Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2009, while at UP Diliman, RJ Santos signed up for a general elective class on Art Studies. He was already interested in the arts, having enrolled to be a fine arts major the year prior before shifting to clothing technology, but he was still hesitant to call himself an artist.
“Lagi kong na-fe-feel na hindi ako good enough para mag fine arts. Na hindi enough ‘yung talent ko maging artist,” he says. “Tapos sa [Art Studies class], na-open sa akin ‘yung concept ng Dadaism, parang ako, ‘Oh my god, eto ‘yung hinahanap ko, pwede ata ako maging artist because of this.’”
The art movement of Dadaism started during World War I, when people started to think deeply about the meaninglessness of war, of life. Dada artists began to dispute traditional art values, challenge bourgeoisie taste, poke fun at institutions and figures of authorities, and even question the purpose of art.
Santos was attracted to the art movement’s conscious irrationality, its deliberate foolishness. He cites Marcel DuChamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q,” where the French-American artist drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa and called it his own, and the “Fountain,” where DuChamp displayed a readymade porcelain urinal and presented it as an installation.
“Ang ganda ng concept na gaguhan pero may deeper meaning,” Santos explains. “Parang, who's to say na hindi art? Chinallenge niya ‘yung institution na parang nagsasabi na hindi ka artist.”
It is this same concept that has permitted Santos to build his clothing brand Randolf. Even the name of the brand is a sort of wink to Dadaism. “Kasi Randolph [RJ’s first name] na ‘ph’ [spelling ng] tatay ko, so nung ginawa ko siyang ‘f,’ parang akin na siya,” he says.
With his designs, Santos says that he’s always been inclined to spoof pop culture, to make fun of how obsessive society can be with celebrities, reality television, and the next new trend. “Kahit in religion, as in mga tao talaga obsessed sa idols basically na medyo nakakatawa,” he explains. “‘Yun ‘yung pinaka-core ng Randolf. Parang eventually, nagiging may sinusundan na rin lang na story ‘yung collections.”
His first collection was titled “First Crash” in 2015, an ode to the rush of having a crush, featuring his signature pop culture appliques of Kim Kardashian crying and Johnny Depp’s iconic “Cry-Baby” look. He then showed “Borders” in 2018, a line he presented at the Amazon Fashion Week in Japan, after winning the Bench Design Awards; this time taking inspiration from childhood roadtrips with his parents where they would listen to music like ABBA and Led Zeppelin as well as memories of watching MTV music videos (Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” was a constant).
Then came “Take Me To Prom,” a collection that elicits the joy and exhilaration of preparing for prom, with tangerine long dresses, floor-length denim skirts, and printed suit sets, all still stamped with Randolf’s pop culture parody (as in Lindsay Lohan’s Botoxed face, among others).
Last week, the brand unexpectedly announced to watch out for their show on June 6 — unknown venue, attire optional.
By 4 p.m. that day, Randolf uploaded a photo of a RandolfTV logo, similar to FTV, the fashion broadcasting channel that is known for its backstage footage of Eastern European models talking about what they’re wearing for a particular show, as well as fancy makeup artists, hair stylists, and designers explaining the rationale behind every glossy eyelid or sleek, side-swept ponytail or seamless serpentina dress.
At exactly 6 p.m., RandolfTV went live on Facebook, starting off with an interview of people standing in front of a makeshift backdrop, proclaiming their love for Randolf, while waving to what seems like an imaginary crowd. Like FTV, there was also backstage footage of models getting dolled up by makeup and hairstylist Sylvina Lopez. The show started, 13 looks went out of the Nike Hypercourt in BGC, Santos took a bow, and the footage cut to the models and guests “partying” with Gatorades in hand.
The entire livestream, directed by Judd Figuerres, was befitting the humor and purposeful absurdity that have guided Randolf since it started. “Gusto ko din ‘yung concept na para kang nanonood ng T.V. na hindi mo pwedeng i-skip ‘yung parts. Kailangan nandun ka, panoorin mo ‘yan,” he says, with a laugh. “Kasi ngayon ang tendency natin, ‘pag may video, i-si-skip mo na lang dun sa parts na gusto mo. Eto, gusto ko, kailangan i-endure mo. Kailangan panoorin mo lahat.”
Santos was already working on this collection, called "Destination 0," this time a nod to that feeling of limbo after prom. “Kasi diba ‘pag prom, after nun, ‘yung parang wala kang direksyon. Parang, ano na? Tapos na ‘yung school, wala kang plano, wala kang anything,” Santos explains. “Either you're lost or excited. So ‘yun ‘yung feeling or vibe ng gusto ko sa collection.”
He was already thinking about doing a livestream fashion show for the collection around this time last year. However, the logistics needed to mount a full show made it difficult. Come February of this year, Nike, through Purveyr, got in touch with Santos, asking if he had any new collection that can coincide with the sports brand’s release of the Nike React Element 55.
“Meron akong nagawa nang dress na half blue half purple, sumakto talaga siya,” he says, as the Nike pairs to be launched have the same color gradient.
The entire collection is vibrant, not just because of its starkly hued palette, but also because of its patterns that demand attention. On the surface, it simply looks fun and joyful, but a closer inspection reveals prints that say “dead end.” "Destination 0," as is most of Randolf’s clothes, is an assault to the senses. At first, you feel the high of the colors, the bounciness of possibilities, of what could be; but it also perniciously injects more morose questions: what if there’s nothing more to this? What if this is it, the dead end?
As Santos explains the existential side of his designs, he shifts back to the joy of putting together the campaign. He says he wanted to gather some of the “Original Gangstas” of various creative fields — Tricia Gosingtian, OG blogger; Jasmine Maierhoffer, OG model; Kiko Escora, OG contemporary artist; and Xtina Superstar, OG DJ, among others. These OGs squeeze into a group photo, much like a neoprint photo booth, evoking the life and excitement that Santos has always found in creative work.
When asked why he specifically wanted this idea, Santos says the people in the campaign are essentially who he wanted to dress up just when he was conceptualizing Randolf in college. “Sila ‘yung iniisip ko, na shet gusto ko maging model si Jasmine Maierhoffer tapos parang shet gusto kong maka-work si Kiko Escora. Gusto ko madamitan si ganito, ganyan,” he says.
In many ways, the group wearing his designs is not only the manifestation of his aspirations, it is also a reminder of that one class in college that emboldened him to claim his art.