(This article is also posted on Rappler. Added more photos of the Risque studio here.)
There are many ways we can wear our heritage. In the Philippines, the abundance of ways we can embody our heritage come in clothing, accessories, bags, styles of hair, hats, body art – you name it. But perhaps, a lesser known expression of Filipino pride are those things we wear on our feet: shoes.
Everyday living doesn’t really lend itself well to wearing bakya (wooden clogs) day in, day out, and with the city’s daily toll on our feet, other classic options are kind of obsolete. The modern solution comes by the name of Risque.
Somewhere in Marikina is Risque Designs, a gem of a shoe-making studio that produces daily footwear with all indigenous materials. Filipino weaves, Filipino silk, Filipino wood carvings, and Filipino design all come together to make a shoe for you, a Filipino.
If the shoe fits
Not all stories of do-good enterprises start out with wide-eyed, dreamy youths hungry for change. Sometimes, change makers are formed in the tedium and the rigor of trying to find a job and looking to make a living.
Completely humble and forthright, Tal de Guzman sat in the shoe studio and described her path to Risque Designs with the matter-of-fact air of a young businesswoman. Funnily enough, her journey sounds much like how shoe-hunting goes. You keep on trying until you find the one that fits.
Like most millennials, Tal graduated from college with only the vaguest idea of what was to come next. It was 2010. With her Art Management degree from Ateneo de Manila University, she did the most unlikely thing – she helped manage a construction company. Their family business was in Laguna and it handled the fabrication of metal and wood parts. Her job was to handle the workers and deal with their grievances. Later on, after venturing out on her own, Tal went on to handle the grievances of a completely different sort of people: artists. The more she did it, the more she realized she wanted her own art.
Tal enrolled in the SOFA Design Institute and the exploration started there. Her first light bulb moment went the usual way for entrepreneurs – by making a mistake. While studying, Tal tried to import shoes from Indonesia and upon receiving them, she was dissatisfied with what she was supposed to be selling. Then, she realized, “We can do this here.”
Without a doubt, artisanal Philippine-inspired shoes can be made in the country but at that time, no one was doing it. With her businesswoman hat on, Tal saw the opportunity and took it. Her artists’ hat came on board when she saw the wood carvers of Paete.
On a trip with SOFA, Tal went to Laguna and saw what the Paete wood carvers can do. The Sunday after that she went to Laguna alone with the hope of meeting one of their homegrown artists. Not knowing anyone and not knowing how they worked, she saw their area completely closed except for one workshop. Memen Handicrafts opened their doors to her that day and they’ve been partners with Risque Designs ever since.
Another of Tal’s first partners were the weavers connected with the Philippine Textile Research Institute. With them she made her first collection, Tribal Upheaval. The idea was to make the native, modern. Like its first collection, Risque Designs’ next sets of shoes were all about glorifying and honoring the wonders of the Philippines.
The art of grounding
Risque Designs shoes boast of being one-of-a-kind and customizable. The company usually produce 10 pairs of each design and every request after that is custom-made for interested parties.
Tal designs the shoes then works with artisans to make it happen. Aside from the woodcarvers of Paete, Tal now works with Nanay Helen, a weaver from Valladolid, Negros. For the Philippine silk in her creations, she works with a couple from Bago, Negros Occidental, who are both passionate about uplifting the silk industry in the country.
Not to forget the people from her own region, Tal set up her new shoe-making studio in Marikina where surprisingly, she found it hard to find a shoemaker below the age of 30. All of the sapateros (shoemakers) of Marikina were 30 and up, sometimes reaching the age of 60. Why weren’t younger people taking up this trade that Marikina prided itself on? It probably had to do with the fact that most often they only earned P250 per day of their work, or if they’re lucky, P1,500 for a week’s work.
In the case of Nanay Helen and the sapateros of Marikina, Tal found that augmenting their earnings to match their work and skill, as well as showing a healthy belief in what they could do, made their creativity blossom. Risque is a business that cares and this care has come to the point where the artists and craftsmen have returned to the pride in they work.
At the same time, proud craftsmen make for proud customers. Risque Designs’ supporters have always been people who were happy to don shoes that spoke of Filipino values and Filipino experiences.
Tal says, the process of designing shoes, for her, is “telling stories.” And if you wear one of her shoes, you continue the story-telling tradition. People who wear Risque shoes aren’t just fashion-forward. They’re Filipino ambassadors who are out to tell the stories of their fellow Filipinos, and the stories of the craftsmen who made what they’ve been standing on.
Grounded in the art and skills of the Filipino, Risque is a business that carries the country’s voice and aesthetic everywhere. In August, Tal and Risque Designs will be representing the Philippines at NY Now, an exhibition market that includes artisanal products for home and lifestyle. Along with around 20 other Filipino companies, Tal will be bringing the Philippines to people worldwide one step at a time.
More photos below 🙂