When you think of knits in the local fashion scene, one name comes to mind—Lulu Tan-Gan is, after all, called the Queen of Knits for a reason. Lulu’s love for fashion began early; she recalls reading foreign magazines and shopping at Escolta for imported goods from Europe and Latin America. Her traveling experiences have since influenced her aesthetic, creating pieces born out of a desire for more clothes that are as well-traveled as the women who wear them. The designer, entrepreneur and now head of the fashion program at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts, she’s much like the fabric that she’s so well-known for. After decades in the business, she’s still on top of her game—flexible to the tides of times, tenacious and constantly moving.
You began your retail career in SM and then went on to build your own brand. Can you tell us the initial challenges of establishing your brand’s identity and look?
"I was traveling in the late ’70s and I disliked the idea of ironing or having things sent to the dry-cleaners. I wondered why knits, which did not require ironing, were limited to socks, pullovers, sweaters and cardigans—rather functional—when it can be so easy to travel with as fashion wear. I thought to create a niche in knitwear fashion and make it available in Manila. My concept was and still is 'travel, jet-set-friendly fashion.' Handling is always incorporated into design, therefore the choice of yarn has to be easy to wash and wear, and washable by machine."
Your brand has been synonymous with knitwear for decades. What was it about knits that you found interesting?
"Knitwear is so cool. It stretches, which allows movement, and it is tenacious versus woven [fabrics]. Early on, I was interested to know how knitwear works, [so] I bought a knit loom. It was awesome that I could design my own fabric. I love texture, I love craft, and I could create it through knitting. The knit loom works the same way as the woven loom. It is hand-drawn. No electricity required. Being a textile-based fashion designer, I started niching, quite early, in knitwear."
What was something you didn’t expect to learn throughout your years in fashion?
"It’s to not fear creating something new as long as it comes with a purpose. There will be other people out there that share the same need. It has to be a 'lifestyle' need. To sustain, you really need to create every season, not forgetting your bread-and-butter products and designs. With competition, marketing is also very much needed these days. But I believe marketing can only go so far. A solid product is most essential. Therefore, you need to balance both."
You now head the fashion design and merchandising program at Benilde’s School of Design and Arts. What would you say is the difference between young designers now and young designers back in the ‘80s?
"Most designers in the ’80s were not trained in any fashion school. They came from vocational schools or from the fine arts. They seem to be more passionate about creating. They create with their memories, which is partly their reference, adding on their aspirations. They are also more crafty. They like to work with their hands. I always felt that what I missed was a province. I was born and raised in Manila. It would be great to come from a province that is abundant with indigenous materials. Young designers way back were also multitaskers and are so creative that they can create something out of nothing within a given time.
"More of today’s young designers are more business-minded as they are formally educated. They follow the marketing steps of a launch to prepping new collections every season. It is a good sign for our fashion economy. More are also in love with wearing fashion rather than making fashion. Unfortunately, skipping this essential process in design could hinder creativity. During construction, I often find myself creating new designs out of accidents. I love the joy of designing with spontaneity. You might have a theme and plan, but during the process your hands can lead you to another idea. It helps sustain ideas. You use both the thinking and the making processes."
What would you say is the best way to mentor a budding designer? Is it about teaching the technical skills or honing their style?
"Style skills first because it is hard to find one’s style. It can be studied or be acquired if you are strong visually. Technical skills and quality workmanship are already a standard. To sustain any business, it is still your style, your design, that differentiates you from the rest."
What is something you wish your younger self knew when you were just starting out in the business?
"In my younger days, I wished I established myself in a city with a structured fashion industry. A designer does his career as a designer. Here, we spread into our entrepreneurial skills, thus depriving us of creative time, which is what we live for. Today’s competition can overwork any designer, as might be happening to international designers Alexander Wang, Raf Simons, and Alber Elbaz. As Lagerfeld says, 'fashion is a sport now; you have to run.”
*This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of Preview Magazine.