COVER STORY

Why international fashion is paying attention to Carl Jan Cruz

This young Filipino fashion designer has made it on the radar of some of global fashion's elite, from Vogue Italia to FKA Twigs — while operating entirely in Manila. How did he become local fashion's poster boy for success?

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The designer and namesake brand Carl Jan Cruz have become an anomaly in local fashion doing the almost unthinkable: his brand has found a devoted following among some of fashion’s most important stakeholders while operating entirely in Manila. Vogue Italia and i-D note his startlingly unique presentation of Philippine fashion that is so far removed from the exoticism thought typical of Southeast Asian fashion. Stylists like Karen Clarkson (who has dressed the likes of Christina Aguilera and Rita Ora) have draped their more experimental clients in Carl Jan Cruz’s more conceptual pieces, namely indie darling FKA twigs in a blanket coat for the London weather.

The brand has also found homes in retailers all over world, first at Maryam Nassir Zadeh, the contemporary fashion brand leading the way in breaking New York’s ‘glamour’ mold, and then similarly niche retailers 100% Silk Shop (Toronto) and Esmeralda Serviced Department (Tokyo). Carnelia Garcia, MNZ’s retail director and buyer, told Fashionista.com, “His work is just beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent and spoke to us right away. His point of view and direction [are] fresh.”

Somehow, from his cozy little home in Manila, both Carl Jan Cruz the brand and the designer found champions, although the experiences that bookend his success are often left out of the interviews.

CJ Cruz’s early claim to fame was that he was shot by the Sartorialist, every fashion savant’s 2013 dream. When we first met — myself in the slow beginnings as a fashion journalist, him doing an internship at a local luxury magazine for men — it became clear that was just a precursor.

Here was CJ, a true fashion devotee. He spoke of fashion not just in terms of brands or trends, but in who was making it, with what technique, and what it meant to a greater context of fashion and history. He spoke using first names only, dashing off thoughts in short but eloquent bursts that reminded me of haikus. It was poetry. But when he spoke with this romance, what he spoke of was skill: it was clear that his view of fashion was that it was a livable art form. “That is so industrie,” CJ would always say; his highest compliment.

None of it was pretentious — while CJ had graduated from the prestigious London College of Fashion with a degree in menswear, and worked as an intern at Phoebe Philo-era Céline in 2013, CJ had spent just as much time working within the local fashion industry as he did globally. In the years Before Phoebe, CJ was an intern with Melissa Dizon’s Eairth; Dizon being a local designer with a focus on organic textiles with colors that the earth in her home in Subic developed naturally. At Eairth, there was a focus on the environment, on creating garments via naturally occurring processes with as little intervention as possible — a philosophy that we still see in CJC’s penchant for creating clothes removed from the fashion cycle, that are meant to be worn everyday with minimal disruption of the life that you live while wearing them.

For the shoot, done in June 2019, Cruz gathered some of Metro Manila creatives and Carl Jan Cruz regulars. In this photo: Bea Sigua (producer) in permanenTee white tee; David Abalayan (Diageo World Class Philippines Bartender of the Year 2019) in Jan shell jacket in edition 1, aqua blue pique boxed tee, and cream canvas Liya jeans. Photos by ERIC BICO

Tina Fernandez (owner, Artinformal Gallery) in Edition 1 floral cage denim dress and edition 0 mini; Edsel Uy (creative) in Alan tee on bonded Richael fine pique and pina linen. Photos by ERIC BICO

Koji Arboleda (photographer) in Abaday pique polo shirt, Jay hi-slit canvas shorts, and Blush placemat bag; Renzo Navarro (photographer) in Trickie trench coat and random beaded tissue organza scarf; Jao San Pedro (visual Artist) in Kumot "cut out" bonded daster. Photos by ERIC BICO

CJ also spent a lot of time with seasoned creative consultant Melvin Mojica at various points throughout his life. His mother Richael Cruz, lovingly referred to as “RC” to the team that she is also a part of (she works on the Carl Jan Cruz brand, using her knowledge of accounting to help build his pricing structures), confirms that CJ’s first inclinations for fashion appeared when he would visit Philippine Fashion Week under the wing of Mojica; that relationship would later evolve into one of his earliest working collaborations. “I told him to question his authenticity,” Mojica recalls.

In the years after, on the other hand, CJ sought out to create work that was more focused in his community and his relationships with them, in a sort of visual autobiography, rather than one lived following a fashion house’s codes. RC notes with pride that the foundational pieces from his first collection felt like perfected versions of CJ’s own clothes from his childhood. She saw his high school uniform, the pants of which he wore cuffed throughout his formative years, in the Cruz denim with an exaggerated cuff; the first coat they bought him when he moved to London for university, in the ovoid Jan jacket; even the plain T-shirts he would wear to tatters but refuse to throw out because of how comfortable they grew to be, in his pique shirts. It was a cohesive collection with a sense of timelessness, despite being one that didn’t have a home yet — the camel toned wools screamed London, while the heavy denim shorts felt more like Manila, and the silk and linen boardshorts closer to his native Albay. It was as much as his story as was it was the brand’s.

