Fashion

The Filipino Streetwear Vet Who is Shaping the Style Scenes of Manila and the US

Omar Quaimbao, founder of Commonwealth, opens the largest location of the coolest lifestyle store in the country.
IMAGE Commonwealth/ Steve Tirona
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Good news first: Commonwealth, purveyor of the choicest streetwear and sportswear in Manila, opens its third and largest Manila outpost in the glitzy halls of Power Plant Mall. 

Aside from streetwear staples, the two-floor space offers brands not found in shop locations in SM Aura and Greenbelt. Fresh on the floor are Namamica from Japan, Aries from London, and Polythene Optics, which Commonwealth founder and streetwear vet Omar Quaimbao describes as the more progressive diffusion line of Samuel Ross. 

Quaimbao, a product designer in a previous life, established the specialty shop in Virginia in 2004 and then opened more stores in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and finally Manila.

A day before the new store's opening, he popped by the space, a minimalist haven of icy concrete and honey blonde wood, dressed in a T-shirt by Commonwealth, pants by independent California label Brandblack, a pair of classic Vans, and a made-in-America bandanna found at a thrift shop.

IMAGE: Steve Tirona

The black round-neck T-shirt scribbled with the words “For The Greater Good” is notable as, along with the inaguaration of the Power Plant boutique, he is also introducing Commonwealth's own line of apparel. Quaimbao, who is heavily involved in the selection of labels and pieces in the stores, points out how what he's wearing is a mix of contrasts—which is really the point of view of Commonwealth. 

Esquire sits down with Quaimbao to discuss the streetwear scene of Manila, the influence of Marvin Gaye, and the deluge of undying collabs and trends. 

But before you dive in, here's a very fresh tip: Commonwealth is currently working with Adidas for a project that arrives in December.  

Right now, a variety of styles are merging in the middle.

We try not to categorize ourselves. It helps for a general audience to understand [streetwear] a bit better by compartmentalizing certain brands and points of view, but everything is one industry. As far as streetwear, the fashion houses, designer brands, and subculture brands that we have aligned ourselves with are heading toward each other. We're starting to meet in the middle. 

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Past generations are getting older, and [there is a] changing of the guards, like a big shift, in fashion. Editors, writers, and designers are not only educated in past fashion. They also grew up with a different subculture and mentality. It all starts to merge and blur. Sometimes the only difference is the price point. 

IMAGE: Commonwealth

This high-low thing? Commonwealth has been doing it for over a decade.

What we’ve always kind of done—it's very popular and almost normal today—is to have a mix of high and low. We carried CDG in 2004, but still mixed it with the skateboard brands. That was very, very uncommon [then]... a Comme des Garçons jacket with a skate brand T-shirt.  

The world doesn't know that Manila's style scene is progressive. 

The streetwear scene or upcoming fashion scene here is extremely informed—more than people would expect. [People outside Manila] are notaware of how current and up-to-date and even progressive it is here. With our consumer base being extremely knowledgeable, introducing narratives is not new because they’re already following these things. 

It's growing. When we started three years ago, it was small but aware, and that has multiplied over the years quite rapidly with the speed of information and social media and everyone sharing all types of looks.  

IMAGE: Commonwealth

Manila has more of that good stuff than Commonwealth's US locations.

There are certain limitations that we have in the US. While we'd love to carry all the brands in every store, they're not just available to us. Sometimes there's already an existing store that has the line.

But here in the Philippines, we were the first to introduce a lot of brands. We even have enough brands to have diversity in our own doors, so each location have brands that are exclusive to them. We're excited to have the opportunity to do that.  

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In fact, Commonwealth introduces its own line of apparel at the Power Plant shop.

This T-shirt is from Commonwealth. We always try to have a very layered meaning. This graphic, in particular, is inspired by Marvin Gaye and his point of view in life. He always took a political stance, and we try to align ourselves with some of those points of view.

