If you dare to peek outside of the Western centers of fashion, you’ll find a sprawling landscape of young, international brands and fashion projects that are keen on challenging the conventions of the industry—be they formal, ethical, or social. In the young fashion scene of Manila, Philippines, emerging brand Toqa very much holds the baton, following the footsteps of peers like Carl Jan Cruz, whose highly personal take on ready to wear has made its mark globally. Shared between Toqa and Cruz is an international training and orientation—Toqa founders Isabel Sicat and Aiala Rickard met at the US design college RISD, and sharpened their teeth at Alexander Wang and Telfar—as well as a firm belief in using their origin and locale as more than a cheap place to produce. Launching at this year’s Manila Biennale with a dazzling runway show in the historic Intramuros’ Puerta Real Garden, Toqa revels in images of island life, while committing to a radically sustainable production model. We caught up with Toqa to learn more.
How did you two first meet – and what led you to the founding of Toqa?
We first met at RISD, where we happened to be in every single apparel class together.
We were frustrated by the repeated emphasis on traditional centers of art like NYC, Paris, or London as the only pioneers in the field of fashion. There is little to no real attention paid to equally as viable tropical outposts for inspiration: being of an island is reduced to a stereotypical visual terminology.
But the reality of life on an island is far more nuanced than current clothing would imply: the two us are incredibly proud of the places we are from, how they’ve shaped us, and how unique and beautiful they are, even and especially in the ways that they are flawed or constrained. The basic driving force behind Toqa is to show that it is possible to situate sustainable high fashion in a tropical locale.
What were your respective backgrounds?
Neither of us thought we would venture into fashion. Isabel went to school thinking she’d be a lawyer; she was in the Brown-RISD dual degree program, pursuing a B.A. in international and comparative political science and BFA in illustration, and Aiala came to RISD with a clear interest in film and photography; she ended up switching and completing her apparel design degree from RISD.
The two of us have spanned a wealth of different work experiences. Isabel worked at an investment bank, designed and wholesaled a capsule collection to Urban Outfitters, and was part of Alexander Wang’s RTW team. Aiala has worked in costuming for Hawaiian Airlines commercials, jewelry design, and was one of three members of the Telfar (Clemens) team in NYC. Beyond our varied professional experiences, though, we found that our shared background was that we were both “island girls” — Isabel from the Philippines, and Aiala from Hawaii — and the similarities and parallels we found in each other resonated far more strongly than the differences of our lived experiences.
How would you describe the contemporary fashion scene in Manila? What social environment do you draw on in your aesthetic universe?
We find the contemporary fashion scene in Manila to be very young and very small. But that is partly why it is so exciting. It’s unbridled energy is so new that it fosters a community of artists and designers whose support for one another isn’t born out of competition, but a shared desire to uplift and expand the definition of tropical fashion.
We feed on this energy in its most active form. There are no boardrooms for artists and designers to hold meetings: instead, we congregate in spaces like the dance floor at our favorite party, Elephant. It is effectively our church. These social environments, which are paeans to the chaotic and creative Manila energy, inform our practice and concept just by virtue of experience. It is a way to participate and share in ideas about movement, the composition of an outfit, and music. Dancing is an essential part of our creative process.
Tell us about your sustainable textiles. Why did you start working with deadstock fabrics – and what is such a process like? When surveying the landscape of potential materials, we found that the Philippines is quite restricted in its textile production capabilities. Finding a place where we could buy large amounts of deadstock made immediate financial sense. After this initial economic reasoning, we found that more and more our values, social ethics, and interests aligned with the wealth of opportunities that were presented here: yes, deadstock is, by virtue, limited in nature — but that is precisely why we enjoy it. We are able to take existing textiles and manipulate them in ways that showcase their specific strengths or connections to the place of inspiration. Our “dri -fit knit” is a nod to the aesthetics and functionality of a technical fabric; our power mesh is dyed with Tang in an homage to a Manila childhood spent consuming much of the powdered drink; our “basahan tela” is all the leftover scraps of the collection fabric patched together to create an altogether new textile. The process is labor intensive and meticulous, but fulfilling. To understand that there exists beauty even in items that are literally deemed “dead”, in itself, its own reward.
Are your production methods informed by a political stance on sustainability?
Yes and no. At this point it should be a given that sustainability is integral to any company’s production methodology: to define sustainability as a ‘political stance’ is almost to dilute its value. It is very much a reflection of our own principles, a byproduct of who we are and how we exist in the world. So, of course: we aim to be aware, minimize environmental impact, and promote an alternative method of production to the best of our abilities.
Your most recent show was a part of the inaugural Manila Biennale. What is your relationship to art and the art world?
We find that clothing is our most articulate means of communication. Yes, Toqa is a fashion brand, producing designs that are meant to be worn, but it also exists as a vehicle to experience and involve other people and situations. We are social animals, and one of our driving interests is in constantly collaborating with other artists and expanding our definition of ourselves. To then constrain our interests in fashion as separate from art and the art world is frustrating: to us, they exist in tandem, a symbiotic and intertwined relationship, feeding back into one another and producing work that is reflective of the world as we perceive it.
Is it your plan to commit to the production schedule of the fashion world, or define a different rhythm of fashion production?
We find the existing infrastructure to be Western-centric, prohibitive, and problematic. For the purposes of our project it does not make sense to bend to a seasonal fashion system or existing fashion week schedules: we want to help create a new rhythm, which is more inclusive and true to our artistic imperatives.
The very nature of Toqa is that, ideally, it exists in a roving structure. Each annual season, an exploration of a different island in a different place with different limited textiles. We want to have a dialogue with the places we experience and the people we interact with, and the rapid, formulaic production schedule of the fashion world precludes any notion of actual meaningful [visual] conversation. We are who we are because we exist outside of the current norm: it would be obscene for us to revert back to it.
What does the next year look like for Toqa?
The next year looks like Toqa establishing its production rhythms and existing as a viable entity beyond just the show (read: we’re working out the minutiae of selling clothing). So we are constantly editing our business structure, actively looking for creative and financial investors to help us grow our vision, and learning as much as we can about the type of creature Toqa should grow into. We are expanding our creative horizons, and conceptualizing new ways for Toqa to exist in a space that is defined not exclusively by commercialization, or design, or art, or Isabel and Aiala, but somehow, all together, all at once.
Interview by Jeppe Ugelvig
For more information, see Toqa