Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A wave of social science research in the ‘70s to the ‘90s declared: the Filipino woman was not a unitary being. “Rather, her characteristics and situation in life were affected by a plurality of variables (Bautista, 1986).” That included where she was from, whether or not she was married, and her participation in labor, whether out of the household or at home.
Read now, the findings might ring with familiarity for anyone in a position of caring for someone else. And maybe, a rush of empathy for the wife, girlfriend or mother who must constantly balance the interests of others, especially now when the whole family is at home.
One of the companies that knows the reality of juggling personas is Recess, a new women-led enterprise in the design and manufacture of leggings, sports bras and workout gear — a category whose sales, according to online fashion retailers in the Philippines, have been picking up during the pandemic.
Like the four women behind the brand, a very urban target customer inspires this type of merchandise.
They are: the It girls who’ve entered motherhood, Isabelle Daza and Anne Curtis; Roxanne Farillas, who has spent more than half her life at the helm of her own fashion business; and Paulina Ortega, a creative director by trade and now the head of developing the imagery and designs for Recess.
“I've been so passionate about helping brand young businesses these last few years, I'm finally branding one I'm actually an active part of now,” wrote Ortega in an email. The conversation carried over to Zoom, where one Monday out of the terrace of her apartment in Sydney, she walked CNN Philippines Life through line sheets illustrating the pieces the brand is launching this December on Zalora and ourrecess.com. A mix of clean-cut neutrals and brights called out with fun names.
“The ‘do everything legging’ is very mild compression, and then, in the same fabrication we have a jacket — it’s called the work-life balance jacket.”
Designing everything from scratch, the merchandising team spent a year of trial and error to match the fabrics to their functions — from lounging to more intense workouts — as well as to create an inclusive size range for the bodywear, while accommodating cup sizes AA-DD for the bras. The quality of support is palpable, on top of some key specs for modern life: that the pieces don’t shrink, have proper stretch and can even cross over into non-workout situations (read: the Going Places Crop, a scoop-neck bra that doubles as a cute top).
Ortega said they tried to keep the silhouettes as simple as possible. “You can integrate it into your wardrobe a little better, regardless of what your style is.”
She pointed out a sports bra with mismatched piping. “It’s called the Tri-Color Athlete,” she said. “We used our retasos,” referring to the offcuts of fabric from making the other pieces.
Finally she showed the design of their basic tee — a great-looking boxy crop that even her husband could wear — and tank. “They fit really well, I'm so happy. I’ve been wearing them the last few days,” she said. Switching gears, in the next breath she added a note on production: “All of our tees and tanks are made in the Philippines.”
On calls with everyone about how to frame things, or how to make things, in order to ladder up to their brand values, Ortega has become somewhat of a gatekeeper, working with the manufacturing lead, Farillas, on specifying requests to their suppliers.
Among their eco-friendly substitutions: the use of biodegradable plastic for stockroom packaging, compostable cassava bags to ship, and direct-printed instead of cloth tags.
At the core is the importance given to personal wellbeing. Curtis has been known to mark her birthdays with workout parties, Daza speaks out on mental health for the post-pregnancy mom, and Ortega practically popularized the term "restorative practices" back when Recess was just an Instagram.
When lockdown started, the brand pushed back its plans, but went ahead with launching their social media in advance. With short videos on meditation and art prompts to get one’s mind wandering again, @our.recess became a touchstone for the new set of upwardly mobile Filipinas who suddenly found themselves not so mobile anymore. Ortega herself sent DMs from the brand’s account to check in with their followers to see how they were doing, and how they kept themselves going.
Personally, she’s been taking Lagree workouts for the last two years. Built on slow sustained movements, it’s a killer on the small muscles one forgets one has.
