Pushing the boundaries of piña and weave to stitch stories of home
Gabbie Sarenas strings titles that are not inherently linked to the primary occupation of a fashion designer. Through an unfolding design journey, she refreshingly embodies multiple roles. Describing her as a historian might not seem farfetched as her collections re-introduce audiences to Filipino culture. Her role as a storyteller reveals itself in delightful show notes that support her physical work and visual creations.
One possibility supposes that Gabbie is a traveller collecting ideas and inspiration that later constitute the intricate details customers have become enchanted with. She simply says, “[clients] come to me because they want a fresh take on the barong or traditional wear, nothing stiff.” She is renowned for delivering pieces that are playful and nostalgic, often a genderless update on the national dress shirts.
Pinpointing a single moment in youth that solidified her pursuit in fashion proves an impossible feat. Like the gathering technique required in signature handiwork that has either resulted in voluminous sleeves or embroidered stitching, the designer’s formative years must be traversed to gain an understanding of her portfolio.
An imaginative childhood
Young Gabbie sold second-hand clothes to schoolmates, saving half of her allowance to fund an early penchant for dressing up. “In high school, I would get bored during geometry class and start drawing on the back of my notebook. These were flat sketches of clothes [that] I wanted to wear,” Gabbie says, recalling her tendency to drift off in a daydream during class.
“I grew up in a traditional household but I remember my aunt always exposing us to different forms of art at an early age,” shares Gabbie who believes that environment shapes the perspectives individuals grow up to carry. “I never actually thought that this upbringing would affect my aesthetic,” she remarks.
In 2008, Gabbie enrolled at an up-and-coming fashion school in Metro Manila. “After just one class, I immediately knew [that] I was in the right place. Its vibrancy encouraged creativity, observation, and passion,” she fondly describes the SoFA Design Institute where she found the courage to pursue what felt like a far-off dream then.
She had the opportunity to work under the helm of Hindy Weber who remains one of her mentors since 2010. “I remember how she helped me in every way across design and business. I firmly believe that my taste enhanced because of this training.” After winning a consolation prize at a national competition in 2014, Gabbie’s aunt made the pivotal decision to send her to study in Paris.
At home in her own mind
In Paris, Gabbie faced difficulties draping a Jacques Fath 1947 summer dress. Her professor explained it was easier for locals to master the technique because it had been passed down to them for generations. He wondered why Gabbie wasn’t focused on recreating her national costume?
Gabbie looked to history to understand what might be needed in the modern context. She challenged herself by finding solutions to questions she pondered on. Reflecting on Filipino design in search of a voice, Gabbie found her aesthetic by 2015.
“Why do most people view the material, piña, as old and limited to formal occasions? How do I make this more efficient for the wearer? There has to be soul and essence.”
Gabbie considers the same questions with every collection. She still involves her aunt in various phases including research and conceptualisation. “I love simmering ideas,” she explains flipping through a notebook with sketches and studies of the Cecilia bibs released in a 2018 collection all the way dating back to 2016.
“I just write things on my notebook and eventually after a couple of years, they become ripe for the taking.”
Observation and curiosity fuel the life-long learner’s mind and work. “I look inside my brain before anything else. This is imperative as a creative as you give life to history that has been written by several others.”
Ode to Filipino folklore
Beginning with her Spring-Summer 2016 capsule collection ALAMAT, which translates to folklore in English, Gabbie paid homage to legends Malakas at Maganda, Tikbalang, Sarimanok, Diwata, and Sirena. She has since utilised a mix of traditional and contemporary fabrics like silk piña and light crepes as delicate canvases to explore new concepts.
“I love piña and its varieties. It’s very Filipino! The feel of it is light, while its volume evokes the romance I want to give it.” Gabbie would notably churn out conversation and statement pieces that parlay potential interest in Filipino heritage.
Fall-Winter 2017’s PAGTÁNOM, which translates to transplanting, was Gabbie’s tribute to the beliefs and rituals, which have long shaped Filipino farming. The collection featured the use of pure Philippine cotton woven by Bontoc weavers from Baguio and piña from Kalibo, Aklan. Rice farmers’ prayers for a bountiful harvest were hand-embroidered next to symbols of fertility, like geko and celestial bodies.
Designing from love
In August of 2018, Gabbie released ______, Nagmamahal, ______. The title’s intentional spaces and punctuations surround the Filipino word for “Loving,” suggesting one of a heartfelt letter sign-off. Here, Gabbie confronted the questions she had wished to ask loved ones in a collection that marries hablon weave and piña. Feminine bibs are adorned with hand-sewn sampaguitas, the Filipino national flower and a native specie of tropical jasmine; urging wearers to reflect on similar loving thoughts whether as givers or recipients of them. Placing value on subjectivity and emotions, the designer recognises that fashion allows people the opportunity to attribute their own meaning and memories to keepsakes.
A year later, the designer would release yet another showcase of masterful construction in softly sculpted piña and abaca to once again weave lyrical honesty from inspirations found closer to home. The Veronica collection utilised tucking, folding, and gathering frills in a study that sought to reconstruct memories of her late grandmother. Gabbie reflects on imagery from her muse’s old photographs, even a vivid shade of lipstick worn to church, and time spent in a garden filled with bougainvillaeas.
A homey duster crossed with tapis and barong would dictate silhouettes in the collection, giving them new life in added functional layers and button closures. She also draws from a formative attachment to masters like Joya and Chabet to express the acts of visual contemplation and transformation. The intentionality and reflectivity of Gabbie’s work continue to underpin a meditative process from which elaborate and romantic output can be anticipated, yet never cease to surprise in the narratives and themes they simultaneously convey.
Gabbie Sarenas continues to tell love stories about the Philippines by designing collections and custom wear for a range of clientele. Some of her pieces can be found in curated design store Guava Sketches, Greenbelt, Makati City. To view updates on her latest work and process, visit https://www.instagram.com/gabbiesarenasph/.