What I've Learned

Rafé Totengco

The New York-based Filipino designer talks to us about his accomplished career, his recent collaboration with Bench, and truths about fashion.
IMAGE Rafe Totengco

It’s hard to be everything to everybody. I certainly can’t afford to produce all of it. So I think with handbags, it was easier for me from a branding point-of-view to take a stance and be like: Okay, this is what I do; it’s okay if you don’t like it, not everybody has to like it, but enough people like it to keep me in business.

When you get a taste of entrepreneurship, it never leaves you. I always wanted to do my own thing again. I can’t help it. And I think Pinoys are entrepreneurial. We really are like, “Kaya yan! We can do it.” So against advice from other people, I started a little business, and I said, “what’s the worst that could happen?”

"As men, we also kind of keep wearing the same things. We sort of have our uniforms. So if I’m going to wear something, I’m going to wear it till it falls apart."

In the beginning, you want to be able to make mistakes through other people. Because that’s how you learn. And there [are] so many things that I had to learn because fashion business in Manila is very different from the fashion business in New York.


When I buy something, I turn it inside-out. I love construction—all the ins and outs. I want to see how it’s made. To me, that’s what turns me on.

Here’s the thing: a shirt’s a shirt’s a shirt’s a shirt. And as men, we also kind of keep wearing the same things. We sort of have our uniforms. So if I’m going to wear something, I’m going to wear it till it falls apart.


I buy a lot of clothes. I mean, I’m into it. I like to keep current. So to me, [designing this collection] was just, “What am I missing? What do I want?” It started there.

All the girls I know love wearing men’s things. So I try to make my clothes feminine enough that they don’t look too butch. It’s like, how do I get them to man up? (laughs)

We’re all creatures of habit. Don’t you find that you always buy versions of the same thing?

If I’m authentic to this project and it doesn’t work, at least I’m going to have a lot of clothes that I like. (laughs)


Be true to who you are. Because ultimately, when you try to me something else, it doesn’t work. It’s not organic. We see authenticity immediately. And I’m really a bad liar.

I’ve realized, after all these years, that I can’t be everything to everybody. I can only be true to me. And if I’m true to me, that’s half the battle. Everything else is a bonus. If you don’t like it, maybe I missed a mark. If you don’t like it, that’s okay—somebody else will.

“Oh, I’m going to do this because that’s what people like, that’s what they’re looking for.” Those are never the pieces that people are drawn to.

"Men think we know what we like, [but] be open to a new version of you. Just try it."

Failure is an option. Don’t be afraid to fail. Because you know what, it’s only fashion. I’ve certainly made my own fashion faux pas. Laugh about it. Whatever. Tomorrow, you can change your clothes. In fact, within the hour you could go home and change. It’s not the end of the world.


But do try. Men think we know what we like, [but] be open to a new version of you. Just try it. You’ll know anyway instinctively if it’s not you.


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Miguel Escobar
Assistant Features Editor for Esquire Philippines
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