CULTURAL appropriation has been a growing discussion among the fashion and cultural industry as Philippine indigenous weaves, fabrics, and garments continue to embrace the limelight in the last decade of fashion shows, beauty pageants, and formal gatherings.
There’s no doubt incorporating traditional designs and patterns in fashion pieces has elevated the fashion standards in the Philippines but when has the line been crossed from cultural appreciation to appropriation?
Balik Batik founder and owner Veronica Baguio emphasized that while highlighting the intricate and exquisite designs of the Indigenous Peoples (IP) is a gain for the community, applying sensitivity and taking responsibility should still be strictly observed by designers and creative directors.
“I really make it a point to understand cultural appreciation and appropriation. I talk directly and make agreements with the artisans clearly,” she told SunStar Davao.
Balik Batik is a social enterprise that promotes Filipino traditional weaving, embroidery, and artistry by celebrating some of the country’s indigenous culture and heritage through fashion.
Historian and cultural theorist George Lipsitz defined that cultural appreciation becomes cultural appropriation “when an element of culture is adopted from a marginalized group without respect for its cultural meaning or significance or with the purpose of exploiting the culture for economic or social gain.”
Baguio shared that she once read an article on South Cotabato’s T’boli calling out a known designer for using inappropriately the face of Lang Dulay, the tribe’s traditional weaver and icon, in his pieces showcased during a fashion show and pageant competition in 2020. She didn’t want to experience a similar fate.
“While they appreciate us admiring their patterns and symbols, it does not mean that we are free in using it any way we like. Working with our partners is a learning process - understanding who they are, what we can help them with, and how this relationship will help both of us. How can we help promote them,” Baguio said, adding her enterprise intends to be social and cultural.
Baguio is one of the cohorts of Deepening Impact of Women Activators or DIWA, a program of non-profit Ashoka, a network of leading social innovators in the world, in collaboration with S&P Global Foundation and Deutsche Bank.
The birth of Balik Batik
Her interest in traditional wear and jewelry started in 2015 when she learned about Filipino handwoven fabrics. From just being aware, her appreciation for these things grew each year until she visited Davao City’s now-defunct Aldevinco Shopping Center in January 2020.
“I got Batik blazers and handwoven pieces there. I tweeted it and surprisingly, it went viral. I realized that there’s a demand, that I’m not alone in wanting to wear these unique pieces on a daily basis,” she recalled.
She used everything she had in her bank account and decided immediately to open Balik Batik, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Balik Batik sells and features textiles from different regions in the country.
In Luzon, they work with the Itneg, Igorot, Abra weavers, Kalinga ethnic groups and collaborate with Pinilian Abel de Yloco weavers. In the Visayas, they have the hablon weavers both in Cebu and Iloilo, and Panay Bukidnon women. In Mindanao, they work with the T’boli, Yakan, Tausug, Blaan, Maranao, Iranun, Ata Langilan Manobo, among others.
Helping the IPs
Balik Batik’s business model is built on building and maintaining relationships with its partner IP communities and weavers’ groups.
“It’s easier to be transactional, especially in business, we want to move fast, want to get things done. But I want to position Balik Batik to be more relational than transactional,” she said.
“As a social enterprise, we go beyond just business. For us, it should be about the culture, the history, what is the story behind that fabric, what is the pattern, where is it inspired from?” the first-time entrepreneur shared.
She underscored that Balik Batik is helping the community through a three-pronged approach - livelihood, cultural, and political.
Baguio said that providing livelihood through weaving and crafting pieces is not enough. Balik Batik makes sure that the partner artisans and weavers get a fair share of income based on time and effort exerted.
In terms of culture, Baguio said, they are marrying digital marketing and culture as one of the strategies in harnessing the social media space to promote and increase awareness about the IPs.
“It is more on answering how we make people care about more with these designs,” she added.
Lastly, Balik Batik is positioning itself as a brand with a stand on pressing issues and concerns in the community.
“We are a brand with a stand, we do not keep quiet about issues. It is not about being the voice, they have their own voice, it is about amplifying their voices,” she said.
Some of the issues they took a stand for were education for IP communities and displacements of Lumad students in Mindanao.
Baguio believes that the products that they sell are more than just what meets the eye. For her, it is a story of hard work, artistry, and cultural preservation.
She then urges the younger generation who are still building their brand to be actively involved in the issues that surround their brand.
“It doesn’t have to be just for IPs. We can’t just say that, for example this brand is for the ocean, without doing anything to protect the ocean,” Baguio pointed out.
She also expressed how ideal it would be if companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility will be integrated within their operations.
As a social enterprise, Balik Batik is not spared from challenges in doing their business. Dealing with IP groups most of the time, Baguio said, means overcoming language barriers.
“I noticed that in my partners in Luzon. We encountered some confusion and miscommunication especially when we interact only via online. Logistics is also one concern as some communities we partnered with are living in remote areas,” she said.
Balik Batik products are either unique or produced in a limited edition which help to make more people want a piece from it. At present, with a current high demand of its products, the two-year old enterprise paces its production in order not to overburden its artisan and weaver partners.
“I feel like there’s too much demand. We grew so much but our operations didn’t keep up because of the nature of our work - one design per piece or limited runs only,” Baguio explained.
With this, they are now at a crossroads of whether to go into mass production to cater demands or keep its current operations of producing unique pieces per client. Baguio seems to be heading to the latter.
Balik Batik opened its physical store in June 2022 after delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. What started as limited and simple designs of coverups and blazers, the store has now diversified options for the whole range of casual to formal pieces - company uniforms, hoodies, bomber jackets, Barong, coats, long dresses, among others.
Baguio has noticed that cultural appreciation has increased tremendously over the past few years with more brands popping out to support local and highlight indigenous communities’ rich culture and traditions.
“What a joy it would be if the young Filipinos will be more aware and appreciative about our indigenous groups - their fabrics and designs, and I’m sure if we get to know them more, we’ll be more proud of living in a country with diverse people,” Baguio said.
The DIWA alumna continues to dream and hope that one day, all Filipinos will not be a stranger to their own indigenous people - their fabrics, patterns, traditions, and culture. That when one sees a design produced by Balik Batik or by any other clothing brand or designer, they’ll recognize from what tribe it came from. (ASP)