APEX OF STYLE FOR APEC The Filipino “barong,” as designed by Paul Cabral, is the power dress of choice for the 21 heads of state attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in Manila from Nov. 17 to 20. The version at left is for US President Barack Obama; in the middle is for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto; and the hand-embroidered cherry blossoms, for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.LEO M. SABANGAN II
32 piña wear, power dress, for Apec state heads, wives
Momentous events are never complete without a few pictures to record them for posterity; the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Manila on Nov. 18 and 19 is no exception.
In fact, one of the most enduring image of the annual event since it was established in 1989 is known as the Apec Leaders’ Family Photo, with leaders of Asia Pacific Rim member economies literally linking arms for a photo op while wearing outfits that reflect the culture of the host member.
This year, those leaders will be wearing piña barong by designer Paul Cabral who, when he found out he had outbid other designers, asked Malacañang for the measurements of the attending leaders as early as April this year.
Cabral, whose celebrity clients include President Aquino and his sisters, Senators Pia Cayetano, Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Antonio Trillanes IV, as well as movie stars Judy Ann Santos, Carmina Villarroel, Lorna Tolentino, Piolo Pascual and Diether Ocampo, recalled being informed about the bidding for the Apec barong by a friend, and subsequently submitting some 30 sketches and his quotation for the project. Several weeks later, he got a call confirming that he had given the lowest bid.
“I’m not sure how many designers bid on the project but we got down to work as soon as we were notified,” he said. Preparations included searching online for recent images of the leaders to get an idea of their body shape and sense of style.
He also stopped accepting other projects three months ago because he wanted to focus on the task at hand.
The 51-year-old designer is known for his attention to detail and for making impeccably tailored clothes.
“We needed to prepare early on because the embroidery on the piña takes such a long time, anywhere from three weeks to a month per barong. Everything was made by hand; we don’t use a machine to do the embroidery,” he told the Inquirer in an exclusive interview.
Cabral came up with different patterns for each barong he designed, but made sure to give all of them a Filipino look. Before picking up his pencil and sketching the designs, he researched on the traditions and cultures of the Apec countries.
“For US President Barack Obama, I made a very Filipinized design, but for the others, especially the female attendees, I was able to experiment a bit,” the designer said.
Graceful swirls appear on the sheer piña jacket he made for Chile President Michelle Bachelet, while the barong for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has stylized “M” running down the front.
Geometric patterns inspired by Peru’s modern weaves appear on the barong for Peru President Ollanta Humala, while circular and sharp shapes were paired for the barong of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Cabral looked to Thailand’s architecture, Buddhist art and scenes from Indian epics before coming up with the pattern for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s barong.
The designer even made a top for the wife of Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, featuring a delicate branch of cherry blossoms, an image usually linked to Japan. All in all, Cabral designed and made a total of 32 piña outfits for the leaders and a few spouses.
In Cabral’s light-filled atelier in New Manila, the starched barong were neatly arranged in a row, ready for pickup. One could only imagine the months he and his team spent getting ready, waiting for measurements that arrived in trickles, and monitoring the entire process.
“The patterns had to be transferred to the fabric by hand before embroidery could begin. After they had been embroidered, each piece was handwashed to remove the pencil marks, sprayed with starch and ironed before we could sew on the lining.
“Piña is a natural fabric that foreigners might find a bit scratchy, so I lined each barong with organza and even affixed strips of satin piping on the inner collars and cuffs to prevent chafing,” he said.
This attention to detail is Cabral’s trademark and one that his loyal clientele appreciate and can identify almost immediately.
“I’ve been designing for close to 20 years. What I want to do in the next five years is train two or three apprentices who share my temperament and work ethic so that I can retire and they can continue what I started.
“Marunong ako magbutones, mamalantsa, maglilip, mag-beads—lahat kaya kong gawin. These are skills that aspiring designers should learn and develop; I’m willing to teach that because I do the same with my workers,” Cabral said.