The lost art of Philippine shoemaking

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The artist at work: Maco Custodio's work desk features the bare bones of some of his new creations like the Eve bag and a sandal inspired by sperm cells. Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — This is the first in a series of articles profiling designers who are presenting at Fashion Exchange International.

“Every product should have at least a story,” says Maco Custodio, shoe and accessories designer.

Sitting in his studio and workshop along Tandang Sora, Quezon City, where he had grown up, he begins to tell one about a pair of sandals with detachable straps that, he explains with a twinkle in his eyes, were inspired by sperm cells.

“Before I got preselected [for London’s International Fashion Showcase in 2016], there was this British woman [who was] invited to come here to judge,” he says. “She went to my booth, and I still didn’t know her profile yet, so I showed her this.” He gestures to the shoe. “Sabi ko its inspiration is a sperm cell. You know your biology, that you have the head, so sabi ko sa kaniya: ‘This is the head. See, it’s smiling at you!’ And oh, my God.” He rolls his eyes, a good-natured jab at his past self, perhaps. “I didn’t know she was actually the department director of the London School of Fashion, so sabi ko, ‘Oh, my God.’”

He shakes his head at the memory. “I guess it happens when you’re totally in yourself that you don’t really care na you’re breaking boundaries,” he offers. “Sometimes it’s fun that way, na parang, wala kang iniintindi.”

Custodio made waves in the local fashion industry as a designer of eccentric shoes that could be considered more like structurally complex works of art, from thread made out of packaging for chips to minimalist heels made to look like dinosaurs. Fresh off a design exhibition in Japan that was attended by Vice President Leni Robredo just a few days before her inauguration, he explains that he’s currently working with native Filipino handwoven fabric from the likes of Basilan, Cebu, and Ilocos.

maco custodio Stacks of fabric of all colors, textures, shapes, and sizes greet you as you walk inside the workshop. Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

maco custodio At the end of Maco Custodio's workshop is a table for turning his designs into tangible reality. Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

His workshop is a creator’s dream, shoemaker or not. Fabrics of all shapes, sizes, textures, and colors greet visitors as soon as they walk in, followed by piles and piles of shoe boxes adorned with his logo — a drawing of his own face. At the end of the room are two tables: one for sketching out ideas, teeming with colored markers and pencils as well as stray shoe sketches, and another for turning these designs into tangible reality.

With slightly outdated pop music — courtesy of an actual radio station — and sporadic rain in the background, Custodio took some time recently to answer CNN Philippines Life’s questions about his path to shoemaking, his interest in materials, how his personal history comes through in his designs, and the current state of shoemaking in the Philippines in general. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

4.jpg Some of the products Custodio presented as part of the Good Design Marunouch in Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of MACO CUSTODIO

First, let’s talk about your beginnings in shoemaking. What initially drew you to it?

I think I started in the shoemaking industry in 2003, but in the fashion industry, I started in 2008. I feel I started lang 2013, actually. After graduation, I was clueless. You don’t know what to do after graduation. So I got into this scholarship in Marikina. It was like a scholarship of 15 students, most of whom are from Marikina. The moms and dads are from the industry, and so ang nangyari pa noon is I wasn’t the first pick because I’m from Quezon City, so I had to really find my way to get the scholarship. Kasi I couldn’t pay because it was a government thing. So I asked Rusty Lopez to make me their scholar. That’s the reason I got in. After the shoemaking course, I went to China to do shoe engineering. After that … Pretty much, it’s — I feel nga na parang sabi ko, “May sinayang ba akong oras?” I guess wala naman.

Tell us about your workshop.

It’s divided into two rooms. The green room is made for stitching; the other room is made for cutting. We used to have lasting shoes here in the workshop. I have a desk where I cut all the patterns. Now, I opted to have it sourced out, meaning I go to my mananahi’s house every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to collect all the things na natapos na niya. I go to my sapatero ng Tuesday and Thursday.

maco custodio Shoe templates and designs (left) are posted on one wall. Piles and piles of shoeboxes adorned with Custodio's logo (a drawing of his face) are stored in one of the rooms in his workshop. Photos by GELOY CONCEPCION

maco custodio For Custodio (pictured starting on a new project), "every product should have at least a story." Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

What’s your design process?

