Their dad calls them his “dalaga,” a term of endearment quaintly Filipino that not only describes a woman coming of age, but a young lady in full bloom, a woman finally making her own choice and fording her own path.
Little wonder then that when Michelle and Mary Mangiliman started their own clothing line in 2004, they immediately seized on Dalaga as the most appropriate name for their budding business.
The word brought on happy memories about growing up in Northern Virginia as the only daughters of electrical technician Marte Mangiliman, originally from Santa Cruz, Lubao, Pampanga, and wife, Connie Navarro, originally from Betis, Guagua, Pampanga. Both parents are now retired, although Connie, a former US Postal Service Lead Sales associate, remains an active beauty consultant and licensed cosmetologist. The couple also has a son, Jay, the oldest of three siblings.
For the Mangiliman sisters, the term “dalaga” has gone beyond fond childhood memories and a nod to their Filipino heritage to become a source of professional pride and recognition as well.
Dalaga, the sisters’ boutique in Brooklyn has earned raves from several publications in New York, including New York Magazine that cited it for “Best Dresses.”
In February, 2010, Time Out New York described the shop as “Best Women’s Store,” while Refinery 29 called it “Brooklyn’s #1 Classic Boutique.”
An American-based website on fashion, style, beauty and shopping, Refinery 29 said of Dalaga: “To find a mainstay in Williamsburg is a tricky endeavor, considering there are so many great spots throughout Northern Brooklyn. But we have a particular place in our hearts for girly Greenpoint go-to Dalaga, which is fully loaded with cool spring and summer frocks, fun jumpers, and skirts adorably lining the shelves. Warning: It’s hard to leave this boutique empty-handed.”
Time Out chose to focus on the shop’s price points: “Much like an indie H&M, the trendy selection at this romantic boutique won’t drain your bank account and the turnover is high. The mantra here is if you love it, grab it, since most pieces sell out in a couple of days, and new styles are added throughout the week. Upbeat indie-rock plays in the background while bargain hunters comb the racks for dresses ($45 to $110), jackets ($90 to $140) and separates ($40 to $95). Whip out your credit card for sexy Jack cross-back dresses ($70), Ya Los Angeles 3-D rose-covered styles ($80), BB Dakota pleated chiffon frocks ($95) and Ark & Co. sequin numbers ($98).”
“We also carry creations by Filipino designers: Krystalrae (clothing) and That’s Mona (jewelry),” said Mary.
Michelle designs the Dalaga Jewelry Collection as well, while the boutique’s house perfume, Dalaga is the result of a year-long development process with the Brooklyn-based MCMC Fragrances to celebrate Dalaga’s fifth anniversary.
Setting up their own fashion venture was a dream that the sisters have nurtured since they were kids “playing boutique in our mother’s closet.”
“We always knew we wanted to be in business together and in fashion,” said Mary, to which Michelle added, “and sell things (we’ve) created.”
Although their mother moved to the US in 1977, followed by their dad in 1980, the Mangiliman sisters grew up cherishing their Filipino background in the diverse area of Northern Virginia just outside DC.
Recalled Michelle: “We lived really close to most of our cousins and got a real sense of Filipino culture and community.”
In fact, these are the same traits that the sisters have cultivated in making Dalaga boutique different. “Creating a warm welcoming atmosphere at Dalaga is key to our success,” declared Michelle.
This, despite a less than encouraging atmosphere to embrace their ethnicity. “We grew up at a time when schools felt that it was too confusing for first generation Americans to have more than one language spoken at home, thereby discouraging our parents from speaking to us in Tagalog,” she recounted.
Still, the sisters grew up with a strong sense of Filipino pride. “There are too many things to be proud of, but the top two would be our culture and hospitality. Also, Filipinos know how to party and entertain,” winked Michelle.
Going into business at such a young age (24 for Michelle and 22 for Mary) isn’t always easy, but the sisters have a perfect role model: their mom, Connie.
“Our mom has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. From hairstyling to beauty consulting, we watched her manage her business from home for as long as we can remember. We totally looked up to her as a working woman/mom that I think seeing her own a business made us feel like we could do it too,” said Michelle.
Aside from doing their mother proud, having their own business also meant being one’s own boss.
“Working for someone just never seemed like an option,” said Michelle who added that the guts to be on their own must also be due to their “very fearless young age” when they started their Brooklyn boutique seven years ago.
Preparing to see their dream shop come true meant studying fashion and accordingly, Michelle took up Fashion Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, while Mary took up Fashion Merchandising and Business at City College, also in San Francisco.
“While in school, I also designed and sold clothes through a boutique I managed near Union Square,” said Michelle, who added that she has worked for a few small businesses since she was 15. “Those experiences encouraged my entrepreneurial spirit from the get-go,” she said.
But family support definitely helps.
Said Mary: “I have always been Michelle’s number supporter and fan so when she decided to produce her own line, there was no question that I would be a part of it.”
Admittedly there were times when they wish they had 9-to-5 jobs: “Occasionally we admire the idea of checking out of ‘work’ at a set time every day and not having to feel the responsibility of financially supporting employees and their growth. But in the end, we wouldn’t have it any other way. As owners, we are in charge of our dreams, our passion and the outcome. There is nothing better than seeing what you’ve started grow,” said Michelle.
As sibling and colleagues, the two found that drawing the line between their personal and professional lives was not that easy.
Recalled Mary: “When we first started our business it was hard to separate the two because we were so young and we lived and worked together. So we were constantly around each other. We definitely had arguments in the beginning, (but) I feel like it was necessary for us to have had those arguments so that we could grow from it.
“Michelle being the ate (older sister), it was natural for her to take the leadership role and in the beginning, there was definitely a power struggle. As we grew older and the business grew, we have learned that both our opinions count and we both have our strengths and weaknesses.”
Business has been good, but for the sisters, the best reward of making it big is in being able to help other designers and small entrepreneurs.
Said Mary: “Having a platform to promote and support other independent designers is probably our biggest achievement in the business. When we first started Dalaga in 2004, we had our own clothing line and we understand how hard it is for smaller independent designers to get their foot in the door. When we first started, people didn’t take us seriously because we were so young and didn’t have the financial support (of bigger businesses). So it’s really gratifying to help fellow artists and designers.”
The business has also allowed them to promote charities they believe in, among them the Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK). Part of the profits from their 2012 jewelry collection went to ARK, whose $15 feeding program helps raise funds to give meals to children in impoverished countries.
Though relatively young, Michelle, 33, and Mary, 31, consider themselves experienced enough in the clothing business to advise other young people who might want to start their own business.
“I would say to them: Make sure that you have a passion for what you are selling and the same amount of passion for business. You have to really want it and be self-motivated. Stick to what you love, trust your instincts and you’ll be successful,” assured Michelle.