Many Roles, and Ambitions
It used to be that women were supporting actors at home. In “Images of Women in Philippine Media” (1988), which critiqued the contents of radio and T.V. ads, print ads, newspapers, tabloids, weekly magazines, komiks, porno mags, TV shows, radio shows and Tagalog movies, women, wrote Pennie S. Azarcon-dela Cruz, played the roles of “conscientious housekeepers; desirable beautiful companions; caring, assuring, hardworking, frugal and resourceful homebound persons… [their] main preoccupation is to please their husbands.” Of course, this gendered division of labor stemmed from the practical facts of child-bearing, where pregnant women had to sit out economic activities outside and stay at home.
Which is not quite the case now.
During the ECQ, a survey commissioned by the Philippine Business Coalition for Women Empowerment and Investing in Women among private employees — from senior management to middle management and clerical workers — found that the same proportion of men and women put pressure on themselves to take on more food prep, cleaning and childcare. It suggests that across economic sectors, the collaboration mindset is gelling, which is a boon for women to invest more of themselves in their work.
Daza, who had to pivot a fitness-related business herself — a spinning studio — during the pandemic, talked about the need for the partners to adjust to each other’s schedules and work smart. “So I'm in Hong Kong, Rox is in the Philippines, Paulina’s in Australia, and Anne is in Australia as well. So when we scheduled meetings, we're like, what time is that in Australia? It was definitely challenging. But if there's one thing that we learned, we need to be flexible. We really tried to play to our key strengths.”
Roxanne Farillas, who leads business, production and sales for Recess, has built a career on that type of energy.
In her university days, the finance major would buy fabric during breaks and peddle clothes out of a duffel bag from class to class. “At the end of the day, my bag would be empty!” she said.
These days, she fits the bill of a working mother — the type who breezes through a stack of Zoom meetings and a trip to the malls to check on her Plains & Prints stores, while still having the presence of mind to send a single friend a ramen kit to her apartment. With an unflagging perk, Farillas works out five times a week out of her living room to which the family added a treadmill, mats and weights. “Our sala’s a gym now, because my kids are big now and we work out together. Actually the work from home is fun!”
She calls to mind passages in the social science study, “The Filipina Looks at Herself” (1992):
“There is joy in being a mother and a wife.”
“Instead of many life worlds, they have one principal life world, their definition of reality is focused on the family and its survival . . . Nor do they distinguish between a public and a private life (Manalang, 1984, p. 13).”
In a Zoom room of her own, Farillas brandished a yellow legging the color of butter, making it flow between her hands to show how supple it was, before picking up a black one, whose tummy band she stretched taut. It was the mythical Personal Best legging, which she claimed was perfect for high intensity workouts and took time to develop. “It’s pressed together with high heat technology,” she said. “That makes it flat. Like, you know wearing a sauna strap?”
Picking up a maternity legging, she turned it over to show a V-shaped cut in the back, a design detail to support the belly.
Imagine all the moms who would get a kick out of these. Moms who Tiktok with their kids in the background. Moms quaffing wine on their rooftop gardens while their husbands tend to their tomatoes. Moms in spin class who pedal the hardest. Single moms. Mother hikers. Mompreneurs, like say Curtis, who also has her cosmetics company, and shared on a later call how she swore by the maternity legging when she was pregnant. “I will attest that they are so comfortable, and give you the right amount of support when you're carrying a little one,” she said.
And then of course there are the singles. 20 to 30-plus, solo-earning, office girls who, in the time of in-person classes, snuck in a workout before 9 a.m., brought their own shampoo bars to the communal showers, and chatted with the other girls about their new side hustle or sustainable business.
For this set, there is a sense of claiming their own time for their own pursuits, which can then radiate to their communities. As Audre Lorde, who coined the term “self-care” said, self-care is self-preservation. An act of resistance, a space for pause, room to be more sensitive to contexts beyond one’s living room gym or yoga mat. That seems to be the deep urge, really, behind Recess’ pursuit of the ethical and the inclusive: rededicating actions, restoring-to-reform, signalling that under compressed skin is a real pulse. It’s with this prompt that seven of Ortega’s words on the call can glow with possibility: “It’s OK to take time for yourself,” she said.
Photography by Natalia Parsonson
Creative Direction by Paulina Paige Ortega
Makeup by Cat Smith
Hair Styling by Paloma Garcia