Meet the 21-Year-Old Designer Behind the Brand Leni Robredo Wore on Her Presidential Campaign
Intricate, laborious, and increasingly rare, the Filipino art of weaving is a priceless emblem of our indigenous cultures. No one knows exactly when or how our ancestors became masters of the loom, only that weaving has been practiced all over the Philippines for hundreds, if not thousands of years. What everyone knows is that it’s on the decline, worn down by time into a shadow of its former self.
In the face of growing globalization, it’s important to have modern-day role models who are resolute in pushing for the preservation of our heritage; Leni Robredo is an old-time advocate of our indigenous weavers, responsible for many wins in the local textile industry (the Angat Buhay Weaving Center for the women of the Yakan tribe and her beautiful pink poncho from Kalinga come to mind, among other things). And Gabby Garcia, a 21-year-old college student-turned-social entrepreneur, breathes new life into our weaving heritage by using them to create everyday wear for his clothing brand, Tagpi.
Leni Robredo wearing Tagpi on her presidential campaign
The Story of Tagpi
Like how many of us coped when the world stopped turning in 2020, Garcia, who was a 19-year-old college student at the time, spent the early months of lockdown exploring old hobbies and trying his hand at new ones. It was at a forum held by HABI, the Philippine Textile Council, where he found himself enchanted by traditional Filipino weaving. Upon listening to two of our cultural weavers tell stories about their craft, Garcia was awestruck at the talent our indigenous groups possessed.
“I realized [in the forum] that, for them, weaving is not just what they do, but also who they are,” Garcia tells Esquire Philippines, two years later. “I really wanted to be able to share their stories, one way or another.”
Back then, Garcia knew nothing about cutting fabrics or sewing them together, but he was always passionate about style. Fashion was a constant source of joy for him growing up; meaning he already knew by heart that clothing and identity are intrinsically connected, in every possible way.
Gabby Garcia’s fashion sketch for the Panagbenga Dress in Narra, accentuated by Yakan weaving from Zamboanga—one of Tagpi’s earliest designs
Traditional Filipino culture is also intrinsic to who Garcia is. He was surrounded by it from a very young age, as his grandmother was the founder of a local folk dance group. He grew up watching the members perform, dressed in the woven garments of various indigenous cultures.
Still, of course, the prospect of starting his own clothing brand as a teenager felt too bold of an idea at one point.
“I was really scared of doing this,” he recounts. “I’m currently taking pre-med, right? And that is so far from fashion and the arts.”
Fast forward to today, Garcia is now the successful social entrepreneur and fashion designer behind Tagpi: a fashion label that champions cultural weavers all over the country, by providing them with livelihoods and promoting their craft.
The Designer’s Vision
In its earliest days, Tagpi was a one-man team, with Garcia buying textiles from local weavers and sewing these together himself; now, Tagpi is partnered with over 10 indigenous communities all over the Philippines, such as the Itneg artisans from Abra, the women of Panay Bukidnon in Ilo-ilo, the Maranao weavers from Marawi, the Yakan tribe from Zamboanga, and the Inabel weavers from Santiago, Ilocos. After the base pieces for the clothes are made in Manila, Garcia ships these to the weavers alongside his original sketches for reference.
When designing pieces for his brand, Garcia always goes for classic silhouettes, which he elevates with handwoven fabric, hand-painted details, or traditional embroidery, courtesy of our local weavers. The result: timeless, yet one-of-a-kind conversation pieces, versatile enough so that you can dress them up or down, depending on the kind of look you’re going for.
The Kawayan Shirt in Mint, featuring traditional Itneg hand embroidery
The Kadayawan Shirt in Diamante, with handwoven Yakan from Zamboanga
The Sikhayan Shirt in Navy, hand-painted by artisans from Lumban, Laguna
Garcia also tries to challenge himself by combining the work of different communities. One of his key pieces, he says, is his modern take on the traditional Filipino Kimona.
“It is interesting because it was a collaboration between two partner communities, the Itneg from Abra and artisans from Lumban, Laguna. I used a handwoven fabric called Binakol, by the Abrenian weavers. The cutwork and embroidery techniques were then done by the artisans from Lumban, Laguna.” And while he loves to innovate, Garcia is also constantly consulting with his partner local artisans on how to best develop the brand’s products and ensure he doesn’t cross the line of cultural appropriation.
The Dapil Kimona in Beige Binakol, featuring handwoven binakol from Abra, made with cutwork and embroidery techniques by artisans from Lumban, Laguna
Dressing Leni Robredo
Since the launch of his brand, Garcia’s designs have found their way into the wardrobes of countless local-loving Filipinos, including Leni Robredo herself. The Vice President has worn the Tagpi weavers’ creations (all in pink, of course) on more than one occasion throughout her presidential campaign.
“I met Vice President Leni as she would visit our Katutubo Pop-up Market prior to the elections,” Garcia shares. “At first she actually shopped for her daughters only, since my designs were catered more for the youth early on. However, eventually, she came to like a couple of my work, which she ended up buying for herself as well.”
Tagpi owner Gabby Garcia and Vice President Leni Robredo
“It really feels heartwarming to have VP Leni patronize my brand, because I know for a fact that she has been championing the rights of the various communities I collaborate with,” says Garcia.
One of Robredo’s notable projects as Vice President is the Angat Buhay Weaving Center for the women Yakan weavers in Lamitan City, Basilan. Before its construction, the women used to weave outside their houses, under the heat of the sun and at the mercy of rain. The Angat Buhay program also trained the weavers on business skills when the Office of the Vice President learned that they earned less money than their traders.
Should Robredo win the 2022 presidency, boosting Filipino industries and strengthening MSMEs will be among her top labor agenda; she emphasizes that small businesses create jobs in the community "where progress starts."
Mending the Fabric of our Cultural Identity
Beyond providing livelihoods for countless artisans and craftsmen, there’s plenty of intangible value that preserving our heritage can unlock. Reconnecting with our cultural roots tends to stir powerful emotions in us, for making us feel as though we belong to something—in the case of our local weaving traditions, through colorful textile patterns and motifs.
“This is what makes us who we are as a nation,” says Garcia. “Without keeping rooted to who we are as Filipinos, we would not be able to progress as a country because we would not know who we are, or what we are fighting for.”
Naturally, this conversation always leads to a number of lofty questions: How do you keep a nation’s heritage alive? How long does it take for a tradition to vanish? And how many times must a story be told so as not to let it die?
All of these are complicated questions, with no obvious answers, but Garcia has certainly gotten one thing right: when it’s standing on the brink of total extinction, the best way to preserve your cultural heritage is to share it.
You may browse Tagpi here.