It started with a dare.
When Arvin Alvarez and Arthur James Osmeña, friends who initially met while working for the same organization, failed to complete a challenge they gave themselves (to survive an entire month without lying), one of the consequences was to go to a sex shop and buy something. “I had never been to one but I thought, o, kaya ’yan, ’yun lang pala eh,” Arvin said.
But it wasn’t the fun outing they thought it would be. Once at the shop, she froze. “It was totally not what I expected. We looked up brands online and tuwang-tuwa pa ako pero pag-pasok ko, nag-freeze talaga ako.”
They found the experience uncomfortable. It didn’t help that the lady manning the store stayed behind a desk, not offering them assistance. AJ said, “Halos hindi niya kami pinansin. We were expecting it to be fun, may ambiance, but it was really white and bright, like a drugstore.”
The two just walked around the store “feeling awkward, seeing awkward things,” said Arvin. “I didn’t know what half of those things were and there was no one to ask.” They left without buying anything.
“When we got out, we talked about it. Bakit ganun? Sex shops shouldn’t be like this… This is exactly why there’s a stigma against sex toys,” AJ said.
Then he asked Arvin, “Why don’t we try doing it ourselves?”
She laughed it off, thinking he was kidding. But he wasn’t.
The two soon set out to learn everything they could about the sex toy industry, visiting more stores, researching and then going to a sex toy convention in China. “We went to all the booths, from the big brands to the small brands. And when we got back, we started curating,” AJ said. “We had a set of criteria—they had to look good, they had to be body-safe, the brand has to be reliable and there has to be a lot of reviews of each product.”
The had a complex rating system for each product and if a product failed to hit the marks, they didn’t bring it in. Months later, they launched Ilya (www.shopilya.com), their online sex shop, where they curate what they’ve chosen from thousands of options.
Among their best-sellers are battery-operated pocket vibrators (P1220 each) from American brand Tickler, a favorite of first-time buyers. “They’re not scary,” said Arvin. “Their tagline is, ‘You’ll never forget your first toy.’”
Svakom’s Keri (P3,960), Alice (P5560), Mini Emma (P3,420) and Lelo’s Ella (P3,370) are also a hit. “They’re all very beginner friendly and 100% waterproof, they’re medical-grade silicone,” said Arvin.
The disposable Tenga eggs from Japan (P490 each) are popular with guys. (There’s even one with a Keith Haring motif.) “The Tenga Cups also do well,” said AJ. “The Tenga 3D Polygon (P1,900) is a Red Dot Design awardee.”
Guys who want to really treat themselves go for the Fun Factory Cobra Libre (P6,250) from Germany. “It’s like a vibrator for men,” Arvin said.
Ilya also focuses on bringing in Kegel toys, something AJ and Arvin believe is important. “People don’t focus on it as much and stores usually don’t invest in it as much.”
Some of their more popular Kegel toys are the Tickler Trainer Single (P1,220) and the Tickler Trainer Double (P1,590). There’s also the Minna kGoal (P8,110) which is packed with features including exercise plans, algorithms and real time feedback. These toys help men and women exercise their pelvic floor muscles and the benefits are more than just sexual—they promote urinary health.
Ilya’s market continues to grow. “We have different customer types—artists, yuppies and the older ones who are more traditional who usually order by phone,” said AJ. Their clients are a mix of single people and couples—even people living abroad who purchase toys for their loved ones in the Philippines.
Trying to sell to her mom’s friend, Arvin soon realized common customer concerns, “We couldn’t identify what she needed because she didn’t know the terms.” It hit them. “Oh, this is how unspoken of these things are for most people. There’s really education na kailangan.”
For Arvin and AJ, it’s more than just about selling toys—they want to give people a safe space to explore their sexuality, they want to erase the stigma against sex toys. That’s why there are illustrated guides on their site, that’s why they use fun puns on Instagram. “We wanted to be casual so people won’t be daunted.” That’s what Ilya is—it’s a non-intimidating, non-scary space run by very approachable people. “We love it when they talk to us—through Instagram, e-mail, Facebook, even phone,” Arvin said.
They take the time to get to know their customers and to give them advice. “‘We ask them what kind of stimulation they want. Then we make suggestions. We start with something simple,” she added. “If they have questions, they can just ask.”
They also make sure shopping is convenient (“We ship all over the Philippines and we accept credit card, Paypal, over the counter payments, internet transfer and within Metro Manila, we also accept cash on delivery.”) and packaging is discreet (“We use plain boxes—no one will see what you ordered. Even the receipts don’t have the names of the products, just their SKU.”)
Eventually, they plan to open a brick-and-mortar store. “Still an approachable place, still nonthreatening,” said AJ.
What do they love the most about running Ilya? “The affirmation. When people tell us, ‘Finally, there’s a shop like this,’” said AJ.