Published: May 26, 2017, Town & Country
Linea Etnika's Joy Belmonte and Looie Lobregat aim to make weaves mainstream while empowering women entrepreneurs.
“It’s always nice to wear a touch of Filipiniana, especially when you’re meeting foreign guests or working in government. There’s this advocacy of buying and supporting your own. But it’s so hard to find non-scratchy, elegant but affordable designs that I can wear every day,” says Joy Belmonte, Quezon City’s vice-mayor. So when her friend Looie Lobregat casually pitched the idea of creating a line of modern Filipiniana pieces featuring Yakan weaves, Joy immediately volunteered to be her partner, and the brand Linea Etnika was born.
A Fateful Shopping Trip
Both daughters of congressmen, Joy and Looie met through political functions and bonded through the Lakbay Aral, a project Joy initiated, where congressional spouses take turns hosting familiarization tours in their hometowns. “We pretty much got to see the whole country in this way, and we do a lot of shopping in each place to contribute to their economy,” shares Joy. “I remember shopping for twin wooden mannequins during a Lakbay Aral tour in Pampanga, and before stepping out of the shop, Joy said she would be my partner, and things just fell into place really quickly after that,” enthuses Looie. Though armed with a master’s degree in business and a decade’s worth of experience in finance, banker-turned-mompreneur Looie attests that she wouldn’t have had the courage to start her own business without Joy’s support. Joy counters, “It’s in line with my advocacy for empowering women entrepreneurs, being environmental, and supporting local. So it’s perfect, she didn’t even have to convince me.” The very first time Joy posted a Linea Etnika piece on social media, orders already started pouring in. “It was actually just a prototype that I was wearing, and when Joy posted it, people started asking when it would be available,” says Looie. With over a thousand likes from their first teaser alone, they knew they were onto something.
"We wanted to make our weaves more relevant for the modern woman and keep the beautiful art of handloom alive.”
Launched less than a year ago, Linea Etnika is designed for women who want to wear modern, comfortable, and affordable Filipiniana pieces made for daily wear—women like Looie and Joy themselves. (In fact, in between interview questions, Looie presented Joy with some fresh designs, including a chic cropped jacket and dainty ballet flats embellished with Yakan weaves.) Inspired by the way her grandmother infused the Yakan weaves from Sulu into her wardrobe, Looie creates clean and classic designs that cleverly show off the traditional textiles in contemporary ways. The versatile “Joy” tunic dress, for example, comes in a figure-flattering neoprene fabric, features a Yakan pattern on the chest and shoulders, and can be worn from day to night. “Right now we’re playing around with color combinations, but the beauty of using their original designs is that they’ve been around for generations, portraying stories inspired by nature and island living.” Conveniently enough, the Yakan village where her grandmother shopped and where Looie now sources her weaves lies just across their family resort in Zamboanga City. “And when I can’t meet my weavers, my dad, who flies there every week, is my courier!”
A Love for Local
Seizing an opportunity to “put themselves out there,” Linea Etnika made its official debut at the MaArte Fair in Rockwell last August, and immediately caught the eye of fellow Filipiniana advocates, including Vice President Leni Robredo. “She genuinely loved our stuff,” reports Joy. “She always wears our Daniela blouse—it’s a poly-cotton top that has a Yakan weave in front and a slit detail at the back. She already has it in all five colors and told me it’s like her uniform.”
As with many start-ups, Looie’s own home served as the brand’s stock room until she decided to actively seek out stockists that catered to their market and make it convenient for people to find them. “We were fortunate to find outlets who were open and happy to help us carry the brand—Lanai, Lily in Discovery Primea, and Rags2Riches at UP Town Center in Katipunan.” She’s also looking into utilizing online channels, but is conscious about choosing the right distributors to match their advocacy.
And while more and more people seem to be jumping on the “local” bandwagon, Looie is confident there is enough room in the market for everyone to play in, and that they can even network and learn from each other. “Some have a funkier approach, some are more classic, everyone has a different take on it, but as long as we stick to our core—modern, comfortable, affordable Filipiniana clothing—we’ll be good.”
Linea Etnika also offers a custom service, wherein clients can choose from the styles on display and have minor alterations made for a perfect fit. It has a wide range of sizes—the best-selling Looie dress, for example, is available from small to 4XL, and even larger-sized women have noticed that the V-neck style flatters the body and neoprene fabric falls just right.
Preserving Heritage and Empowering Women
“We chose to weave culture with chic fashion through Linea Etnika because we wanted to make our weaves more relevant for the modern woman and keep the beautiful art of handloom alive,” shares Looie. “To make a pattern, they use a backstrap loom—it takes around four days just to fix the thread. To weave about a meter would take another four to five days, depending on the design. They weave in between chores, and it’s painful for the back so they can’t do it for eight hours straight—those are the things we had to learn to understand. That’s what makes it more special.”
“In the North, the weaving tradition is more established and there’s a very big market for it because they can really produce a lot, but for the South, at least for the Yakan, it’s not very developed. So the more [Yakan weaves] that we buy, the more that they can weave. The weavers themselves rarely have access to them market, and what we’re trying to do is give them that [reach] through the items that we make.” In an effort to explore more ways to apply weaves into products, Linea Etnika is currently collaborating with Rags2Riches to create pillows out of scrap material. “It takes so long to make the weaves and I don’t want to just throw away the retasos [scrap material], so we upcycle them,” says Looie.
When it comes to the production of the Linea Etnika pieces, the original idea was to give jobs to the sewers Joy trains in livelihood centers. However, the work quality isn’t at par with what they require for the brand, so they currently rely on professional sewers, but aim to eventually entrust some of the production to the women in shelters and livelihood centers to provide them with jobs, and more importantly, a sense of hope. Joy shares, “The number one problem of women is livelihood, and I believe in the philosophy that if you empower them economically, that’s the road to progress. An empowered woman is an empowered family.”
Weaving into Feature
Witnessing the easy camaraderie and mutual respect between Joy and Looie, we can’t help but ask the secret to their successful partnership. “It’s having very clear roles—we knew from the start who was going to do what,” says Looie. “We are in a business to make a profit, but remember, the more fulfilling aspect is providing opportunities to those who need it.” As a working mom and champion of women entrepreneurs, Joy tips: “To be an entrepreneur, you must always add value [to your product or service]. As a negosyante [businessman], you can just buy and sell, but it’s only when you are adding value or creating something that’s uniquely your own that makes you an entrepreneur."
Their big dream for the brand? “We’re trying to own the hashtag #makingweavesmainstream. So we’d really like our clothing and shoes to be part of your daily habit,” says Looie. “And the more that we’re able to give back to the Yakan community, and the more we’re able to engage the women in livelihood centers or shelters, it’s really the story of making the product that makes it special. The more hands that touch it, and when you know you’re [making] a positive impact on people’s lives, then I know we’re on the right track.” For more information, visit lineaetnika.com.