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?The distinct shape of our archipelago -there?s nothing quite like it,? says designer Rhett Eala
WHEN SEN. NOYNOY AQUINO finally declared his intentions to run for president early September, the bereaved son of democracy icon Cory Aquino wore a black polo shirt embroidered with the Philippine map in canary yellow.

Whoever made the shirt wasn?t important, but the fact that it was worn by a high-profile individual in a supposedly historic event spoke volumes of how a ubiquitous national symbol was now on its way to becoming a global fashion icon.

For several seasons now, Filipinos and even foreigners have been sporting various articles of clothing emblazoned?painted, embroidered or beaded?with the country?s map. The Philippine map shirt is a favorite pasalubong of balikbayans in the US.

Filipinos have fashion designer Rhett Eala and businessman Joey Qua, managing director of Collezione C2 retail stores, to thank for making this happen. Apart from shirts, the Philippine map has now found its way on C2?s shorts, skirts, dresses and even canvas bags.

?Contrary to what some people think,? says Qua, ?Collezione never left the scene. We later added C2 to distinguish it as a second-generation Collezione.?

Brand repositioning

Eala joined the company in 2005. Five years earlier, US-educated Qua, son of Collezione founder Henry Qua, came on board to oversee manufacturing and reposition the brand on a more jaded and discriminating market.

?Collezione?s reputation for producing practical and quality clothes was still there,? says Qua. ?But it was losing out to all the buzz being created by other brands, both local and foreign. It clearly needed to be repositioned for a new generation of shoppers.?

Repositioning involved venturing beyond the confines of departments stores, and opening stand-alone boutiques selling not just shirts?but a lifestyle. C2 was clearly in need of a seasoned creative hand to advance its new agenda.

Qua invited Eala to join the team. As the brand?s creative director, Eala was to take charge of everything involving design, from the clothes to the store?s look and layout.

The duo first thought of putting the country?s map on a few key C2 pieces during Eala?s debut collection in 2005. Qua also had several woven shirts made for him with the map embroidered above the breast pocket. Feedback was instant.

?I was thinking of something visually unique to put on a few shirts and dresses, and the Philippine map crossed my mind,? says Eala. ?In hindsight, C2?s success springs from Filipino?s patriotism and the distinct shape of our archipelago. There?s nothing quite like it.?

?They wanted to know where I got my shirt,? adds Qua. ?At the same time, Rhett also got positive reviews from his collection with the map.?

Viral marketing

The development gave birth to what Qua?s marketing team, led by Carol Lozano, dubbed as ?viral? marketing. As opposed to ?interruptive? marketing in the form of billboards, C2 relied on publicity generated by word-of-mouth.

Once people learned that the shirts were available at C2?s lone outlet at Market! Market!, they lost no time going there. It was only a matter of time before Qua opened more branches to cope with surging demand. Eala also has had to expand C2?s product range to sustain public interest.

Qua did the unprecedented by having the Philippine map patented a few years ago, giving C2 exclusive legal rights to put the map on articles of clothing.

But this hasn?t stopped copycats from following their lead. Rather than test the law by hailing wannabes to court, Qua, for now, at least, would rather let C2?s quality and range of offerings do the talking.

And people can?t seem to have enough of them. A visit to C2?s boutique at Power Plant Mall, the brand?s 24th and perhaps most modern stand-alone store within a span of eight years, gives us an idea of how hot the map has become.

As soon as one set of shoppers leaves the place, another set enters the store to check on C2?s latest offerings. Product turnover is quite fast, says Eala, that once you spot something you like, you better get it since it might not be there anymore next time.

Complete with a series of TV monitors clad in matte, stainless steel casings, the well-lighted store in Rockwell is as modern as they come.

Apart from huge renditions of the country?s map on the store?s show window and foyer leading to a pair of fitting rooms, the décor is decidedly minimal and in many ways an extension of Eala as a designer: Clean, modern and devoid of unnecessary details that could mar an otherwise great design.

Instead of hiring hot Brazilian mannequins, Eala, in keeping with the brand?s image, hired Filipino models to peddle his clothes. Their images were enlarged and splashed on the store?s walls.

Fitting rooms pay homage to Collezione?s 37-year-old heritage through customized wallpapers with montage of sepia-toned images showing famous people, including Ninoy Aquino, wearing the brand.

Smart and practical

Overseas Filipinos, either directly or through their relatives here, have also been snapping the products in bulk to redistribute them abroad. Qua even received a series of e-mails from a Mexican who wanted to sell the shirts for them in Los Angeles. Like many foreigners, the guy was ?introduced? to the Philippine map through one of his Filipino friends who gifted him with a C2 shirt.

But although Qua is open to it, forging partnerships abroad would have to wait. His company can barely cope with local demand.

?If you look closely, not all our products have the map,? says Eala. ?But admittedly, 90 percent of our stuff has it. Embroidered bags are our latest addition. We?re thinking of expanding the line to include children?s clothes.?

In keeping with the brand?s image as a truly global Filipino company, Qua, unlike most of his colleagues in the retail biz, refused to have his stuff manufactured elsewhere, not even in China. Rather than let the quality suffer just to meet demand and reduce overhead, he would rather keep operations small and quality tightly controlled.

?Our people in manufacturing have been with us for decades,? he says. ?Their experience and attention to details show in the products we produce. I don?t think we would have been able to maintain the quality we want by farming our products out to other manufacturers.?

Apart from Eala?s smart and practical designs, part of the brand?s lure is decidedly its price. Polo shirts sell anywhere from P680 to P800 each, while woven office shirts sell at P1,000 each. Dresses can set you back by P800 to P900 a pop.