still, Bagasao claims his journey to where he is now was long and often arduous. Born Joseph Agustin Bagasao, he said clothes have been his passion since he was in fourth grade. It was around this time when he switched TV channels from the Cartoon Network to Fashion TV.
He recalled, “The first time I got exposed to this channel, it looked so magical. Even at that age I became passionate about fashion.”
While he mentions Versace, Ferragamo, and Christian Dior as among his childhood favorites, he said it was his grandmother who inspired him.
“My grandmother liked to dress up. She was very elegant. At that point I already had a sense of the styles I liked and what looked beautiful to me. I started drawing, and copying the logos of the famous fashion brands. And later I designed dresses for my sister and my mother,” he said.
Bagasao could have majored in a fashion course when it was time to go to college. But his parents wouldn’t hear of it. So he took up nursing and then shifted to B.S. Psychology at the Trinity University of Asia and the Pacific.
“So when I graduated I started applying for jobs. But none of the job openings interested me. Creating clothes was really what I wanted to do,” he said.
At this time, while still searching for employment, a friend suggested that he take an internship with an established fashion designer the friend knew. He was introduced to the designer who took him in.
Not long after, it became obvious to the designer that Bagasao really loved the work he was doing. He advised Bagasao to attend a fashion school to learn the technical side of designing clothes.
“He even went out of his way to speak to my mother,” said Bagasao. “He told her that I had to get formal training in a fashion school because my skills would just be wasted if I didn’t learn the technical side of it. He explained that I could learn more from the school than from just being an intern.”
Happily, his parents agreed to support him for a year. He then enrolled at the Fashion Institute of the Philippines for a two-year certificate course where he was named “Designer of the Year” upon completion of the course. Preview listed him as one of the emerging fashion talents. He took part in the magazine’s six-month mentorship program handled by Inno Sotto and other notable fashion designers.
The recognition gave Bagasao the confidence to establish his own label. It fared well for a while but he couldn’t get enough clients.
“Nothing was happening,” he said. “I started praying. God had given me the talent and helped me get those awards and I asked Him why am I struggling now?”
A door soon opened for him when magazine editor Pauline Juan invited him to attend a luncheon with New York-based designer Josie Natori. She was in the country to oversee her studio in Manila where her line of RTW is made.
“During the luncheon, I asked her if she was accepting interns at her company and she said yes. So a few days later I went to her studio and applied. I wanted to learn from somebody who was so accomplished in the industry. I didn’t expect to be accepted but to my surprise, they got me,” Bagasao said.
Bagasao’s own take on the streamlined look has a futuristic quality and seems to be designed for tall women. It’s the primary reason why he sets his sights on penetrating the international market where his work will be better appreciated.
“After six months, my superior told me that they’ve been observing the interns and they liked my work and they wanted to hire me as a junior designer to work on the embroidery. It was a pleasant surprise because I wasn’t sure if I was doing well working for them. Natori is known for using embellishments. I was the complete opposite. I preferred minimalist designs, clean straight lines. But I eventually learned to use embellishments in my designs for the studio,” he added.
Although Bagasao stayed with the Natori studio for more than three years, he never forgot his dream of setting up his own brand. He tried establishing his own label again in 2016, and this time he experienced a bigger measure of success.
He admits that not everyone could understand his design language, which is the epitome of simplicity. His own take on the streamlined look has a futuristic quality and seems to be designed for tall women. It’s the primary reason why he sets his sights on penetrating the international market where perhaps his work will be better appreciated.
Upon a tip from a noted designer, Bagasao submitted an application to take part in the Asian Fashion Week in Tokyo. He, along with two other designers, was chosen to participate. His international debut was a success and now Filipino customers are learning to appreciate his design concept.
It was in 2018 when Bagasao, along with other young designers, organized the PHx Fashion Conference. Its purpose is to create an initiative to take new Filipino fashion brands to a global level. With the support of art advocate Trickie Lopa, the conference was held in November 2019. Resource key speakers included experts in the creative and business sides of the international fashion scene. The first conference focused on the Japanese fashion market.
“They asked each of us to submit portfolios so that they can review it. Thus when we each introduced the collections we created for the PHx Tokyo, the Japanese mentors were stunned. They saw a marked difference between the portfolio we submitted during the conference and the designs we showcased in Tokyo last July,” he said.
“Of course, it was different. Because of the mentorship, we changed our work habits and production techniques. We followed their advice and produced designs that can make it in the global market.”
For Bagasao, being on the international scene has always been an important goal. “The positive reception would justify the prices I charge, which are higher than other brands. It also imparts the unique style and quality of the clothes I produce. I felt vindicated when after the first show I took part in, a customer bought an outfit without asking for a discount. It meant that my dresses are worth the price I’m asking,” Bagasao concluded.
About the Writer
Dennis Ladaw reviews movies for the online lifestyle magazine Thediarist.ph. He also occasionally writes travel stories for Asian Dragon magazine. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, he’d be at the beach right now.
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