Esme Palaganas on the Basic Movement Club, e-commerce, and the Philippines' RTW industry

Late in April, I came across designer Viña Romero's Instagram post--an invite to what was a private sale for the #BasicMovementClub, featuring local brands Basic Movement, Ken Samudio, BAGASÁO, Randolf, Eliz Marcelo, and Viña’s own label at a secret location. Intrigued, I signed on the RSVP page online, and on the day of the sale, I received an SMS revealing the secret location: Esme Palaganas’ showroom, along Eisenhower Street in Green Hills.

I had initially attended for the chance to see the clothing, try them on, and find something I could purchase. While I indeed did these things, the showroom weekend also provided me the opportunity to meet and chat with the designers present and others who were also fans of their work, albeit only for a short period of time because I had visited on a Sunday, before heading to church. Having my time cut short, I asked Esme if I could return the next day for better conversation. Much to my delight, she obliged.

It was Monday mid-morning, and I was back at Esme’s showroom. With no other shoppers the space was much quieter, and sitting down for the first time alone with the Basic Movement designer, I suddenly found myself a bit starstruck.

Esme Palaganas of Basic Movement

Kolleen: This is the first time I’m doing this—interviewing a designer! I’m a bit nervous. 
Esme: Let’s not call it an interview. We’re just sitting down, having a casual chat.

Okay, that works! I guess I’ll start with what brought me here. I hear about private sales being organized by brands for the press or for VIPs, so yours was quite different. I saw the event invite on Viña’s public Instagram, and technically, anyone can sign up to RSVP for the Basic Movement Club sale. What made you initiate this?
It was the idea of exclusivity and inclusivity at the same time, but it’s a very casual set up. This [space] is my atelier for clients who have their clothes made-to-order, so this is where I engage with them, and make chika. I thought it would be a good idea to pool other designers and invite clients to see their collections and interact with them too. The experience is more deliberate for you as a client, because you sign up, and we get your details in advance. It makes us both know what to expect.

The other designers present—how did you get them together? Did you choose who else to have present or was getting together for a showroom weekend something you all came up with?
Growing up, I didn't know any Filipino ready-to-wear designer brands that I could relate to. All the RTW designers I knew were from either London or the US. So after I created Basic Movement, and I saw other designers also creating RTW clothing, I thought of creating a platform for us to make our items accessible. Eliz [Marcelo] and Viña [Romero] were my schoolmates in [De La Salle-College of Saint] Benilde. The rest of the designers [whose pieces are] here I met through Soma Stores in Green Sun before it closed or through shows. The Basic Movement Club is my initiative, but I make sure that I invite designers who I'm personally a fan of and whose pieces are varied enough, so when clients look around, each brand has its distinct aesthetic. I’ve actually also been talking to CJ [Carl Jan Cruz] over several dinners about what we can do to make our brands more visible and accessible. Something like Vogue Fashion Night Out, but month-long. We don’t really have boutiques here in the Philippines, so we Filipino RTW designers have to keep coming up with our own platforms to raise awareness about our brands, to showcase our products, and to sell locally. 

Right photo: Clothing by Viña Romero and bags by BAGASÁO
Left photo: Clutch and earrings by Ken Samudio

You showcase your collections at Manila Fashion Fest, though, don't you? 
Yes, and it’s great, but the fashion shows here are just shows. They aren’t selling events, unlike in other countries where buyers are present. The Philippines doesn’t have a ready-to-wear industry. Our stockists are all abroad. Young local designers don’t have stockists here, and no big person here wants to take that kind of risk yet on our brands. 

What about e-commerce? A lot of brands now thrive online.
The future is definitely online, but at the same time, you don't want to lose the tactile element. E-commerce is helpful, but why not open that kind of space outside of the screen, go beyond the pretty photos, and let clients feel the fabric, look at the details, and try on the clothes? We design for and produce ready-to-wear, so when the clothes are made, stocks are out, and for us, that means money is out. Ready-to-wear thrives with volume. We can’t rely solely on one channel for revenue to come in. 

You have to make your business sustainable.
Yes! As a designer I first think about the whole story from the core of the design process—what my collection is about, what kind of woman do I see in the clothes—and then I have to sell. 

Have you ever thought about getting together with other designers and just putting up shop?
It’s difficult. We’re all passionate about what we do, but sometimes it can feel like a group project, where one or two people end up doing more work than the others. It’s easy to say and invite designers to form a collective, but right now it’s not as feasible for us to maintain a physical shop for the long run when there’s no one dedicated person to managing it. 

That’s understandable, because on top of having to manage that store, you all still have your own labels to manage.
Personally for me, it's a work in progress. I named my brand Basic Movement instead of Esme Palaganas because I love collaborating with other people and the trajectory I want for Basic Movement is to be like Opening Ceremony or Colette, where you have other designers, as much as you have your own brand. There's no other local brand doing that yet, with the vision and the goal to go global.

It's eye-opening to hear you talk about the fashion industry from this perspective. The designers and brand owners I've talked to express more frustration about sourcing and our lack of a textile industry. Do you think this is why our fashion industry hasn't achieved enough economy of scale to go global?
One of our problems is that we don't have a textile industry, yes, but I'd like to believe Filipinos are resourceful enough to make the most out of what we have. There may be better suppliers abroad but we also have good ones locally. Ultimately it's about a designer identifying his or her brand and product, then determining from there what he or she can adjust to cater to the market without losing the integrity of the brand. We find a supplier, create a good product, and price accordingly--those are things to consider on a business level. But to have a full industry, we need more streams of revenue and channels to distribute our products here before going global.  

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