EVER since contemporary fashion designers discovered the beauty and the cultural significance of incorporating fabric and patterns of indigenous peoples (IP) in their designs, it became a trend for Filipinos and tourists alike.
Fashion designers and IP leaders closely working together have elevated the fashion standards in the Philippines. Gowns incorporating T’nalak, Dagmay, Yakan, and many other locally woven fabrics have been featured in national and international pageants. Filipina beauty queens donning these designs have tickled the curiosity of the international media.
When art and expression is concerned, when is it considered too much?
On August 29, 2020, South Cotabato held the Ginoong South Cotabato 2020 Fashion Show. As the province is known to be where the T’nalak fabric originated, handwoven by the T’boli weavers, the featured fashion designers did incorporate the famous fabric in their designs.
What caught the attention of the T’boli and some of the netizens is the specific design made by fashion designer Jearson Demavivas. He is known for designing gowns and outfits for beauty queens as Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray, Miss Universe Philippines 2017 Rachel Peters and Miss Universe Philippines 2014 Mary Jane Lastimosa. He also was the first runner-up in the Mega Young Designers Competition in 2011.
The recent outfit he designed for the Ginoong South Cotabato fashion show resembled a V-neck robe but in the front and back was the printed face of Lang Dulay. He also made bomber jackets with Lang Dulay’s face printed in the front.
Lang Dulay was a traditional T’boli weaver and an icon in the community. She was a recipient of the National Living Treasures Award and had been the subject of numerous recognitions related to their community’s woven fabric.
Her kin, Marilyn Dulay, took to Facebook to air her sentiments on what she considers a violation of their culture.
“Sir designer, bawal po itong ginagawa mo. Hindi puwede ilagay sa damit or sa T’nalak yung mukha ni lola Lang Dulay,” she said on her Facebook post, sharing the photos from the Ginoong South Cotabato 2020 Facebook page on August 30.
SunStar Davao talked with Michael Angelo Yambok, head of the T’boli cluster of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)’s Subcommission on Cultural Communities and Traditional Arts. Yambok repeatedly mentioned Republic Act 8371 also known as “The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA).”
He said the design of Demavivas is a violation of their culture and IPRA.
“Both po bawal maglagay ng mukha ni Lang Dulay sa T’nalak design at bawal din po maglagay ng any print on top of the fabric,” said Yambok.
He reiterated that as a community, they appreciate and love that people are incorporating T’nalak fabric in their designs and the extent of the T’nalak fabric’s reach because of the designers. He, however, said that they still give importance to consent. No matter the design and the type of wear the designers plan to come up with, he said it is important to immerse and talk with the community.
Aside from the showcased outfit with Lang Dulay’s face, Yambok said they also do not recommend T’nalak fabric to be made into a mask. Because of it being considered sacred to their culture, making it into a mask or something people may step on like slippers are disrespectful to the fabric and their beliefs. Anyone wearing T’nalak masks is believed to develop a cough and other diseases.
Rule 6, Section 16 of IPRA states, “Indigenous culture shall not be commercialized or used for tourism and advertisement purposes without the free and prior informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned. Where consent is alleged, the NCIP (National Commission for Indigenous Peoples) will ensure that there is free and prior informed consent.”
Yambok, citing IPRA, also clarified the decision of consent should come from the community as a whole and not from an individual weaver only.
When do we draw the line?
This is not the first time Demavivas was called out for his use of the T’nalak fabric. In 2017, he designed a national costume for Elizabeth Clenci for Miss Grand International. His design then was considered innovative and out-of-the-traditional. It, however, raised the eyebrows of some as “these might not be accepted by some communities, especially when the sides of the body are revealed,” as said by Carlo Ebeo, cultural worker and former vice-chair of the NCCA National Committee on Cultural Education in a 2017 interview with Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“Whom do you glorify [when you’re on stage]? Yourself? Or the community you represent?” said Ebeo, adding that ethical considerations must be part of the creative process.
Both Demavivas and Ginoong South Cotabato 2020 organizer Michael Militar Suplaag had been reached out by SunStar Davao but have failed to give their statements on the said issue.
Responsible cultural fashion
Davao-based fashion designer and Philippine Women’s College (PWC) Program Chair for Fashion Design and Industrial Design Emi Englis believes that until now, the issue of cultural appropriation is still a major debate in the fashion industry.
“While we have policies, foremost of which is the IPRA, and agencies like Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines, NCCA, and NCIP moving together, the policing capacity of the agencies is, to some extent, limited or needs to be revisited,” said Englis.
He added it is a challenge for designers to take the initiative to reach out to the community.
“Open and honest dialogue about their intention to derive inspiration from cultural elements with the community is, for me, the most respectful gesture they can do. Consulting or allowing the community to take part in the design process by letting them validate your concept and its context would even be more respectful,” he said.
Davao-based fashion accessory designer Kay Fanlo shared her process of consent before using T’nalak fabric in her accessories. Fanlo is the designer behind Miss Universe Philippines 2019 Gazini Ganado’s Watawat earrings, among others.
“I ask Ms. Marilyn Dulay before I use the fabric for my accessories. There may be fabrics from different tribes as well that are made of sacred materials. It’s better to have immersion with the community. From there, you would know the dos and don’ts. Now that we’re in the middle of the pandemic, we can’t easily go to them but we make it a point to maintain open communication,” she said.