Fashion forward

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The Queen of Knits on staying relevant in the fashion industry.


Lulu Tan-Gan’s  staying power in the fashion industry is as sturdy as the knits she’s created and popularized. Hailed as the Queen of Knits, she joined the College of St. Benilde-School of Design and Arts’ (CSB-SDA) Fashion and Merchandising program as a consultant in 2013.

“The study of fashion entails lots of research and mood boards, which express your identity, and later on, your voice as a designer. There’s a process that you go through. Of course, copying is forbidden—meaning, there should be no reference to another clothing brand. And that is really what innovation is,” she said in the vernacular.


High Life sat down with Ms. Tan-Gan and talked about fashion, how to stay relevant in the business, and many other things.

Why does fashion matter?
It is an industry. It provides jobs. Our crafts people, the retailers, suppliers… it is a big business. Overall, fashion has become a peg for other industries, say cars. The car industry usually only has one or two models in a year, but now they are coming up with more car models. The cycle is faster.  Now everything has trends, because fashion means trends also. Fashion is that influential.

How easy is it to break into the fashion industry?
A lot of people think that fashion is easy to attain, but it depends on how you want to see yourself in the future. Those who think that fashion is easy are more interested in producing garments but not in becoming designers. At the end of the day, garment-producing is just creating, not innovating. A fashion designer designs something that is relevant, with function. There’s a need for formal education, which includes understanding materials and knowing fabric design and creation, which go through a process.

BAMBOO LACED VEST. Peplum laced and beaded vest in hand-woven Piña and silk textile, front knotted. 100% hand-made. Photo courtesy of Lulu Tan-Gan.

But what is originality, anyways?
How do you define originality if you haven’t seen it, right? *Laughs.* Many times you change a form, a new way of using materials. That’s totally innovating. I personally don’t go through the fashion pages. Once in a while I do, but only to see the global trend. We cannot get away from that, which is one of our references. But for you to be original, you need to start with your own materials. Our program at CSB-SDA has fabric design courses for three terms. Our students do surface designs, or working with materials first by dying, printing, embellishing, manipulating texture, and using of crafts, as in handwork. It is timely because we are non-competitive with fast fashion.

What do they aspire for when they leave the school?
We want them to be able to find their tracks. They can do designing, merchandising, styling—it’s a vast world. To be able to compete, you have to know beyond the surface. It’s three things: research, exposure, and experience. Research includes a lot of reading. You may end up being a skilled craftsman, but your creation has no meaning, no story behind it. Understand the creative process and you’ll be able to sustain it through the years.

MA. CLARA. Beaded piña over knit body, with piña empire sash, long knit skirt with piña apron. Photo courtesy of Lulu Tan-Gan.

If you were to pick a single item of clothing that defines Filipino fashion, what would it be?
Filipino design is diverse, again we go back to references like baro’t saya that started our costumes. If you go back further, we have our tribes, our [original] references. The technique used in our tribal wear is weaving, which is very Asian. Baro’t saya, on the other hand, is European. This generation has the awareness of the diversity of our fashion history. At the end of the day, anything could be Filipino as long as you have the references for images, materials, and forms so we don’t go stale.

The fashion industry has always been criticized because it sends messages that thin is in and beautiful. Care to comment?
I don’t agree. That became an impression because, in the normal way of presenting collection, it is easier to present with one uniform size. It’s for the convenience of standardization. You don’t call it small, medium large, but very specific: 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12. The models have to fit in the standard. It’s hard to present a collection where your models vary in height and weight.

But with this being said, how do you teach the students that customers are not runway models?
As designers, we have to learn how to translate vital statistics to patterns. We teach them what is called grading, or knowing how to spread sizes. You have to learn grading because if you don’t you cannot understand ready-to-wear, which is where the volume of manufacturing comes. If you want to get into business, you have to be ready to do RTW.