A passion for indigenous fabrics

Photographs courtesy of Ditta Sandico

Ditta Sandico, for the last three decades, has stood tall as a famous and social-conscious designer of awe-inspiring outfits made of indigenous materials.

Throughout her journey, she has consistently explored the wider world of the Philippines’ indigenous communities, as she sought new materials with which to create her masterpieces at the same time that she has been helping preserve and, yes,  revive their age-old weaving industries.

From age 18 to 25, Ditta was the merchandising manager of the Teens Department of the COD Department store, which her mother’s family owned. The experience spawned her life-long  love for fashion and the creation of  exquisite clothes. Educated from elementary to college at the all-girls educational institutions Maryknoll and Assumption, she pursued designing only after finishing her Fine Arts course at the University of the Philippines.

I have had the opportunity to interview Ditta several times since the early years of the new millennium, and though we would now and then lose touch, my respect and admiration for her has not diminished. An unforgettable experience was when she once brought me to her rest house in the mountains of Rizal where she served me the most delicious organic banana turon and fruit juice I had then ever tasted.

Ditta Sandico flanked by (from left) Jay Gatmaitan, head of Investment Affairs office of Quezon City, VM Gian Carlo Sotto, Mayor Josefina Belmonte, and Councilor Kate Coseteng.

Zeroing in on handwoven fabrics
To hone her skills and knowledge in the fashion industry, she enrolled in a two-year course in fashion merchandising at the
Tobe-Coburn School in New York City.

A remarkable young lady destined for success from day one, she “zeroed in on designing handwoven fabrics since I realized early on that I needed to create a niche for myself. Competition amongst designers was very steep and in order to create a name I had to have my own statement.  On hindsight I also believed in helping the local industry create sustainable livelihood for the communities,” Ditta recalled.

After operating for quite a time “in my very first shop at my home in New Manila, I ventured into the malls, first with Landmark in Makati with the label Cache Apparels,” she moved next to a showroom on Annapolis Street in Greenhills, and then, established a showroom on Wilson Street where she stayed from 1990 to 2003. Simultaneously she sold her creations at Rustan’s Makati from 1990 up to 2020. She achieved full circle by returning to her New Manila address at the height of the pandemic.
Excerpts from my conversation with Ditta follows:

Daily Tribune (DT): Who influenced you into becoming a fashion designer?
Ditta Sandico (DS): My interest in fashion and the arts have been influenced greatly by my parents, with whom I have a really wonderful relationship. My beautiful mother, Corazon Rosario, comes from a family of retail entrepreneurs. She was once at the helm of the Manila COD Department Store. From the time I was a child, she exposed me to the rigors of the retail industry. It was she who trained me to have the eye for detail as we checked out the selections of garments for the store. I then realized I had a penchant for fashion.

Photographs courtesy of Ditta Sandico
Ditta bonding with a tribal craftswoman.

My doting father, Fernando Hizon-Sandico, was a cattle rancher. He ventured and pioneered in developing areas for agriculture. Being a cowboy of sorts, he took me to places that were less traveled. These off-the-beaten-path trips soon roused the adventurous spirit in me. My father also encouraged me to find my passion through my art. Because of this, I explored and found my natural affinity to create things from practically nothing. In him I found strength in my weaknesses.

DT: How did you become exposed to indigenous materials?
DS: As a young girl, my father took me to the mountains of Bulalacao, Oriental Mindoro where we would commune with the Hanunuo, Mangyan villages. It did not take long before I realized I was developing my love for fabrics and the fashion industry.

DT: From that initial exposure, of course, you have visited other various ethnic groups.
DS: A few years forward and I started to debut with the Abel Iloco weavers of Santiago, Ilocos sur. Manang Corazon Agosto was the first of the weavers that I dealt with. Here, I explored the weaving of the beautifully textured blankets of Ilocos.

Ditta found a niche in designing clothes made of handwoven fabrics.

It was back in 1988 when I first met weaver Elisa Reyes of Meycauayan, Bulacan. Using imported materials, we created our first fabric which we called Irish Linen made from beautiful fibers of the flax plant. Within a few years, we launched PinaLino which was a blend of pineapple and linen yarns, thus adding  a new dimension to the Filipino Barong Tagalog and Filipiniana dresses.

My engagement with the Ilocano weavers in Ilocos Sur started in the fishing village of Santiago. I met Corazon Agosto, an Ilocano weaver who has honed her craft through the learning of age-old traditions from the Tinggiuans of Abra.

In 1995, I met Virgilio Apanti of Baras, Catanduanes. I  soon learned that his home province was abundant with banana abaca material. I decided to look into this strongest fiber in the world. In Baras town, the weavers have since expanded their loom to a number of 30 weavers and they are now helping sustain a community built on 200 line producers who feed them with the beautiful fibers of the flax plant that we use to produce a fabric we have named as Irish Linen.

Reviving the Mangyan Habol
DT: How do you market all these beautiful indigenous fabrics?
DS: We ought to keep drumming up the use of the high-end materials coming from our talented indigenous craftsmen and women. What is made by hand should be given a premium for what it’s worth. The use of fair trade and eco-friendly materials is proliferating in the high-end boutiques in different parts of the world.

DT: How have you sustained your working relationship with the Mangyan of Mindoro. How have you transcended your initial role as a buyer of their produce?
DS: As a little girl, I would ride horses in the mountains of Bulalacao or Mindoro where my father would take me on trips to immerse with nature and the local natives during the summer time. As a child I was especially intrigued by the Mangyan weavers whom I met along the way. I’m now so grateful to them for being my first teachers in learning the rag trade. After 20 years of working as a designer I went back to these places to search for these crafts and was totally distraught to find them not anymore in existence. I silently vowed to myself to revive the art and craft of weaving, the Mangyan Habol.

It has been about five years since we helped in setting up the local SLTs (School for living tradition) in the area. It was a start-up project intended for training 30 young Mangyan weavers. Since they have had a hand at the craft since they were young adults, they continue to thrive at practicing their craft. We touched on the value of getting back to themselves and somehow taking pride in their crafts.

Our biggest challenge is how to sustain the craft of the Mangyan weavers.  I also hope we can further improve the craftsmanship of this indigenous group. The government can help by building the appropriate infrastructures so the craftsmen can have a center which will serve as a depot for the exchange of goods and services. Donations from the private sector may also be mobilized.

DT: How do you address the challenges of your career?
DS: Fast forward 37 years in the industry as an eco-fashion designer, it has certainly not always been a smooth path for me. My fashion line was not perceived to for daily use and the premium price did not help. However, my passion for local fabrics and unwavering determination has given me the strength to face my challenges and look with faith to the future of what lies ahead.

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