Why Ito Kish is closing shop after 17 years

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Ito Kish has been in the design business for 17 years. Now that he's decided to slow things down, he's closing his Makati store after years of operation. Photo from ITO KISH/INSTAGRAM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — By the time you read this, the Ito Kish store will have closed its doors for good. Designer Ito Kish has, to some extent, called it quits and is partly turning his back on the industry — one that he helped succeed — to slow down and actually live life.

Designers closing shop are not rare but it’s usually because business has not been good. But for Kish, it’s really as simple as that. Leading up to the store closing, he’s won awards (one of which is the A' Design Award & Competition Gold Best Design for Furniture, Decorative Items and Homeware Design from Como, Italy, for his piece, Binhi), sold out collections, and even snagged a few side projects in his ever-expanding practice. And it’s exactly this act of multi-multi-tasking that has made Kish think, “Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?”

I sat down with Kish a few days before he vacated his store along Nicanor Garcia in Makati. Since it opened in 2012, the Ito Kish store has become a familiar fixture with its polished wooden doors and gleaming store windows filled with curious design pieces Kish himself has handpicked. Kish has always been a storyteller and has used design to weave vignettes through pieces that are more than just decor.

Ito Kish 2.jpg The Ito Kish showroom is a meticulously curated and decorated space that has been divided into sections: mid-century, classical, Asian inspiration, and modern contemporary. Photos by ERWIN CANLAS

But on that day, the sky slightly overcast and the road going about its usual business, gone are the window displays  — only the spotlights installed below the window platform bear the trace of what it once was. “We’re taking down the sign on the storefront on Friday,” Kish tells me. It could have been a devastating day for anyone who’s established a business and saw it grow successfully for the last 17 years, but for Kish, it was quite a moment of reprieve.

“Sorry for the mess! We’re still sorting things out,” he apologizes. He seemed comfortable amid the confusion, wearing a white shirt, shorts, and pair of slip-ons. There were magazines all around the room; on the floor, on the table. “Even the computers were sold already,” pointing out the emptied desks. “These shelves used to be filled with stocks, now they’re all gone!” he says.

Kish made the store closing public a few weeks ago and marked down prices for everything. He’s always told people that the reason was because he wanted to slow down — a reasonable enough decision for someone who’s ridden the wave of design-driven consumers for almost two decades. But for Kish, it was seeing how a simpler life can give you pure joy that made him realize that this rapid-fire pace isn’t doing any good.

“I visited my Inay, sister, and nieces in the province and I treated them to watch ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” he wrote on his Instagram post about the store closing. “While watching, I observed how happy they were, the kind of happiness that is pure and clean. Watching them made me smile in a pure and clean way as well. And it only cost me ₱190 for each of them. Very little cost to be happy even for a moment. Every time I remember that moment, it brings so much joy to me. But yes, I want to slow down.”

But the lead-up to the decision is a rather complicated tangle of decisions, heartbreaks, and realizations. He confesses he’s had problems with his staff, the younger ones particularly. Working life was a constant barrage of things to attend to every minute of the day, even when he’s traveling either for work or as time off. He rarely sees his family. When he meets his friends for a quick break, all he talks about is how work has been hard. The cutthroat design industry, of course, exerts pressure on everyone who wants to succeed in it, who are expected to constantly keep up with everything. It’s a rapid, almost absurd cycle. And for Kish, he’s finally had enough of these things.

Ito Kish Leading up to the closing, Kish has even won the A' Design Award & Competition Gold Best Design for Furniture, Decorative Items and Homeware Design for his piece, Binhi. Photo by BJ PASCUAL

“It’s surprising because for almost a year now I kept on telling myself ‘Do you really want to do this?’” shares Kish. “That at this age, do I really want to move to another phase? There were a lot of things that made me decide to close it for now …  I’m saying for now because we were supposed to open in Power Plant Mall this December but I canceled that, so [there’s] no plan to reopen anywhere, even [one that’s] smaller size.”

When Kish announced the closing, the reaction was a mix of concern and excitement. As someone who’s constantly challenged himself, all Kish wants now is to wake up without worry about the stress that’s about to stack up as the day goes. And to many, it is a brave decision. 

But Kish still has a few things up his sleeve. He’s the “chief storyteller” of the Artefino artisan fair in August. He’s also involved with a DTI project called Go Lokal! where they try to bring in Filipino products and work with local designers and manufacturers to improve the quality, the look, the packaging, and the design of the projects. He’s also working for Robinsons Department Store as a creative consultant.