Over time, these meditations began to involve his own community. His family’s influence on both the business side of things, as well as his own design process, would become clearer as their names of his kin began showing up. There is the Azon daster, named for his grandmother Corazon, and there are of course countless versions of a Richael. For his (109-123) collection, long-time collaborator and childhood friend Renzo Navarro flew to Albay to shoot CJ’s relatives in pieces that were named after them — Pilar, Ramil, Isagani.

A full rundown of his friends and collaborators would take up too much word count, but for a brand history in summation, look no further than the names of his pieces — exaggerated bottoms Crispulo and Czar for photographers BJ Pascual and Czar Kristoff respectively; the Rima rashguard for his head seamstress; the dramatic scarf vest Bitagcol for industry favorite model Jo Ann Bitagcol; a frayed jersey camisole Vivien for Dizon’s reincarnation as Vivien Ramsay; the deconstructed denim trench Mara for his friend, writer Mara Coson. It is easy to throw around names, but a closer inspection of the abovementioned CJC pieces have shown themselves to have subtle references to his relationships with each of these personalities.

The closeness of CJ’s personal history to his work is what makes the recent theft and later allegations made by New Delhi-based label LEH Studios against Carl Jan Cruz all the more harmful to how emerging designers’ work are acknowledged. In direct messages beginning July 31 through their respective working Instagram accounts, with screencaps available on the @carljancruz highlights, LEH Studios confronted Carl Jan Cruz on the outrage of the #carljancrewz community online due to CJC’s following believes to be obvious takes of the brand’s specific pieces and overall aesthetics. Despite Carl Jan Cruz’s sizable following in terms of both social media and clientele, as well as its heavily documented progress over the years, LEH dismissed it as a cheap marketing strategy on CJC’s end. While it is clear that LEH’s pieces exactly mirror CJC’s signature cuffed jeans, deconstructed one shoulder pieces, and ovoid shells — and thus, interestingly, CJ’s own personal experiences in Filipino culture — LEH has instead chosen to maintain that CJC had no claim on this look, believing it to be fashion house Loewe’s.

Miguel Que Rodriguez in Boudicca brick shirt; and Suyen Salazar (hairstylist) in Vasahan dress in multi cream fabrics. Photos by ERIC BICO

Justine Llarena (model) in Unan dress; Rod Malanao (creative) in Sinagtala "label" vest and Safari linen shirt. Photos by ERIC BICO

Judd Figuerres (advertising director) in CMYK Tonio screen print on silk linen tee; Cath Sobrevega (stylist) in cream voile Lianda bib and cream canvas Ligaya skirt. Photos by ERIC BICO

This led to a timeline narrated by CJ that one can only hope to be the exception rather than standard practice. By February 2014, CJ Cruz as a designer had submitted his graduate collection for the prestigious LVMH Prize. A month later, his graduate collection was shown at the LCF graduate show — as one of the top fashion schools in the world, these shows are regularly attended by industry movers and well documented online — and released via new imagery.

What is little known is that CJ had also considered working for an established house again. Most notably he explored opportunities post-graduation in the April to June months of 2014 at Céline and Loewe — both under conglomerate LVMH Group, which also owns powerhouses like Louis Vuitton, Dior and Fendi — the latter an application done via portfolio submission of his graduate collection.

A few months later in mid-June, Carl Jan Cruz participated in its first group press show, which perhaps piqued Loewe’s interest enough that representatives of the house requested a portfolio resubmission. Very quickly, Loewe released its Spring 2015 collection imagery by end of June 2014 and days later attempted to schedule with CJ for further exploration. CJ is able to provide proof of communication with the fashion house, as well as proof of their digital download of his work.

It closely resembles recent cases that have also come to light. Industry watchdog Diet Prada (@diet_prada) recently reported that in 2019 a Balenciaga recruiter solicited the work of Berlin art student Tra My Nguyen exploring her interpretation of female motorbike culture in her native Vietnam. Done under the guise of offering opportunities to further her career, Tra My Nguyen instead found an almost exact copy of her work debuted on Balenciaga’s Instagram. As of publishing, the photo is still on the fashion behemoth’s social media. Similar allegations of large corporations ripping off startups have also recently been seen across other industries: The Wall Street Journal on July 23 reported that startups shared proprietary information with Amazon to open themselves up to an investment from the corporate giant only for Amazon to turn around and use their acquired knowledge to launch competing products.

References in fashion are an evolving topic. In his unpacking of the issue with LEH Studios, CJ has maintained that he refuses to assume anything on Loewe’s end. “I understand that a brand of that scale [consists] of a large team. I also have embraced how it is a systematic problem. There is a deeper reason why things like this happen. It’s so hard to see beyond things when it scales as an industry,” he says. “I have been reflecting too right now how for all these years that it was about building an industry, but it was actually building a culture that I prize more.”

