MALITA, Davao Occidental (MindaNews / 14 April) — Len Cabili of Filip + Inna clothing line apologized on her Facebook page on April 9 for a photo that had appeared the day before on The Philippine Star of a model wearing her creation. The model was wearing a traditional Tagakolu “bong” paired with a bikini.
The bong is a traditional Tagakolu long sleeved shirt for women that is intricately designed using mother-of-pearl beads.
It is always paired with an ankle-length skirt (dagmay). It is worn on important occasions by Tagakolu women.
The apology made by Cabili is not commensurate with the affront that has been done to the Tagakolu people and comes across as insincere. Being an entrepreneur, that may well be all that could be expected of her.
Filip + Inna is a clothing line that fuses traditional Philippine fabrics and clothing with contemporary design to create, using the website’s tag line, “timeless and unique pieces of clothing.” It draws inspiration from the traditions of Indigenous Peoples like the Tagakolu. I admire Filip + Inna’s creativity and daring. Its creations are outstanding and admittedly world class. They are not sloppy combinations of whatever clothes and textiles that the clothing line could get its hands on. Filip + Inna’s creations are beautiful, elegant, well thought through and meticulously put together.
However, what it had done with the Tagakolu bong was not at all timeless. It could not even be considered unique. The more appropriate adjective, I believe, is aberrant. It deviated from the normal use of the bong, which is paired with a dagmay and worn on special occasions. Unlike Filip + Inna’s other creations, it was insensitive, belittling and downright offensive.
For someone who claims to be a “creator of a clothing line that (sic) works closely with the Tagakaolo and other Philippine Indigenous Peoples,” Cabili’s online apology comes across as hollow and insincere. She claims that she would never consciously create or promote her clothing line at the risk of offending the Tagakolu or any other group of Indigenous Peoples.
I find this hard to believe. Creating fashion designs take time. Preparing photo shoots for a clothing line takes time. Through the course of conceptualizing her creation and preparing for the photo shoot, I find it baffling that she had failed to confer with her close collaborators if her design was still culturally appropriate.
This was a not, I believe, an oversight on Cabili’s part but a calculated risk she may have dared to take. If this were true, she would not be the first fashion designer to have crossed the line of what is culturally acceptable and will probably not be the last. This seemingly innocent blunder by Cabili may just have been a ploy to create hype around her clothing line to gain media mileage, which could translate into increase in sales.
She is hoping, perhaps, that by apologizing online the reputation of her clothing line remains unscathed in the midst of the disturbance that had been caused by her creation.
The bong is not just a piece of clothing. It is a work of art by a people that has been handed down from one Tagakolu generation to the next. According to the Tagakolu women interviewed by Matamis mission, the bong is an image of the world that surrounds them. The bong, if you will, is like a portrait of their environment captured, not on film or canvas, but on their clothing.
Using mother-of-pearl beads and fabric, the bong portrays the stars (binitun) in the heavens and the flowers (binulakan) scattered in the mountains. It depicts the banug in full flight soaring in the sky. It shows the rivers (ganga) that flow down the mountains, the tributaries (alug) that flow into them, and the ferns (lampaku) that flourish by the banks.
It takes months to create a bong. The bead work alone requires one’s full attention. A Tagakolu woman meticulously stitches one bead after the other paying attention that the sizes of the beads match while following a design etched in her mind that had been passed on for generations long before her grandmother was born. In between the hours that she works on the bong, she also takes care of her children, prepares food for the family, and works with her husband in the farm (baulan). The creation of a bong is part of everyday life. Clearly, a bong is not something that one could just buy at a retail store. What Filip + Inna had done with the bong could be likened to a thief stealing a Juan Luna or Fernando Amorsolo painting and using it as a surfboard.
I do not expect Cabili to go beyond her online apology. She obviously does not understand the Indigenous Peoples she claims to respect much less their culture. Despite her avowal, it cannot be denied that she is a businesswoman and, like all who are involved in commerce, what is paramount is profit. Everything else takes a back seat. Any assertion to respect the traditions of Indigenous Peoples are mere attempts to be politically correct and merely cosmetic. After this incident, it would be naive to trust her and Filip + Inna again or anyone involved in such an enterprise for that matter.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Fr. Joey Gánio Evangelista, MJ, heads the Malita Tagakaulo Mission of the Diocese of Digos. The mission is based in Malita, Davao Occidental)