He still even has a collection and a shipment of antique pieces from Denmark that’s still waiting to be delivered. (“Maybe a popup? I don’t know,” he says.) So this means he’ll still be around.

In this candid interview, Kish opens up about his brand, what kept him going for 17 years, and how his humble beginnings have made him fearless in choosing to close down the store that he’s nurtured throughout his career.

What was the spark that started the decision to close Ito Kish? What made you start to think that this isn’t the way things are supposed to be?

This is funny — and this is so gay. [Laughs] I saw “Feud,” the TV series about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. If you remember, the story is both of them trying to be how people expect them to be kahit behind the persona is so bad, they’re poor, they need to sleep around just to be able to put up with everything, get an award … I always think, and this is very honest, I never considered myself “known.” I always have problems of looking [at] how big [the brand is]. And maybe because I’ve been like 120 miles per hour ang takbo ko.

When I saw “Feud,” I thought, “My god, I don’t want to be like that.” Kasi ang nangyayari ang mga tao, may expectations, “Anong gagawin mo next, Ito?” I don’t want to get addicted to all of this. Baka mamaya isipin ko na lang this is how my life should be. I can’t fathom that. Natatakot ako.

Alam ko na I armed myself with a lot of things. Perseverance is one, because I came from [a family that isn’t well off], from nothing. Alam ko magtrabaho.

 

Patong-patong ‘yun lahat. The final thing was this. A few of my key staff resigned. My accountant resigned kasi napagalitan ko. I said, “Ayaw ko na ‘to.” When the key people in your organization leave, it’s not just hiring someone again. You have to train them and everything. I don’t want to do that again.

Every time na nagagalit ako, I keep on telling my staff [that] 15 years ago, I [was] a much nicer person. Kasi habang tumatagal ang daming dumadating, umaalis, ganun lang, walang friendship. Samantalang before, when I started in Glorietta, all my five original staff are still friends of mine. We keep in touch. A few of my very good friends are also former staffers. But as I go through this process of trying to achieve what I want to do in my life, even some friendships are not very strong, and I think because of the stress and the pressure. So sabi ko ayaw ko na, parang people don’t like me and even if hindi ko naman intention na magalit … I don’t want to be the bad person because I’m not.

Every time I talk to my close friends, I sound like a broken record telling them all my complaints and problems. It’s not nice. Every time na magkikita tayo, baka tuloy ‘yung dating ng personality ko is mabigat. People wouldn’t meet me anymore, and I’m not gonna meet someone who’s gonna like me! [Laughs] Hindi ako makatawa kasi lagi akong may wino-worry. So I decided I’m just gonna close [the store].

Ito Kish 1.jpg Though with the shop and showroom closed, Kish pieces will still be available online through his website itokish.com. Photos by ERWIN CANLAS

But up to what scale are you gonna be slowing down in terms of work?

‘Yung retail is basically closed. The Ito Kish Home is just gonna be online. People can still order. Interior design, we have a few existing like Anvaya, and as well as two ongoing [projects], Azuela in Davao and an apartment in New York, which is almost finished. I’m flying there [in] September just to finalize it. Whether I’ll accept another project, I’ll just accept it [if] I really want the project, but so far there’s none. Kish Live, nothing much, very little work.

How did it feel emptying out your store?

I only cried once, to be honest. It was the first day of the sale and I went home early. I [didn’t] go inside the store because I don’t want to explain to everyone why we’re closing. I also didn’t like the feeling that people were asking me “Are you okay? Is everything okay with you?” [Sighs] Even some good friends of mine kasi ang dating is “Are you psychologically okay?” No, I’m okay! [Laughs] I’m doing this for myself, and I’m trying to relax a little.

So I went home early and when I was driving, I remember I was crying. For me, opening a store is part of a lifelong dream. When I was 11, I wallpapered our entire house in San Pablo, and I was dreaming that I’m gonna have the best-looking store, people will come and get inspired. To a certain point that I was telling myself, coming from my humble beginnings, I was able to put up a store like this. I was a bit emotional.

