Why these Filipino handwoven bags are a hit in fashion capitals around the world

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Zacarias 1925 pieces are well-loved in fashion capitals around the world, such as in France, Italy, and Japan. "We have buyers that have been with us for three or four seasons — they do well, they sell out, " says Zacarias 1925's creative director Rita Nazareno. Photos by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Those are the classic ones,” Rita Nazareno offers as she gestures to a row of handwoven bags in her periphery, “but the crazy bags are all mine.” The creative director of Zacarias 1925 is in a flurry of activity on an otherwise dreary Saturday, assembling her team of workmen and assistants, as she makes last minute preparations before she packs up for Paris Fashion Week.

Rita is on her way to Premiére Vision Paris, a seasonal trade show where buyers from all over the world source the best materials and supplies in fashion. Paris is a twice-a-year hustle for Rita, who left her Emmy-Award winning television career in the United States to helm her own label under the heritage of her family-owned business S.C. Vizcarra, one of the Philippine’s most renowned labels in the field of crafts, furniture, textile, and handwoven fashion pieces.

Zacarias "For me, Zacarias is more [of] a progressive, fun and clever collection," says Rita Nazareno. "It’s not the same bag you will see that everyone has. They’re certainly crazy, these bags. I love them though. Sometimes you look at it and giggle." Photos by JL JAVIER

S.C. Vizcarra was a hand embroidery business founded by the family matriarch, Segundina Cornejo Vizcarra in 1925. It was later turned by Rita’s mother, Vicky Vizcarra Amalingan-Sales, into a fine hand-made crafts manufacturer to keep up with the changing demands of the retail industry. Rita’s return in 2010 signalled yet another development in the S.C. Vizcarra heritage, producing a line of luxury bags, crafts, and furniture that cull inspiration from contemporary modes of art, architecture, cinema, and design.

When not collaborating with marked design personalities such as internationally-known interior designer Gabby Lichauco and architect Lara Fernandez Barrios, Zacarias 1925 pushes the design aesthetic of its mother brand, lending unconventional molds to the decades-old process of handweaving bags. In S.C. Vizcarra’s showroom, it’s clear which pieces belong to the heritage brand and which belongs to its contemporary daughter label: handwoven bucket bags structured like sturdy canisters, shell-like backpacks the shape of circular domes, bags with house-like structures in which interiors can be accessed through opening a “roof.”

With pieces shipped to top fashion capitals and over 40 luxury, fashion, and concept stores all over the world, it’s clear that the art of handweaving has been rightfully honoured by the label.

Zacarias "Handweaving is very niche, but people are going back to things with character and objects with a soul," says Rita Nazareno. "You don’t get that from China-made, plasticky products. You see in every Zacarias 1925 piece that it went through people’s hands, creativity and skill, and you appreciate that." Photos by JL JAVIER

CNN Philippines Life chats with Zacarias 1925 creative director Rita Nazareno to learn about how the modern design label continues the legacy of a family business that has traditional aesthetics. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

What made you leave your award-winning T.V. career in the States and take the reins in your family business?

My mother had been bugging me to come back home, and sometimes it just hits you like, “Did I just say yes?” I thought I had done a lot [in T.V.], so I said “Ok, I’ll go home, but let me take a master’s degree in fashion because I knew nothing about it. So I did my second masters in London College of Fashion — I was the oldest person there (taking up Design Management for Fashion), but I loved it.

What’s your process as the creative director of Zacarias 1925?

I start by going around, getting some ideas. It’s important for me that when I travel, I see different things. I start designing with my uncle Pablo who does the prototypes, and as soon as we get them the way I like it, we get it done, photograph them, and go into sales mode. I sell my pieces in trade shows in Paris.

As soon as the buyers order, we manufacture them here, and while we make it, I’m back to designing. So while I’m selling in Paris, I’m also looking at all the beautiful things: getting some references, going to art shows and museums.

Zacarias Rita Nazareno left her Emmy-Award winning television career in the United States to helm her own label under the heritage of her family-owned business S.C. Vizcarra, one of the Philippine’s most renowned labels in the field of crafts, furniture, textile, and handwoven fashion pieces. Photo by JL JAVIER

Then there will be hotels and brands who collaborate with us in between, so that makes it fun. I collaborate yearly with Aphro, an art and lifestyle concept store in Makati. I also love teaching.

You love teaching?

Yes. I had the best time teaching design studio in Philippine Women’s University. And I would love to teach in Hawaii. That’s my place, and I would love to spend more time there as I grow old.

Instead of growing the S.C. Vizcarra business, why did you create a new brand?

The aesthetic is too different. People will get confused with the aesthetic (if it had operated under the S.C. Vizcarra brand). And it’s my mother who handles S.C. Vizcarra. I needed to uphold that legacy of my grandmother’s.

It’s very organic how it happened. Coming from the States, I already had the idea of Zacarias 1925 on my mind. And it was nice to have my lolo’s name somewhere [in the business.]

