Reporting from the Philippines

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Having spent a hugely inspirational day last week, exploring and debating ‘The Craft of Use’, I promptly packed my bags and headed east to the Philippines, hoping to impart some of my own Local Wisdom to an audience of Filipino designers and makers and to gather some of theirs in return.

The first few days of the trip have been a whirlwind. Technical problems at Heathrow led to a missed connection and an unexpected night in the Regal Airport Hotel Hong Kong, room complete with a thrilling view of the runway. Up early and on the first flight to Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines and straight into a sterile conference room at the Radisson Blu in Cebu City. Jet lagged and disorientated I find myself stood in front of an intimidatingly diverse group of thirty fashion, accessories and homewear designers, brought together by the British Council, each with wildly different takes on the nature of sustainable design.

Six hours of discussion, debate and some healthy disagreement later, I collapse into bed, head spinning and full of questions. Can sustainability principles and practices be applicable across every cultural boundary, or in fact does the context completely dictate the relevance of any idea or action? I’m inclined to think the later, fashion is in it’s essence a reflection of the society in which it exists and from my limited observations, many of the problems with Filipino fashion seem to derive from a desire to replicate a model set by western culture.

When the lack of a party to mark the opening of Zara makes the front page of a national newspaper, one has to wonder whether the right things are being given value? Having said that many of the designers in the workshop were committed to and passionate about supporting local crafts and livelihoods, so the appetite for reviving or preserving concepts and products, which are more authentically Filipino, is certainly there. It’s also fair to say that in a country where natural resources have been mercilessly pillaged, in particular the indigenous forests, there is a growing awareness of the need for a more considerate and resourceful approach to designing and making.

Harking back to last week I reflect on the fact that many of the insights that came to light through the Craft of Use, speak of the pleasure that can be derived from individual and collective resourcefulness, a sense of true materialism as Kate referred to it. This concept has come sharply into focus during the last two days when, having travelled north by car, I find myself amongst the realities of life in northern Cebu, an area still reeling from the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda. The forces of nature at their most destructive have battered people’s homes and livelihoods. The surprising truth however is how quickly these people have been able to literally pick up the remnants and return to some semblance of normality. There is a surprising air of positivity and happiness that cuts through the misery of the situation; in fact far from being down trodden or desperate there is almost a sense of joyous abandon that typifies these small fishing communities as they patch their lives and their homes back together.

The children chase us down the street dressed in a remarkable array of Disney classics and bright coloured hand me downs from American elementary schools. The parents smile and wave, happy to be photographed and to show us the inside of their mutilated shacks, sitting cheek by jowl with the UN and Islamic relief refugee tents, bright white canvas in sharp contrast to the twisted pine fronds and rusted corrugated iron. All this serves as a reminder that human resource and resilience is a remarkable and sometimes boundless thing; not to say that people haven’t suffered and aren’t still suffering but certainly this is a true lesson in making the most of what you have and what is given to you. Lots more to see and do and a lot to reflect on already.