Ito Kish 4.jpg Two of Kish's award-winning furniture designs, part of a larger brand called Ito Kish Home: the Gregoria chair (left) from the colonial Hispanic architecture-inspired Baluster collection, and the Binhi indoor chair from the organic form-inspired collection of the same name. Photos by ERWIN CANLAS

I’m looking forward to not hurry to the office, and just take my time. Maybe go back to cooking, really read a book, go to a coffee shop for a day — and those are things that you don’t enjoy when you’re running a business.

Part of my plan is to build my mom a house. I’ve always promised her that. I was talking to my sister yesterday, and I promised my mom [that] I’m gonna bring her to Europe. When she had a stroke years ago, that became a problem because hindi siya mabilis makalakad. And I’m taking my family to Europe soon.

I was thinking maybe I can even really go back to the province. Make it an easy life. I’ll rent out my condo … But anything can happen!

I find it fascinating that you decided to slow down because your practice is really about enjoying life…

I guess a big chunk of it is nakakapagod talaga. And, ‘yun nga, I don’t want to be a bad person because I’m not. I [was] much nicer before. I’ve had people from my staff who talked to me about their problems, their lovelife! Ngayon, it doesn’t happen. ‘Pag nagagalit ako, galit talaga. But hindi naman nambabato and I don’t say bad words, but I can be nasty. I can really raise my voice, and I don’t like that. Every time na nangyayari ‘yan, umiiyak ako ‘pag umuuwi ako. I feel so bad.

What will you miss the most about the store?

The freedom to do whatever you want to do. That’s the difference between having a store and having a wonderful collection and being an interior designer where you’re being paid. There’s always an expectation and you have to answer to your client. Sometimes you have to compromise with your client. Here, I don’t. This is all me. This is all organic, hindi schooled. So talagang kung ano ‘yung ginagawa mo, it’s because you love it and it’s your passion. It’s from within. And it’s difficult to do.

I’m looking forward to not hurry to the office, and just take my time. Maybe go back to cooking, really read a book, go to a coffee shop for a day — and those are things that you don’t enjoy when you’re running a business.

What made you fearless about this decision?

Because I came from very humble beginnings. I used to sleep on the floor. So what else is scary after that? Seriously. Ako, nung natutulog ako before sa floor, electric fan lang ako, kung magsha-shower ako, lalabas lang ako ng bahay, bakod na ng kapitbahay, bukas ‘yung ceiling. If I have to use a toilet, I had to go to my grandmother’s house. Kaya nga sabi ko I’m fearless. Do I get scared [that I’ll] fail? No. I always believe I could do it.

Alam ko na I armed myself with a lot of things. Perseverance is one, because I came from [a family that isn’t well off], from nothing. Alam ko magtrabaho.

I’m more worried about if my health is okay, if my mom is gonna survive longer. [Knocks on wood] I wanna be able to do what I told her I’m gonna do, because you know, my mom and dad separated when I was 11, so it was really my mother who supported me and my sister. A public school teacher in the province, come on, tell me how much money do you get?

I wanna do that while I can still do that. I have a feeling that … I will probably [semi-]retire to the province a little. Go on a road trip, end up somewhere where I can just get a room and sleep. There are so many things in the last 17 years na hindi ko nagawa because I had to run the company.

Ito Kish According to Kish, his aesthetic can be described as “something that’s really very eclectic,” a story that is told through things people have collected through the years. Photos by ERWIN CANLAS

Do you think your semi-retirement says something about how crazy the business is?

A lot of my friends told me, they’re envious because it’s not easy to just say I’m gonna stop. I’m gonna close a store line this big. I’m gonna clean this up, throw this out, sell the computers, lahat, and just walk away. It’s not easy.

‘Di ko kasi tinatanggap na ganoon kalaki ‘yung brand. Kasi ito, lahat ‘to, ginawa lang because I loved doing it. And kita mo naman our website, we’re so serious. May newsletter kami. Ang press namin updated, we change the pictures every now and then. So makikita mo ‘yung seriousness ng company, ng brand. ‘Yung passion mo talaga. Either gawin mo ‘to full blast, 'di pwedeng halfhearted ka lang. ‘Yun lang nakakapagod. Seventeen years, napagod ako.

What are your key learnings running a business with the store?

Be kind. Not just to your staff but to everyone. Be kind to everyone. I think a lot of my staff will remember me for this; remember there are so many people down the line whose problems are even more difficult.

Whatever you do, always consider your passion, because the result is always different. And that’s the reason why I ended up this far, because I always was playing it based on my passion, my passion is always part of what I do.

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Visit the Ito Kish website.