In an environment where Filipino manufacturers are hard-pressed to compete due to high manufacturing costs, those who thrive must be celebrated and emulated.
I have known Rita Nazareno since our teenage years when she was still a high school student at St. Scholastica Manila. After graduating college at the Loyola Marymount University in California, she went on to earn a master’s degree in Communication Arts from the Academy of Arts University in California and another master’s degree in Design Management from the London College of Fashion. She is among the few Filipinas with a double master’s degree in these fields. Rita represents the best of Generation Z.
Rita comes from a family of strong women entrepreneurs. Her grandmother is the legendary Segundina Cornejo Vizcarra, the “mother” of Philippine hand embroidery and fine hand-made crafts. S.C. Vizcarra Corp. was founded in 1925 and has since become among the country’s most prolific exporters. Even before the likes of Jollibee and Bench, S.C. Vizcarra was the first Filipino entity to have a retail footprint abroad, having stores in Guam, Hawaii, and the US mainland. Under the baton of Segundina’s daughter (Rita’s mother), Vicky Vizcarra Amalingan-Sales, S.C. Vizcarra rose to even greater heights as the country’s principal exporter of high-end crafts.
After working abroad for more than a decade, Rita decided to come back to the Philippines in 2011 to play her part in nation building. She established Zacarias1925, a brand named after her paternal grandfather (the husband of Segundina) and one that leverages on S.C. Vizcarra’s 96 years of handweaving expertise. Zacarias 1925 is a vanguard in design-forward bags and home accessories that caters primarily to the export market. Rita’s products are sold in Milan, Paris, Singapore, Tokyo and other fashion capitals.
I asked Rita how she was able to penetrate the highly competitive international market considering that Filipino-made products are often out-priced by alternatives from China and other low-cost producing countries. It is all about finding one’s competitive advantage, Rita asserts. For Zacarias 1925, she purposely anchored the brand on impeccable handweaving quality, a 96-year manufacturing pedigree, and progressive designs. While competition from China churns-out predictable products, Zacarias 1925 surprises with unexpected, ingenious, functional, and highly desirable counterparts.
Given our fragmented supply chain, expensive labor, and power cost, Filipinos manufacturers can no longer compete in low-cost commoditized products. Our manufacturers must migrate to the premium market where intelligent design, immaculate craftsmanship, impeccable quality, and a well-crafted branding strategy wins the day. Rita’s success with Zacarias 1925 provides a template on how Filipino manufacturers can compete abroad.
Creative industries generated $2.25 trillion dollars in global sales last year. The premium market is the Filipino manufacturer’s niche. This has become clear not only to Rita but to a handful of successful Filipino manufacturers such as Fino Leathercrafts, Aranaz Bags and the like. Emerging entrepreneurs will do well to follow their lead.
In 2014, Rita met Gabriel “Gabby” Lichauco, a product of De La Sale College of St. Benilde and the Scuola Politecnica di Design in Milan where he earned his master’s degree in industrial design. Gabby is the man behind Openstudio, a design consultancy firm that specializes in exhibit curation, space installations and product design. Gabby is arguably the country’s best in the creative field, having been included in Asia’s 100 leading designers by Design Asia.
While both Rita and Gabby have their own business interest, the two teamed up to form Nazareno/Lichauco Designs. The joint endeavor produces everyday objects that also double as fine art. One of their products is an electric fan that serves as a centerpiece artwork. Their products can be found in high-end stores in Europe, the United States, Japan, Chile, and Turkey, among others.
Apart from manufacturing wittily designed products, the pair also does product designs and materials development for other manufacturers. For material development, emphasis is given to indigenous Filipino materials such as woven fibers, metal, wood, paper, ceramic, and volcanic ash. They also do curation for trade exhibits. The duo was responsible for curating the Philippine Pavilion in the 2019, 2020, and 2021 Maison et Objet in Paris where Filipino manufacturers bagged millions of dollars in export orders. They also curated exhibits in the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo among others in the UK and the US.
Again, Rita and Gabby emphasize, design is key for Filipino manufacturers to succeed in international markets. The product must speak for itself. Good design is not about being pretty, per se. It is about evoking emotions. Surprise, delight, awe, and amazement are emotions that drive product sales.
The Philippines is not lacking in creative minds. While only a handful have the opportunity to study abroad, many of our youth have an innate talent for creativity and innovation. It just needs to be fine-tuned to suit foreign markets, say Rita and Gabby. They regularly mentor aspiring and/or emerging designers.
Manufacturers of design-forward, high-end products cannot optimize their potentials without the support of government. The state must do its part in the branding effort. Just as the French government has helped France’s design houses become firmaments in luxury goods, the Philippine government must also promote Philippine-made products as vanguards of intelligent, functional design.
The Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM), a sub-agency of the Department of Trade and Industry, has the mandate to promote Philippine creative products abroad. The problem is that CITEM is extremely underfunded. This year, CITEM was appropriated a budget of only P141 million. This amount must fund its day-to-day operations, the cost of international promotions, and the cost to mount trade shows here and abroad. With a budget so miniscule, it is no surprise that Philippine-made creative products, no matter how superior they are, have little presence on the world stage. For context, President Duterte’s contingency fund alone is an eye watering P13 billion.
Based on Rita’s and Gabby’s body of work, we know without doubt that Filipino manufacturers can be a global force in creative industries. But our artists and manufacturers need government’s help in the branding effort, in product promotions, in trade linkages, in skills development and industry development.
At this juncture, it is too late to expect a realignment of priorities from this government. Our hope lies on the next administration. This is why we must support a candidate who is cognizant of the importance and potentials of our creative industries and one who will support it.
One can only imagine the avalanche of export revenues, employment opportunities, and prestige the country can realize if Rita’s and Gabby’s success were to be replicated by the thousands.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist