fashion . Interview

I Am Her: Gabbie Sarenas On Making It As A Fashion Designer

You have to work twice as hard

Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.

When asked to picture a fashion designer, what may come to mind is a very flamboyant person who is dressed in a very flashy manner. However, once you meet Gabbie Sarenas, all those stereotypes will be forgotten. She's dressed humbly yet still very stylish and talks in a low but confident voice. It's a rare thing to meet someone who has accomplished a lot at such a young age and still remain humble. 

Fresh from presenting her Pintuho collection at Vancouver Fashion Week last March, Gabbie shares with us what it takes to break through the fashion industry.

The Pintuho Collection presented in Vancouver fashion week last March.

Fill in the blanks: I am an entrepreneur, a designer, and I am __________.

I would think I am a sleeper. 

Why did you choose to venture into the fashion industry?

At first, I went to a normal school. When I reached majors, my heart wasn't into it. I didn't want to make any effort to learn it because for me to like something, it has to be something that I'm interested in. It was like all reading and by the book and it was not suited well for me. So I quit and I worked a little bit in the art industry. It took me six months to convince my parents to let me study at SoFA (School of Fashion and the Arts Design Institute) because both my parents are doctors and had their hesitations. So they finally agreed and I really enjoyed my stay and I graduated. To answer your question, it's because I really like clothes.  As you progress you're looking for a purpose on why you're [making] clothes in the first place, what your purpose is and your main goal. Others may have advocacy for differently abled people or advocacy for artisans. There are different types of purposes, so for me, I don't want to say my purpose yet but so far this is what I like to do and because I really like romantic things in my work. 

Your brand is known for its homage to the culture of the Philippines, what made you advocate for it?

Back when I was in Paris learning how to couture the French way, my professor asked me where I was from. So I said I'm from the Philippines. He then asked me why I wasn't doing couture my way. I replied, "Well I'm here to study French couture." Then one day, I was having trouble with a 1950s French garment, he approached and said, "You know why it's so natural for us to do this? It's because the technique was passed on from generation to generation." Then it got me thinking why the French are like that. Well, maybe it's because couture came from France and that's what made them successful; it was passed on from generation to generation. So why aren't we doing the same thing? So that's one.

Another is, certain aspects of Filipino culture are romantic, which is my aesthetic. The first collection that I came out with was actually targeted towards the millennials, to know and understand the culture of the Philippines in a contemporary way because usually, when we think of pinya (a traditional type of fabric used to make the Filipiniana, the national dress of the Philippines) we think of it as formal wear, something you wear for special occasions only. For me, I want to at least change that thinking. You can wear it in a different way and incorporate it in everyday fashion.

The main idea of my work is to have heavy embroidery. The idea is that when you look at the clothes they would be like storybooks. So what I do is I research and pick words from various languages in the Philippines that will match my collection. Like my Pintuho Collection, Pintuho is translated as 'Homage' in English. I chose it because the collection is a homage to the Filipino culture. And my new collection, the Pagtanom, is a Visayan word for planting (Note: Visayan is a group of languages spoken in the Visayas, a part of southern Philippines comprised by small islands). If you read the embroidery, it's the prayers for a good harvest by the Visayan farmers. My creative process actually varies; it depends on what comes to me. Sometimes the words come first, sometimes it's the collection. 

What were the challenges you faced as a young designer and how were you able to overcome them?

There are a lot of hardships that make me feel nauseous just by thinking about them. It's easy to start, but maintaining [the momentum] is hard. People will love you, but then how do you keep it that way? Aside from that, being an entrepreneur [is challenging]; running a micro-business, I do things myself as much as I can including finances and logistics. You're the delivery guy, the one who irons the clothes — everything. It's all you. There are times when I just want to sleep because it's just too tiring. But you have to be reminded of your passion and you have to always be in competition with yourself. If you're not prepared for the less glamorous parts of being a designer, you're gonna crack.


There were also times when I was stuck in a rut. Like when I was invited to the Vancouver show, there was a great pressure on me. I felt like I have to present a better collection from the last one. And the last one was actually really good; it was highly loved. So how do you top that? I went out of Manila and sought solitude because when you're here, you're thinking about the business and the rush of everything. So through that, I got some ideas.

My advice for anyone who wants to pursue fashion design is, own your unique style. Most importantly, you have to work twice as hard. In the creative field, if you don't work hard, you don't get paid — it's a business. Another one is to study, because while there are other designers who did not study — for example, Yves Saint Laurent. They made it big, but if you don't study it will take you a long time to succeed. You have to learn the business. 

You’re the definition of looking good while doing what you do. How do you stay inspired and empowered to make that happen every day?

My clothes are very simple. I love wearing white and in fact, my outfits are just routinely used. You'd definitely see me wearing the same outfit twice. Aside from that, I love comfy pajamas.

Share with us your Clozette essentials.

I have a beauty stash; I have a humongous skincare arsenal. Skincare is life! It's my only vice, from toner to essence. It's very, very important [to me]. I have too many; I can't choose between any of them because all of them are important. But if I must choose, there's this jelly pact that I bought in the States, sunscreen, the Too Faced Better Than Sex mascara, my vitamin C serum and my lip tints. 

Inspired? Check out stories of other exceptional women here.