WHEN your internationally acclaimed designer boss steers you toward creative directions outside of what he pays you to do, he clearly sees your potential.
That looks to be the case for Jul Oliva, a product designer who’s slowly launching her career in fashion.
“It was really him who gave me the confidence,” said Oliva, 35, of her boss and mentor Kenneth Cobonpue, the world-renowned furniture designer.
Cobonpue introduced Oliva to us at the opening of his Morals & Malice café-bar in Cebu, whose crew uniforms she designed.
Oliva is an interior designer who also teaches at her alma mater, University of San Carlos in Cebu, but designing clothes has been a long-time passion. She said she studied interior design only because there was no fashion design program in Cebu at the time.
“I was exposed early on because my mother was such a clotheshorse,” said Oliva, the youngest in a brood of four, as she showed us a photo of her well-dressed family. “That’s typical. We all like to dress up.” Her flamboyant lawyer brother, Regal Oliva, is her “No. 1 client.”
Oliva was always adventurous, trying out fashionable things like chopping her bangs down to an inch and even shaving her head at one point.
She started to sew at age 15, and was already making clothes for clients in her teens. At 18, her mom sent her to Tesda to learn pattern-making. The mom took pity on her daughter who would take clothes apart just to learn how to make patterns.
Oliva claims to have been the black sheep in her family. While her siblings went to a fancier school, she attended another on the other side of town, next to the Mandaue Public Market. She’d pass through the wet market every day, and for the budding designer, every scene in the marketplace became an inspiration. She called that period her formative years.
She’d pick up objects and make things from scrap. She was fascinated by, say, the design of a bottle cap; she would collect and make things out of them.
“They called me MacGyver. I just really wanted to do things with my hands.”
She was still in university when she applied with Cobonpue sans a portfolio. She had failed her thesis that year.
“I got overly ambitious. I guess that’s what happens when your heart isn’t really into what you’re doing… But the following year, I had the best thesis.”
That was after her stint at Cobonpue’s workshop, where she immersed herself in the technical and arduous process of furniture-making and design.
“If I loved clothes before, I loved them even more after I started working for Kenneth,” she said, noting how furniture design follows the shape of the human form, and how ergonomics relates to designing clothes.
At Cobonpue’s studio, where Oliva has worked for eight years, she’s assigned in mock-ups, material manipulation and exploration. Her tasks allow her to work with fabrics, creating new materials out of otherwise regular flat textiles.
These same techniques are what she’s now applying in the clothes she makes, weaving fabric tendrils a la basketry into, say, a modern terno top with butterfly sleeves. It’s an arduous process that often requires her to work not on a dress form, but directly onto her client’s.
She’s also dabbling in materials like denim and neoprene. She showed us one bolero made of overlapped layers of neoprene, inspired by the Banaue Rice Terraces. It was for a portfolio she submitted to Binibining Pilipinas as part of her application to dress contestants. She also made a multicolored shaggy wrap akin to the nape and crown of the Philippine eagle. (Binibining Pilipinas never called.)
Oliva likes to study the behavior of materials and explore the limits of existing fabrics through manipulation. Her work is texturally rich without resorting to glitter and beadwork.
But even with the wealth of fashion talents in Cebu, she hasn’t sought apprenticeship as she feels there’s no one there who shares her aesthetics.
While she’s been getting a stream of fashion clients and with one seamstress in her employ—she also takes in interior design projects in her free time—Oliva said she has no concrete plans as to the future of her fashion career. Her fashion designer friend, Edwin Ao, has been pushing her to just go for it.
If she could, Oliva said she’d like to take her craft to Manila, where the market is considerably larger than Cebu, which already has its fair share of exceptional fashion designers.
With people like Cobonpue who believe and vouch for her talent, that shouldn’t be a long shot.