Inside Artwork’s creative headquarters

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The family-run local ready-to-wear brand Artwork shifted gears to focus on a younger market, coming up with designs that are more vibrant and fun. What has remained the same, however, is the company’s hands-on approach to clothing production and management. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — What used to be a temperature-controlled enoki mushroom farm now serves as the office of the local apparel brand Artwork. The structure, a two-level refurbished warehouse in Marikina, is only a few months old. The brand, however, has been operational since the mid-80s.

Founded by the artist Oca Villamiel, Artwork made mostly faux souvenir shirts for places in the U.S. and funny statement tees. “Parang anything under the sun,” says Cristine “Tinay” Villamiel, Oca’s daughter and the head of Artwork’s product development and creative team. Oca, who now works on art full time, began screen-printing the shirts in their family’s garage. Today, Artwork is home to fun printed tees and bags that generally appeal to the typical millennial student, thanks to its original designs and budget-friendly prices.

Tinay joined the business around 2002. She and her brother, John, who handles Artwork’s operations, decided to make use of what they had at hand — the T-shirts, their factory, and their existing retail shops — and make a deliberate shift to something that’s more focused. “When we came in,” Tinay recalls, “my brother and I, sabi namin, ‘Why don’t we focus on a specific market?’ and then we began building the brand as Artwork talaga, not anymore just the T-shirt store.”

Artwork Tinay Villamiel "When we came in, my brother and I, sabi namin, 'Why don't we focus on a specific market?'" Tinay Villamiel, Artwork's Creative Director, says. Portraits by JL JAVIER

Artwork Comprising fewer than 10 people with a median age of "mid-twenties," Artwork's team plans concepts and product releases as early as six months before their final launch. Photo by JL JAVIER

Artwork now has 34 branches, but it is still run by the Villamiel family. Aside from Tinay and John, their sister Lea handles the finance side of the business with their mother, Medin, and their sister-in-law, Sue, is in charge of human resources.

Artwork’s creative team is surprisingly small for a brand that comes out with original designs every two weeks. Comprising fewer than 10 people with a median age of “mid-twenties,” the team plans concepts and product releases as early as six months before their final launch. There is no set formula for the design process, and they get to design different products — from T-shirts to patches, bags, and phone cases — and also dabble in visual merchandising. Sometimes, they riff off a general idea given by the assistant creative director, Teo Esguerra; other times, all they have to go on are keywords. But their main demographic is clear.

“We focused on the [youth] — teenagers, students — so we created a more fun vibe,” Tinay says. “And then we expanded the product line, but still capitalizing on silkscreen printing. So, full of prints talaga. The prints also became more fun, more on the quirky side.”

Artwork "We focused on the [youth] — teenagers, students — so we created a more fun vibe." Photo by JL JAVIER  

Artwork "The prints also became more fun, more on the quirky side." Photo by JL JAVIER

“You have a market to consider,” Tinay, who graduated from the UP College of Fine Arts as a painting major, adds. “You have to always think of who you are talking to. Kailangan may balance lagi [between] what you have to offer, what you have to say, and parang yung business side.” Artwork knows its market, and it works toward achieving that balance. “T-shirt culture lang siya na very simple, very everyday,” Tinay explains. “What you would wear to school, T-shirt and jeans lang.”

The creative team occupies the second floor of the office, a spacious and minimal open space made of concrete, wood, and glass. It’s adorned with knick-knacks, prototypes of window displays for Artwork’s retail stores, and a collection of books on art and design. The team largely works on computers propped up on a long table, with no isolating cubicles in sight. Tinay has her own office, a small room separated from the main room by a wall of glass with all of the lights switched off, though she says she prefers working with the rest of her creative team.

One thing that sets Artwork apart from most of the big ready-to-wear local brands is that it handles most of its products from conceptualization to manufacturing. Its main factory is located in another warehouse that’s only a few minutes’ drive away. Instead of merely printing designs on shirts from suppliers, Artwork makes its shirts from scratch, handmade by employees using traditional screen-printing techniques. This means that when you get an Artwork shirt, you buy into an item that’s carefully considered and made by local creatives and craftsmen, instead of repackaged pre-made designs sourced from somewhere else.

Artwork Artwork's main factory is located in another warehouse that’s only a few minutes’ drive away. Photo by JL JAVIER  

Artwork One thing that sets Artwork apart from most of the big ready-to-wear local brands is that it handles most of its products from conceptualization to manufacturing. Photo by JL JAVIER

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Artwork’s office is located at 150 Starlite Street corner Panorama Extension, Rancho Estate III, Marikina City. For more information and to shop products online, visit the official Artwork website. The brand will be at Inspire Every Day at Ayala Museum tomorrow, July 30, for a whole-day tote- and shirt-customizing workshop.