‘Maharlika, matipuno, masigasig’: 20 ways to design the barong tagalog

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Filipino designer Albert Andrada shares how he kept to the traditional barong tagalog design in dressing up world leaders and dialogue partners for the 31st ASEAN summit. In photo: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau's barong is called 'mapagkawanggawa.'

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — One fateful day, Filipino designer Albert Andrada received a call from Social Secretary Annalyn Tolentino of Malacañang, urging him to submit design ideas and prototypes for the Philippine national costume: the barong tagalog.

“At first, when they asked for the design, I was in doubt because I don't have any connections inside Malacañang,” says Andrada, recalling how he was initially skeptical when he was approached by the Palace. He thought it was only for President Duterte, but to much of his surprise, Tolentino visited his atelier to ask him if he wanted to take on the job of dressing up the male world leaders and dialogue partners for the ASEAN 2017 gala dinner.

Together with his team, Andrada did his research on the leaders he was going to make barongs for, and named each design with a Filipino word that denotes the leaders’ personalities. For example, maharlika, a Filipino word that is used to describe a person who is grand or stately, was assigned to President Duterte. “[We chose] maharlika because he is the host and the head of state,” he says.

barong tagalog.jpg Albert Andrada's sketches of barong designs for the ASEAN summit. From left: 'matipuno' for U.S. President Donald Trump; 'maharlika' for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; and 'mahinahon' for Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Images courtesy of ALBERT ANDRADA

China’s Li Keqiang’s barong was named masigasig, which alludes to the premier’s ‘diligent’ ways in strengthening the Chinese economy, while President Donald Trump’s barong was named matipuno, which implies the U.S. leader’s ‘strong’ (albeit controversial) stance on global issues.

Other barongs are named: makatao (Australia), magiting (Brunei), magalang (Cambodia), mapagkawanggawa (Canada), mapagmasid (EU), maliksi (India), mapagbigay (Indonesia), mapagkumbaba (Japan), maamo (Laos), maginoo (Malaysia), magiliw (Korea), marangal (Russia), mahinahon (Singapore), mapayapa (Thailand), matiwasay (Timor-Leste), mapagsilbi (UN), and mahusay (Vietnam).

The only instruction given to him and his team was that Duterte wouldn’t like his barong to be too rough. “President Duterte doesn’t want materials that are too rough, so we decided to line [all of the barongs] with cotton silk, so it's breathable and it's a fine fabric and it's not too transparent,” explains Andrada.

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The piña cocoon textiles used to make all the barongs were all sourced in Laguna, a place he usually frequents for when he needs this specific textile. But travelling all the way to Laguna to acquire the fabric was not the challenge; it was producing the garments with measurements that were only given to them by the countries’ respective embassies.

“We received measurements which were not proportional, so as a designer or as the one who makes the pattern … I just had to adjust it,” he says, not entirely knowing if his adjustments would fit the leaders.

Fortunately, during the day of the gala, every barong they delivered was without any alterations. Trudeau event went on to say that the barong was very comfortable, and eventually got Andrada’s contact details from his staff.

Andrada likens the feeling of seeing his designs onstage worn by all the world leaders to that time Pia Wurtzbach won Miss Universe wearing his masterpiece (the famous royal blue trumpet gown). “How I felt during that moment, this is the same feeling I have now,” he says. “I was having goosebumps when the leaders came in. Because everyone, everybody wore it.”

ASEAN.jpg The piña cocoon textiles used to make all the barongs were all sourced in Laguna, a place Albert Andrada usually frequents for when he needs this specific textile.

As he was given free reign on design, Andrada could have opted for a contemporary take on the barong, like adding a lapel or using organic dyes, but Andrada adds that he made sure all his designs would display the traditional barong tagalog ­— a button-down long sleeve shirt with either a linear embroidery at the center or at the sides.

“I said that it would be very Filipino, nothing modern, nothing outlandish,” he says. 

Andrada also says that creating the 20 barongs was a challenge in that he doesn’t consider himself an expert at designing this traditionally male piece. In the fashion industry, he is known for his lavish, intricately-embroidered ensembles for women; not men. But it was a challenge, he says, that was worth pursuing and continuing. “Now, I'm thinking of extending my brand to barong tagalogs already because I received phone calls as early as the other day,” he says.

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For Andrada, presenting traditional designs in an international platform is imperative for the local fashion industry to flourish in the country. “If we're given the chance to showcase [our designs], we should really be boastful of what we can do so [the international community] would know, and that the next generation would be inspired to do so because what's sad now, our weavers, their children are not too interested in weaving anymore.”

Displaying local talent through ASEAN could also inspire the younger generation of local textile weavers to continue this practice. “If they see that we're really reaching the platform and doing it internationally, they will be very inspired to do that. I don't want this business to be a dying business,” he says.

“I would like to extend this message to the young generation: We should continue this kind of craftmanship.”