The adage “life begins at 40” applies to Florence-based bag designer Margarita Demetria “Mai Mai” Cojuangco.
She has launched her namesake bag collection, Demetria, and has become a technopreneur with her mobile app, Sympies, short for Sympathy, which aims to inject positivity in people’s lives.
“At 40, you are surer of what you want. You’ve gone through phases in life,” the 42-year-old Cojuangco said.
She studied fashion at Polimoda in Florence, Italy. She went on to specialize in leather-bag making at Centro Formazione Professionale in San Colombano, outside Florence.
Under artisan-teachers, she learned the technicalities of making bags and worked with machines that shaved, painted and dried the edges of leather.
Cojuangco started as a graphic artist, designing bag hardware for the leather goods business of her ex-husband’s family.
The Zini family supplied Benetton and Sisley, and had its own brand, Segue. Cojuangco became a modellista, a designer or handbag maker.
Demetria, launched in the Philippines last year, was borne out of a need. Although she was a collector of branded and “It” bags, Cojuangco felt something amiss.
“Some didn’t close on top or were too heavy,” she said. Other branded bags lacked zipper closures and additional shoulder straps.
Cojuangco works with a group of women artisans in Florence who produces her line. She believes leather bags have more character if there are markings of use instead of looking spotlessly new.
Italian leather looks better as it ages because it stretches, breathes and has more texture. Its distinctive smell emits luxury.
“I’m not the type who likes to preserve bags. Leather ages beautifully,” she said.
On the invitation of Rica Lorenzo, CEO of Lapanday Foods and owner of Ideé Clothing Store, Cojuangco launched the Demetria line last year.
Function is the basis of her design, and she favors timeless forms.
“If the shape works, you change the look, weight and function with different materials. Clients ask if it’s the same style because it seems different. It’s either lighter or it looks vintage,” she said.
Cojuangco explained that bag making is very exacting— from the choice of leathers on the front and lining to the intricate construction and hardware. “If you miss 1 mm—not 1 cm—of measurement, the whole bag changes,” she said. “We throw it out. People undergo years of experience to reach the level of producing the most beautiful bags in the world.”
Shuttling between Italy and the Philippines, Cojuangco is proud of working with Filipino bordaderas who interpret her design on Italian leather.
“My unique selling point is that, as a Filipino designer, I work with talented Italians, and I’m integrating Filipino workmanship,” she said.
In Florence, Cojuangco balances her time as a designer-entrepreneur and a single parent. She’s up by 6 a.m., checks her e-mail, then brings daughter Demi, 9, to school.
She goes outside of Florence to source zippers and threads and supervise bag production. After lunch at home, she tabulates the costing of her production and picks up her daughter from school. Back at home, she helps her with homework.
“We don’t watch TV,” she said. “Sometimes, we look at the iPad. I prefer that Demi engages in crafts.”
Back in the Philippines, she established Sympies. Feeling the loneliness of being away from loved ones was daunting, she said. So she turned to social media.
“I wanted to find a niche in mobiles where people can share kindness. This is a passion project.”
A Psychology graduate from Ateneo, Cojuangco said she has always been interested in human behavior. She and a close friend, Marga Adan, started Sympies, a social messaging app, where users can express their sentiments without any fear of judgment.
“Sympies is about 360 degrees of kindness, where you can make a difference in someone’s life,” she said. “Our early adaptors were people who lived abroad. They missed home and wanted to connect.”
But the startup encountered difficulties. “This isn’t a brick-and-mortar business. It has been a slow-moving project, but it’s something that I strongly believe in. Social media can be negative at times, but it can also be used to link people in a humane way.”
Demetria bags, tel. 0917-6753475