Before, I didn’t really have a mood board. But now, I do. It saves you time. It saves you money. It saves you a lot of things. Kasi when you go out to your suppliers, what happens is, kokolektahin lang niya yan. So ‘pag may nakita kang product, sasabihin mo, “O, puwede ‘yan.” So magbabago na naman ideas mo. If you have the mood board, more or less, you stick to whatever you have na naayos mo na from before. 

You were talking about suppliers. What draws you to certain suppliers and materials?

Now after doing the handwoven fabrics, I feel that we have to be proud that we have this. Especially the ones that we have in the North — Ilocos — and the Basilan tribes.  The abel Iloko is known for its optical illusion. I also used another woven fabric from Basilan. You’ll know that the weaver’s husband is a fisherman or — kasi it’s the women who weave — if they live near the river or sa inland or sa outland based from the patterns. With this one, you’ll see the python, this one is a crab, then there’s a net. So more or less, they live near the river. So nagbabago yung patterns. I’m intrigued with how we have these fabrics and we don’t know them. People from other countries should see that we also have this pala in our country.

How do you think your own personal history comes through in your work?

Before, most of the shoes na nade-design ko were based on the people I meet. Pero hindi talaga derived from their official name. Like, say, I’m designing from a person called Alexander. So this Alexander is pretty much how I would see him if he was wearing a pair of shoes. Because I feel that creating a name out of something, parang kasi these are your babies, eh. And I have an Eve bag. It’s called Eve because it’s six hours in the making. So you stitch it — hand-stitch — and I start making it at one o’clock, and I finish bago mag-6 p.m. Hence I call it the Eve bag. When you do this, it’s not that you’re only introducing these products, but you’re also introducing the story behind them.

DSCF1490.jpg The Aubrey ladies' mules are made with the fabric abel Iloko. Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

maco custodio Each shoe is carefully handcrafted to create a finished product that can be likened to a work of art. Photos by GELOY CONCEPCION

Can you talk about your decision to stay here in Tandang Sora and be hands-on with your brand despite your success?

I feel that before, I used to really … I said, “I want to do something with the shoemaking.” After a few years of being proactive and living up the shoemaking skills, it’s not really effective. I feel that a lot of shoemakers are really losing it. Ayaw na nila. Ayaw naman nila kaming tulungan. To launch maybe a school, or something. Kasi nandun na sila sa Marikina. I don’t see that they’re very hands-on, that they’re very … I don’t hear about it. Now, I feel that what we can do is to really make a Pinoy product but for the global market. Because if you really want to concentrate more on the yakan, Filipinos are not going to be interested in it. Sasabihin lang nila, “Ay, ang mahal naman!” Per yard of this is around ₱900 pesos, and tingin mo, ang liit lang niya. So how can you make a dress out of it? And Pinoys are not the market. So we have to tap into other countries, not just the Philippines.

What does it mean to be a modern shoemaker in the Philippines?

It’s a little hard because there’s just a few of us left in the industry. Kasi marami nang designers from before me that’s now wala na. And it’s hard, but I guess what makes things possible is you still have to ask yourself if these things still drive you. Until now, I guess I’m still driven. I’ve created almost all the silhouettes that are in my head. Driven is number one. That will make you make things a possibility.

What are you showing for Fashion Exchange International?

One of them, I call the Y bag. Why? Because bakit! Get it, bucket? (Laughs.) So yeah. I want to create a bucket bag that has the straps but totally, totally different.

2.jpg The Y bag (left) is Custodio's take on the bucket bag, made with handwoven materials and leather. He has also been experimenting with sandals that have removable back straps. Photos courtesy of MACO CUSTODIO

1.jpg Slippers with what Custodio describes as "interesting weaving": They have leather scraps woven together with the fabric. Photo courtesy of MACO CUSTODIO

What would you say is your design trademark?

I like things with a surprise. Like this belt I made for a friend. It’s like your normal belt pero you can put your ₱100 or ₱1,000 bill in it for safety. It’s like an anti-thief, or whatever. I love things like that! Probably I’ll call this Stanley kasi I’m making something for someone named Stanley. So yeah. Every product should have at least a story, or something.

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Fashion Exchange International will hold its premiere collection showcase on July 7 and 8 at the Marriott Grand Ballroom in Manila Marriott Hotel, Pasay City. There will be a showroom and presentations featuring the works of participating designers, including Aranaz, Ann Ong, Jail Jeans, JR by Jeffrey Rogador, John Herrera, Ken Samudio, Maco Custodio, Proudrace, Rosenthal Tee, and Tex Saverio.