How was your family able to accept your unconventional ideas?

It took a while. It’s just [that] they realized at a certain point that it’s kalokohan — but it’s fun! I think the workers also enjoy it. In the beginning I thought they were thinking, “What the hey!” But then they started enjoying it. It’s putting a contemporary thrust in the very traditional craft of handweaving. But the classic S.C. Vizcarra is still there.

Zacarias 1952 Since Rita’s return in 2010, S.C. Vizcarra has produced a line of luxury bags, crafts, and furniture that cull inspiration from contemporary modes of art, architecture, cinema, and design. Photos by JL JAVIER

What are the similarities between S.C. Vizcarra and Zacarias 1925?

Certainly they look for distinct weaving. First and foremost, whether it’s Zacarias or S.C. Vizcarra, they see that quality, our weaves are pulido.

As a more contemporary interpretation of a heritage brand, what makes Zacarias 1925 distinct from its mother brand?

For Zacarias, the age doesn’t really matter — it’s really a design aesthetic that [customers are] looking for. For me, Zacarias is more [of] a progressive, fun, and clever collection. It’s not the same bag you will see that everyone has. They’re certainly crazy, these bags. I love them though. Sometimes you look at it and giggle. I mean, kalokohan. I love that.

I find the fun, I find the funny in whatever it is that I experience and even in these bags, there’s almost a wit to it. That’s what I hope for.

Zacarias 1952 The showroom of S.C. Vizcarra and Zacarias 1925 along Roxas Boulevard in Pasay. Photo by JL JAVIER

Nowadays, woven bags have made their way in again as a mainstream trend. How did you feel when the trend started to pick up?

It was fantastic. I am happy for a lot of the brands, workers, and artisans in the country. The more the merrier. This is exactly why I feel that teaching is important, whether in a school setting or through mentorship. It’s because you need to share what you were fortunate enough to learn. You can’t just [keep it for yourself]. You need to share your experiences, your design processes, and see how it can make others better as well. I think that’s important.

Handweaving is a very distinct art form. But with fast fashion brands taking over in the country, did you ever feel that somehow the art form was dying?

I don’t know if it was dying. Handweaving is very niche, but people are going back to things with character and objects with a soul. You don’t get that from China-made, plasticky products. You see in every Zacarias 1925 piece that it went through people’s hands, creativity and skill, and you appreciate that. [Details] that you don’t think of consciously, but then they make you go, “Oo nga no.”

One piece has a color seeping through the bag, with a wash that someone actually decided to do, and now you know that my cousin and worksman Victor did it. And when I go to Paris and explain to people: “It’s ate Glo who does the lining. It’s Victor [who dyes the material].” I literally have the his picture and I say, “This is the man who does it.”

How is the public’s reaction towards Zacarias 1925 pieces?

I’m very encouraged with the reaction. I show in Paris and Japan, so it’s mostly there that we sell and it’s been great. Italy has also our most number of customers. Now we have buyers that have been with us for three or four seasons — they do well, they sell out, that’s the thing.

I love the fact that we’re in bigger stores like Bloomingdales, but I love that we have a shop in say, Le Lavandou at the South of France. There’s a store that has been there for decades. The mother of the owner who runs the store has the picture of the whole crew here … and they tell their customers the story of the people who [created] the bags.

Zacarias 1952 S.C. Vizcarra was a hand embroidery business founded by the family matriarch, Segundina Cornejo Vizcarra in 1925. It was later turned by Rita’s mother, Vicky Vizcarra Amalingan-Sales, into a fine handmade crafts manufacturer to keep up with the changing demands of the retail industry. Photos by JL JAVIER

Would you say you are able to maintain your family legacy through Zacarias 1925?

I would hope so. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I would like to think that my mom, my lola and lolo are proud of me. This business, it’s backbreaking work. For me, it’s also making sure that there’s a camaraderie, that workers are treated fairly and the same. Some of them have been here for decades, some give me personal feedback on pieces where I say, “Tama ka diyan.” And when photo shoots are done and pictures are in, they become so proud looking at the pieces.

Does Zacarias 1925 have any muse? What type of woman do you cater to?

Certainly women like artist Patty Eustaquio, just because she’s so intelligent, fierce, creative and incredibly smart. The Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, who curated the last Viennese Biennale. She’s fantastic.

How do you see Zacarias 1925 progress in the future?

I’m always interested in collaboration. It pushes me to doing things other than bags. In turn, we don’t get bored. Hopefully, a niece will continue the brand as well — we come from a family of fierce, independent women, we have 12 nieces and no nephews. My dream is to design the collection, be here [in the country] to get it done, teach in Hawaii, sell in Paris, and come back here [when needed]. Why not, kung kakayanin.

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The S.C. Vizcarra showroom is located at 737 Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City (across City of Dreams). For more information visit the S.C. Vizcarra website or the Zacarias 1925 webiste.