This is the third of a three-part series on how to grow our design exports. Part 1 talked about the inadequacies of the prevalent strategies to grow our $1.5 billion in creative exports. Part 2 about how technology can play a role in the competitiveness of our local fashion industry, which will be overwhelmed by intense competition from foreign brands. This part talks about a simple experiment we’re doing at AVA to help break into the US market. A similar version of this post appeared on the Pollenizer blog.
“They Just Don’t Get It”
The Aquino administration wants to grow our manufacturing sector. After all, no emerging market made the leap from third world to first without having a solid export-oriented manufacturing base. Unsurprisingly, our exports are paltry compared to our Southeast Asia neighbors.
But our creative exports – products in the fashion, jewelry, home accessories, and furniture categories – are growing double digit each year, after a slump during the global financial crisis. This is driven by a renewed interest from foreign buyers in unique merchandise from this part of the world – a far cry from the cheap knockoffs you see in China.
The problem: our export promotion strategy is still heavily reliant on the trade show model to market our creative exports. For décades, Philippine design products have relied on trade shows like Manila FAME to attract international buyers. For manufacturers lucky enough who have built a following among international buyers over the decades, getting traction is expected. But unfortunately for most mid-sized companies, local trade show traffic still pales in comparison to those in Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris and Last Vegas. Can you see a critical mass of foreign buyers when you go to FAME? The trade show is a 20th century solution in a 21st century world.
Several months back, we offered the organizers of Manila FAME a free workshop on how manufacturers can leverage e-commerce to grow their business. We were also gonna give a free guidebook on the basic platforms (like Etsy and Shopify) to equip them with the right tools. At no cost at all to the government. A junior executive said she’d get back to us. We never heard from her again.
I guess technology isn’t on the priority list of our export-promotion agencies. It’s hard when the very people who claim to want to help local exports “just don’t get it”. I don’t mean to put anyone down here. But that’s the truth. And I suspect it’s an assessment shared by many of our local exporters. If any DTI official gets to read this, please do know that our doors are always open and we will be more than happy to contribute to the local industry.
Doing it Ourselves
So what to do? We decided to reach potential customers in the US via a direct-to-consumer platform that leverages crowd funding, e-commerce and a lean supply chain. Enter Kickstarter.
Kickstarter allows people all over the world to contribute to creative projects. To be eligible to claim the fund, a project must meet its stated funding goal.
In exchange, people who pledge get rewards – often in the form of products that they’ve supported. The method is commonly known as “crowdfunding”, which essentially works by pooling small contributions of thousands of people within an online platform. Kickstarter is the world’s biggest crowdfunding platform, having funded more than $1 billion to date.
The fashion e-commerce in the United States will be a $88 billion market by 2016. Countries in Southeast Asia stand to benefit a lot. The Philippines alone exports over $1.5 billion of apparel, accessories, and furniture to the U.S. Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia export even more. And these exports create local jobs, that in turn, increase local demand for goods and services. Yet, these export industries have remained relatively offline.
Of course, our resources were constrained: we had a small team and we still had the local business to operate. What we have, though, is merchandise. These weren’t just your typical fast-fashion products found in a Zara or H&M. These were unique, handcrafted, artisan-inspired products found nowhere else in the world. These were products with stories. And most of all, they weren’t on Amazon.
So what’s a good “minimum viable product” for an international launch? Whatever we chose, it had to follow 3 criteria: it had to be cheap, gave us distribution, and got us maximum learning for minimal effort.
We had a variety of options, from Etsy and Ebay to Fab and Shopify. We decided to go with launching a campaign on Kickstarter.
Next, we’ve always wanted to work with traditional textiles that not only had a unique product story, but more importantly provided a steady income to the many rural communities in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the local market doesn’t value these textiles, with most consigned to museums or left as ornamental displays in gift shops. Filipino heritage products wasn’t “cool” to the emerging middle class in the same way Prada was cool.
Nonetheless, we made a bet that this would be a story that resonated to the maker movement on Kickstarter. So we set out to work with Al Valenciano, who runs a community of artisan weavers in Ilocos, in the Northern Philippines, and celebrity designer Tweetie de Leon-Gonzalez, whom we’ve had the pleasure of working with last year. We chose the traditional textile called inabel, known for its color, vibrance and versatility. Inabel has been around for centuries.
The Collection: Tradition Meets Modernity
Inabel has a magical quality. In sharp contrast to factory-produced goods, the inabel fabric is handwoven on ancient looms by Filipino women. It takes 2 weeks just to set up a pattern on a loom and a loom can produce only about 2 meters of fabric a day. The process is intricate and time-consuming, the result, breathtakingly beautiful.
Inabel is intimately connected to the people who create them. The tradition of weaving is passed down from one generation to another along with the stories that emerge from the fabric’s patterns. The fabric itself is an expression of the culture, identity and history of the ancient Filipinos, often depicting the harvest cycle and symbols of prosperity. The fabric is present in all the key moments of a person’s life, often presented as a gift during birth, a marriage, and death.
Today, there are less than 10 inabel master weavers alive. Within a generation, the inabel tradition may vanish – unless we do something about it. To keep the craft alive, we needed a more sustainable path-to-market for this amazing fabric.
Tweetie designed a wonderful collection of modern products such as iPad cases, weekender bags and accessory kits fashioned out of inabel. We traveled to Ilocos, shot a video, and told our story. As far as we know, it’s the first time a traditional Filipino textile has been featured on Kickstarter.
- Artisan design. Tweetie loves to describe these products as “anti-fast fashion”. We wanted to create modern products that are infused with our identity as a people. We chose travel as a theme because the modernity of travel, combined with the heritage of inabel make for a fascinating contrast.
- Form and function. We’ve given tremendous thought to the details, from selecting the right cotton blends to choosing the inabel pattern to use. We’ve optimized for multiple uses. For instance, the dopp kit can also double as a shoe bag, while the iPad case has a retractable leather strap to instantly turn it into a clutch bag.
- Timeless craftsmanship. It takes 2 weeks just to set up a pattern on a loom and a loom can produce only about 2 meters of fabric a day. The process is intricate and time-consuming, the result, breathtakingly beautiful.
- No excessive retail markups. Because we’re bypassing layers of middlemen and going direct-to-consumer via e-commerce, you can get these products at a price way below the usual retail price in a New York department store.
The result: products that fit the present, while reminding us of the past.
This is as live a customer development story as it can get. AVA’s Kickstarter campaign has raised close to 90% of our funding goal with over 10 days to go. With your help, we can make it.
If you have a minute or two, we welcome you to be part of the campaign to bring Filipino products to a global stage. When you pledge, you’re sure to get an inabel product of your choice (my personal favorite is the iPad case). And as always, please share with friends abroad to help keep the tradition of inabel alive for generations to come.