When Mich Dulce bagged the International Young Creative Entrepreneur (IYCE) Award at London Fashion Week in 2010, a grant of £5,000 came with the coveted title.
Spending the entire amount to finance a project in collaboration with the British Council, which launched the global search for IYCE, was a natural next step for her. Instead, the designer with the quirky creations and even quirkier career moves chose “to save it for a project that was worthwhile,” as she puts it.
Dulce, who first caught the public’s attention as an actress, singer and, in 2006, a short-lived contestant on “Pinoy Big Brother Celebrity Edition,” found herself in the thick of preparations for that worthwhile project last year. The award-winning and celebrated milliner (that is, a designer, maker and seller of hats) returned to London Fashion Week in September 2012, this time as a proud exhibitor of her latest 30-piece collection of headgear.
Inspired by bunnies
Officially, the inspiration behind her ladies’, men’s and bridal hats is “the pagan tradition of nature, the religious tradition of Easter and its modern-day representation.”
“But really, the non-press statement is, it’s inspired by bunnies. Wala, cute, eh!” she says with a laugh.
As for the crown, Dulce’s trademark inspiration, the designer was advised by the British Fashion Council to explore other motifs on account of its overexposure during Queen Elizabeth’s recent Diamond Jubilee.
“So I had to focus on the bunny shape,” she says.
Had she said yes, Dulce could have been part of London Fashion week sooner; since 2010, opportunities to join the prestigious event had come her way, and encouragement from its organizers was strong.
Again, holding out till the right time proved providential. Focused on building a solid brand presence, Dulce now has 10 stockists in Manila, Tokyo, London, Paris and Singapore. She’s also represented by a UK PR firm, and her hats—from pretty bowed berets to her signature crowns and stylized pirate headgear—are fast becoming “It” accessories among the stylish set.
Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl” fame owns a Mich Dulce hat, as do Vogue Nippon editor at large Anna Dello Russo, British punk rock singer Adam Ant (who wears one on the cover of his upcoming album) and some of the spectators at this year’s Royal Ascot horse-racing event.
“My IYCE win was critical to the way my brand has grown,” says Dulce, who is spending part of her grant to fund her exhibit stall. With British Council’s help, she also secured a flight sponsorship with British Airways.
“I guess that’s why my ties with British Council are so strong. The IYCE project helped push me in the right direction on how to define and market my product.”
Ana Tan, program director and public relations manager of the British Council of the Philippines, says, “We feel like we’re on a journey with Mich. We hope we stay with her until she reaches the pinnacle of her career.”
As the first Filipino milliner to join London Fashion Week, Dulce isn’t just out to prove “that we’re not just suppliers for international hat makers. My brand mission is to show that Filipinos can produce design-driven products using traditional Filipino materials.”
Exhibiting under Esthetica, the ethical initiative of London Fashion Week, Dulce’s designs are the perfect example of sustainable fashion at work. She uses sinamay and t’nalak, fabrics native to this country, and ironically, fabrics used in making hats worldwide. (“When you go to Royal Ascot, it’s all sinamay,” says the designer.)
She also uses piña, another material found in abundance in these shores, yet one which people in the UK still have to discover. And while America uses abaca for maritime rope, the Philippines (where most of the world’s abaca is produced) is the only country that continues to use this sturdy fiber for handicrafts and, in Dulce’s and other designers’ cases, fashion.
All of Dulce’s headgear is handmade. The designer personally supervises and trains women from the Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation, which provides livelihood opportunities to poor and disadvantaged groups. Each hat is stored in a dust bag fashioned entirely out of recycled materials.
“I was always passionate about climate change and things like that,” says Dulce, “but the reason my brand became an ethical brand was because I wanted to patronize and sustain our traditional craftsmen. Everything we have here is all handmade, it’s all labor-intensive. But it’s also a skill. So without the development of products that make use of these traditional fabrics, their culture could die,” she says of suppliers like the women of the T’boli tribe in Southern Cotabato who provide her with t’nalak.
“But you need to have something new to show; it can’t just always be handicrafts. How can a product develop if you keep making the same thing over and over again?” she adds.
Dulce was obsessed with all kinds of headgear, from knitted Baguio skullcaps to the floppy denim hats with a sunflower on the upturned brim when they were all the rage in the ’90s.
“Kacheapan!” she shrieks, laughing at the memory. “But when you wear a hat, it instantly updates your outfit. You look dressier.”
“As a child I always collected hats. If people bought magnets when they traveled, I bought a hat from every country we visited.”
Her affinity for all things English, meanwhile, she attributes to her parents, the original Anglophiles of the family. Named after the late Princess Diana, Michelle Dianne Lopez Dulce was supposed to be born in the UK—until her parents decided to have their only child in Manila.
No matter. Growing up in a house patterned after an English country home, Dulce remembers her mom pointing to another house in the village—this one resembling a castle—and whispering to her, “One day, you’re going to live in Buckingham Palace. One day you’re going to live in London.”
Years later, the declaration would come true. As the daughter of the Asian representative of Lloyd’s of London, Dulce was tasked to learn all she could about the world’s leading insurance market. She began by making coffee for the staff.
“It drove me crazy. So I left and never went back,” she says.
Dulce then used her credit card to pay for short courses at the London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. While the decision provided the foundation for her eventual career in fashion, it also ended her own mother’s dream of running a venture like Lloyd’s in Manila.
“In retrospect, it was such a waste because that was what my family worked for,” she says with regret.
Like a sculpture
It was stylist Michael Salientes who suggested she take up millinery, a craft she related to instantly. While a dress is best seen on a mannequin or model, a hat, says Dulce, is like a sculpture and can be admired on its own. The designer enjoys working with her hands, and will personally assemble and sew her headgear whenever she can.
Admittedly, shuttling between London and Manila has been good for her millinery business, but bad for her other ventures.
“My bespoke business has really suffered when I focused on hats,” says Dulce, who is also sought after for her wedding gowns and corsets. “When I think about it, I could be making a lot more money if I stayed here and did more bridal wear. But since my studies in London, my dream has been not to make wedding gowns—it was to build my brand, to sell globally.”
Still, she also hopes Pinoys will have a better appreciation for hats someday. Giggling at how strangers think she’s a “millionaire” whenever they ask what she does for a living (“So what, you don’t have to work?” they wonder), the Filipino milliner declares, “My dream is to go back to a culture where a hat is not an extra accessory but part of your total look.”