Filipino fashion designer Ditta Sandico-Ong.
Even long before the concept became fashionable, Ditta was already practicing sustainable fashion. For more than 30 years, she has been working with local textiles, notably Banaca, a term she coined, which is a combination of the words banana and abaca.
She explains, “I personally thought it was apt since the abaca comes from the species of the Banana - Musa Textilis. During my travels to different countries, I always had to explain what abaca was and where the fibers come from. But the moment I tell them it comes from the family of the banana it’s easier for them to see a clear picture of what and where the fibers originated.”
A native to the Philippines, the abaca plant, which is also known as Manila hemp, was commonly used to produce rope and specialty paper. “The Banaca fabric came about after several years of product development,” Ditta relates. She worked closely with the weavers in the local communities. It involved the labor-intensive traditional process of stripping the plant’s trunk to make the yarn, hand knotting, dying, spinning and weaving.
“The very first pieces that were born out of the fabric were large shawls, hand painted and wrapped around the shoulders. As of today, 90% of my collection is created from the fabric,” she says. The hand-woven organic fabric has a luxurious sheen and is pliable enough to be fashioned into fabulous wraps with unique and interesting forms like flower petals and butterfly wings.
“It all started with my genuine curiosity of the seemingly enchanted wonders of nature and the environment around me,” Ditta remarks. When she was a child, her father took her to the highlands of Bulalacao in the southern province of Oriental Mindoro where she was immersed with the Mangyan tribes. “Little did I know that this was the start of my passion for the weaving industry. I soon realized, after 20 years, that those moments were the best eye-openers for me. It was when I gathered my very first exposure to our local weavers,” she recalls.
Ditta continues to work with weavers in the local communities. “I have grown with them through the years. We helped each other amidst difficulties. From the onset, it was never just work for us. We built a relationship with the community that brought with it a certain sense of fulfillment, a certain knowing that the journey may be long and winding but deep inside there is a bigger picture that lies ahead.” It is not only about being kind to the environment and the responsible use of natural resources, but it has also helped create jobs and sustain the local communities.
Promoting the use of local fabrics is also one way of helping promote one’s culture. Ditta remarks, “I believe in putting the spotlight on indigenous products because quite frankly without them we lose a culture that’s uniquely ours, and in the end, these tribes may cease to exist in the future. The moment we lose them, we don’t just lose a community, we also lose out on the beauty of who we are. We lose part of our identity, our very own DNA. I strongly believe in caring for the environment, creating sustainable livelihood programs, and patronizing local crafts.”
A lot has changed in fashion in the past 30 years. Ditta muses, “Looking back, I would say that today’s market is more appreciative of local indigenous materials. The millennials are earth-shakers as they stand up for environmental issues to create a better world.”
And how does she see the future? “I see millennials believing and spearheading the use of natural indigenous materials even beyond fashion. I continue to believe and pursue my dreams of creating sustainable communities, beginning with the Mangyans of Mindoro, as we preserve this part of our heritage and make a positive impact in their lives.”