Fledgling writers are told to write what they know, which requires them to draw from their own experiences as a starting point. Rafé Totengco may not be a writer, but he has continuously drawn from his experiences to design bags, clutches and minaudieres that many women want.
In his bag tags, one can read how his design philosophy is “rooted” in his personal experience. “I design accessories in the spirit of New York City: a melting pot of European, American and Asian cultures.”
The Filipino bag designer, who lives in New York, produces the brand Rafé New York. He was here recently to launch his latest collection for Resort 2013, now exclusively sold at Rustan’s Department Stores.
This is not the first time Totengco’s bags were made available locally. For a time, they were sold at Mix, the boutique owned by the couple Tina and Ricco Ocampo. When Greenbelt 5 opened, the Ocampos were instrumental in the simultaneous opening of the first Rafé New York store outside the US.
After a while, however, the store was closed; his clientele could get the bags only online and had them shipped directly or to a relative or friend in the US.
Fortunately, Rustan’s decided to bring the brand back.
At Rustan’s, Totengco has a corner showcasing his collection of totes, clutches and minaudieres. Asked if there was enmity between him and the Ocampos—since Tina also began selling minaudieres using her given name Celestina—Totengco said there was none.
“Tina and Ricco are two of my favorite people. When they first thought of selling minaudieres, they showed me their prototypes. I was also the one who set up a meeting for them with Vogue,” Totengco said. Celestina was then featured in Vogue.
“If women like my bags, that’s good. If other women like their bags, that’s fine as well. There’s really enough for everyone to go around. At the end of the day, it’s just a bag. We’re not saving lives,” he quipped.
Still, Totengco is really proud of his designs that he describes as “timeless silhouettes with handcrafted influences.” This season he has included a “mixed media tech” clutch in pink and orange or blue that can hold an iPad and a smartphone in the separate pocket in front. At the launch, editors swooned over the genuine leather clutch that retailed for a little over P5,000.
“How can you sell this for only P5,000?” some of the more forward asked. “So you can buy more than one,” Totengco replied with a smile.
Totengco names his designs after muses. The Dawn minaudiere, with its Art Deco-inspired triangles and diamond shapes, is named after actress Dawn Zulueta; the rounded minaudiere with a striped design is Lizelle after stylist Liz Uy, and the roomy printed tote Tesa is named after model and host Teresa Herrera.
“I came up with the design of the Tesa tote after a trip to Portugal. When we got to our hotel, I fell in love with the tiles in the lobby so I spent several minutes aiming my camera at the floor so I could take multiple pictures of the tiles.
“At one point, the hotel manager came up to me. When he found out what I was doing, he said that tourists usually take photos of the buildings and the architecture, but here I was taking pictures of the tiles. What can I say, I rarely see a print I don’t love,” Totengco said.
Right after his Manila visit, the designer flew to Mactan to choose shells for an upcoming collection. Apparently his resin and shell minaudieres continue to sell so well, they can’t keep them in stock.
“I always tell people I’m a sponge, because you never know where you’re going to get your next inspiration—whether you’re in a restaurant or walking down the street, or traveling or reading. Everything to me is a potential source of inspiration,” Totengco said.