Still, CJ maintains that this issue is part of his personal history, and not the Carl Jan Cruz brand’s. “This isn’t an aesthetic built out of cheap marketing strategies,” he further explains.

Given the impact of CJC on the local fashion industry, it really isn’t. The Carl Jan Cruz brand has heavily influenced the new value proposition being brought forward by homegrown talent. In terms of its price tag, CJC’s steep five-digit price tag average is on par with other global contemporary fashion brands.

This however can be attributed to fair working conditions for its team of technical sewers combining years of experience with CJ’s own industry insights; an accessible showroom space near Bonifacio Global City that maintains an international presence at key industry events, including a seasonal showroom at Paris Fashion Week; mutually beneficial relationships with respected retailers; a young team that can support its ambition with humor and skill; and a product line that is constantly being developed and adapted.

If you look around, other local brands have followed suit — instead of playing at fast fashion prices, Philippine fashion is instead at an interesting point where it is creating its own value as a business and as a living. Our voices and perspectives have value because we deem them so valuable, at this price point, and it is no question that CJC is the brand that turned that tide. “We landed on a higher price point, and CJ was very instrumental in helping us reflect on that,” shares Anna Canlas of Studio Josanna, which focuses on archival and homage footwear from the golden era of shoe capital Marikina. “Made in the Philippines — in other words, local manufacturing — has always posed challenges because the incentives of government agencies and the mindsets of a lot of suppliers are still all programmed towards mass production. Luckily, we have found partner workshops who are willing to accept small orders, though we do pay a premium! But to re-value the price of labor and give shoemakers the time to enjoy the artistic act of making the shoe? We prefer it this way.”

Maita Baello (stylist) in Viv water snake dilaw sando; Patch Baloloy (chef de partie, Toyo Eatery) in corseted patched tee in Bruce Pique and edition 1 bonded classic cuffed jeans; Edmund Marce (junior sous chef, Toyo Eatery) in corseted polo in pistachio silk and edition 0 carpenter jeans. Photos by ERIC BICO

Patricia Cusi Ramos (fashion retailer) in Milo shirt and Ulap trousers both in dusk blue organza crepe; Tracie Anglo Dizon (artist and restaurateur) in Dilag silk pique daster dress. Photos by ERIC BICO

Celine Mallari (multidisciplinary creative and designer) in Liwayway multi patched dress; Trickie Lopa (co-founder, Art Fair Philippines) in Istatwa top with balikong mariposa sleeves and Mirasol pleated wrap skirt. Photos by ERIC BICO

It arrived with an ambitious proposition, and it most certainly delivered. Carl Jan Cruz has since become the poster child for Filipino success in the ever-changing fashion space.

“I feel like we’re finally a full brand,” CJ said last year, in the weeks after Whitney Baulk, a Fashionista.com editor, wore the Isagani dress from his SS 2018 (83-82) collection to the Met Gala. It was the year of “Camp,” and Baulk showed up in a dress that was actually CJC’s take on the uniform of a private school in Manila.

Baulk shares, “I considered trying to buy or borrow a new dress for the Met Gala, but as a lot of my writing focuses on trying to fight overconsumption and environmental problems with how the fashion industry currently operates, I was pretty happy in the end to just go with something I already had in my closet.”

Now, in a global pandemic, there are less opportunities to dress up. Carl Jan Cruz has closed his Bayani Road showroom from visitors, a radical change from the welcoming environment he has always placed emphasis on. The collection with self-explanatory titles Pang-Alis and Pang-Okasyon have also been dropped, in favor of a focus on their Pambahay line — Carl Jan Cruz’s only offering for the rest of the year via their new e-commerce platform.

Consisting of 12 carefully selected pieces —“I would’ve done less if I could,” the designer says with a deadpan expression — plus some exciting textiles at a much more affordable price point than CJC’s standard range, this new Pambahay line is what’s keeping them afloat. It’s a pivot that is much easier for CJC than perhaps other brands creating loungewear pieces — the Filipino idea of having a different set of clothes for the home, literally pambahay, is already so close to the brand’s ethos. “A practical household,” as he has always described both his childhood and his business.

It would not be CJC, however, if there were no way to create an intimacy of some sort with the wearer. For a limited time, there will also be Paburda — an embroidery service where customers can get their initials or preferred letters onto any Pambahay purchase.

From the very start, CJ set out to build a brand with the understanding that a good brand is defined by the visceral meaning it holds in our lives, and he managed to do this by sharing the meaning clothes gave to his own life. While there is little doubt that we will see Carl Jan Cruz in the coming years, the highs and lows of a pandemic without a clear safe zone has changed how we attach meaning to objects.

“Here it is,” he says, gracefully, nodding in affirmation both to me and to himself, “This is our commitment.”

***

Photos by ERIC BICO
Cover design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA
Produced by DON JAUCIAN

Update: An earlier version of this article states that Cruz was longlisted for the LVMH Prize when he submitted in 2014. Cruz clarifies that he wasn't.