IMAGE: Commonwealth

The collection is inspired by culture that we relate to. It can be anything, really, from mid-century design to Bahaus to music to politics. There's always that unspoken zeitgeist in the air, right? When you're designing, it helps set the mood. We just feel what's in the air and design that way. 

Omar and his team choose brands and pieces that have a personal connection.

This is number one: It's a personal liking. We don’t always exactly follow of-the-moment brands. I think that everything that we bring in, we have worn at some point in our lives, from late teens to mid-40s. Somewhere along the line, as tastes evolve or shift, they would have been part of our point of view, whether its a graphic T-shirt or a sports coat.  

Did you catch that? Older men wear streetwear, too.

The age group [in Commonwealth] is pretty wide ranging. There seems to be also two very distinctive customers.

There's the sneakerhead, who is usually on the younger side, because sneakers are his gateway into fashion. “Oh, I like sneakers. I'm going to learn about this sneaker. Oh, this sneaker is a collaboration with this designer.” Then, they learn about the designer and the brand, and they step into fashion because of that.

IMAGE: Commonwealth

Then, there's the apparel shopper. “Okay, I have a few trainers in my closet already, but I'm looking to expand my wardrobe sensibilities beyond the graphic T-shirt, beyond the elevated basics even. Oh. I'm going to be experimental. I might have a jean jacket... Maybe I would wear one made out of velour or velvet.”

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They kind of expand their wardrobe that way. Obviously, the older someone gets, it becomes less logo-based and more about fabric and fit. 

Even men with conventional styles find their way to Commonwealth.

Someone who is not a normal participant [in streetwear], who walks into our store and has never heard of any of these brands, find it interesting. I think it's a way to complement what their wardrobe might be. Sometimes, it's the excitement or the novelty. It's also appreciated that way. 

Obviously, when putting together a look, try things on. 

Overall, people should just look comfortable. Don’t ever try to push it to the extent where you might feel uncomfortable.

IMAGE: Commonwealth

Some people shop, but don’t try on the clothes. My advice is to try everything on. Sometimes, they pick up a shirt and find it amazing. But they might be interested in it just because it is an interesting product. If they put it on, it might not be for them. You should really try it on. 

Well-done collaborations are true partnerships.

Some work and some don’t. I think it's always going to be in the marketplace. That's a good thing, but I'm sure not all projects will be of interest to everyone.

When it's done well, both entities bring something to the table. If it's a designer and a footwear company, maybe the designer doesn’t produce his own footwear or doesn’t have the access to the technology that the footwear brand has?  

IMAGE: Commonwealth

Those 'interesting' collaborations are all about design—and that's okay.

Sometimes interesting is just interesting, and not exactly wearable. It's almost very objectified. This is great product design—it goes past function. 

So it's like: These are the ideas that we want to present. Sure, it's not for everyone and that's why we showcase it in that manner. And I think that's why some collaborations are limited in scope, because there might not be a wide audience for it. People might be interested, but they might not feel progressive enough to wear it themselves. 

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These things called trends are now immortal.

The thing about trends is that I don’t think any trend truly dies or goes away. It's not like back in the day: “Oh you're wearing animal print. Animal print is gone. No one's wearing it.” There's always someone who’s going to be wearing animal print. 

And speaking of animal print, that's one of the trends that's prevalent right now. What else? Oversized silhouettes. Bags for men. Again, it's tough [to identify]. It really depends on when you catch a trend: Is it full blown already? Has it reached its maximum capacity? Or is it still growing?  

IMAGE: Steve Tirona

But sneakers may have risen above the trend, because they are forever. 

Obviously, there's also what the fashion houses are very attracted to: designer sneakers. Because they want to build their customer base and get younger consumers to keep their brands going, they're moving away from hard bottoms and focusing on athletic shoes. Which is very new in the last two or three years.

Again, this comes from designers who grew up on streetwear or, what I call, DIY or very independent brands. Sneakers for men I would equate to handbags for women.  

Commonwealth is at Power Plant Mall, Makati. Visit commonwealth-ftgg.com.

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Clifford Olanday
Senior Fashion Editor, Esquire Philippines
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