When Rafe Totengco started out as a fashion designer, he produced clothes that were loose-fitting, layered, body-concealing. He also kept to a restricted color palette.
At 18 years old, he was a consignor for the then Sari-Sari Store, a boutique that launched young fashion entrepreneurs. The look of his label, Schizo, was androgynous and experimental, a contrast to the colorful, clingy fashions of the ’80s.
Upon migrating to New York, he went to fashion school and started Rafe (derived from his full name Ramon Felix), the high-end accessories brand which now graces upscale stores in NY and elsewhere.
After reaping acclaim for his bags, Totengco is returning to fashion design upon the invitation of Ben Chan, CEO of Suyen Corporation. His pocket collection, Rafe x Bench, reflects the same genderless aesthetics he espoused 30 years ago, but now with maturity and a strong feel for the market’s pulse.
Rafe x Bench consists of eight separates each for Bench, Herbench and the bags. The look reflects New Utility, the trend coined by the fashion forecasting agency Trendstop, characterized by relaxed silhouettes, utilitarian clothing and a pared-down palette of black, white and denim with a few pops of prints.
The collection gives the local market a different look for denim pants and jackets. Roomy shirts also mix with stripes and geometric prints. Armholes fall way below the shoulders for a slouchy look, and shorts are baggy.
Totengco also has his take on the outfit du jour, the bomber jacket, by eschewing the elasticized cuffs and waist band. The New Utility look breaks conventional gender stereotyping by blurring the lines between male and female fashion.
Bench stylist Noel Manapat pointed out that the separates could be worn by both men and women. The judo pants stop at the calf or above the ankle; the elasticized denim shorts can be worn by men; and the black-and-white or graphic printed tops and boxy denim jackets are meant to be unisex.
But, “I didn’t think back,” said Totengco of his collection. “I looked forward. I looked at what’s missing in my wardrobe. I am the customer. I buy high and low fashion—don’t we all?
“The clothes have a nonchalant vibe. When you buy anything at any price, I think of wearability, function and how many times I can keep on wearing it. Even if you buy it for little, you want to make the most out of it. I don’t believe in buying something and then wearing it only once. You’ve got to get mileage out of it. When you see my collection, you’d like to wear that.”
Rafe x Bench was inspired by the streets of New York—the uniform styling and the penchant for black. But Totengco was aware of the target Bench/Herbench customer.
“The current customer here is active, engaged and casual. The few times I’ve come home, I’ve seen a new generation of Filipinos who are active in social media. They are self-styled—very individualistic and fashionable. They wear what is on the runway. If they don’t buy from high street, then they are doing it themselves. There’s a lot of style here which I thought was very inspiring. Wow, kaya! They can do it. I wasn’t so nervous. I knew there was an audience for my designs.”
Manapat added, “Everyone in the Philippines wears denim. Rafe’s collection is an alternative. You can rough it up or dress it up. The clothes can take you from morning till evening. Since Filipinos love bags, they can now also have a Rafe bag at Bench prices.”
At the launch of his collection, Totengco wore a blue cotton shirt with burgundy printed diamonds. The bottom was bordered with contrasting stripes. A ribbon added texture along the button placket, while tiny mother-of-pearl buttons added sheen. He then donned a boxy, collarless denim jacket.
In New York, a Rafe mother-of-pearl clutch fetches from $215 to $915. His bags are made by artisans in the Philippines.
“Where else would I have them made?” he said.
His accessories are sold in top department stores and worn by celebrities. “I developed the brand image by being true to who I am—compassionate, creative, ultimately curious. I love to travel. All of that comes into my work.
“There is a social aspect to what I do,” he added. “It’s designed by a Filipino, and some products are made in the Philippines. I love life; I enjoy what I do. It’s not work. People tell me, you never shut up. Shut up—what? This is living! I hope my passion for life influences how you live your life. Somebody said when they buy my bag, it’s a happy bag. They get so many compliments, and they feel they made the right choice.”
In 2005, Totengco was invited to make a capsule collection for mass retailer Target.
“It was incredible that I was asked to make a second season. On the first week that the bags hit the shelves,
Target had 80-percent sell-through. People couldn’t believe what they were looking at. This bag is how much? It doesn’t look like it. They were patent bags, very detailed.”
Totengco’s reputation and PR savvy eventually earned him a position as creative director for the different brands of the Nine West Group.
“When you are a creative person, you have to interpret different points of view. You have to respect the DNA of each brand. It’s just like being a chameleon. It’s like you have to create for a person who would wear it. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s not difficult for me. I can see if she would wear or never wear that bag. It becomes part of your daily routine. As a designer, you are also an editor. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
After six successful years with the Nine West Group, Totengco recently relinquished his post.
“There is only so much you could do with the brands. I wanted to concentrate on what Rafe could be. It’s like a new frontier. With the collaboration with Bench, it was like, ‘Oh, what else could we begin?’”