Ethnique sounds exotic and that’s the vibe you get once you get a glimpse of what the Filipino accessories label offers. The colorful and vibrant patterns on each Ethnique bag not only marries the traditional and artisanal but also the young and modern. Read through our conversation with Flora Magsaysay to know more about the brand, her partners, the artisans, and the team that forms Ethnique.
How did Ethnique start as a brand? What’s the story behind the name?
“Ethnique is a bit of an accident. I wanted to collect Banjara bags from India, and thought that it would be smart to buy wholesale, keep the ones I like, and then sell the rest to cover the expense—it was supposed to be a one-off thing. Luckily, the first batch of bags sold out quickly, so I just kept on ordering, even adding other types of Indian bags as well as huipil bags from Guatemala, hand-tooled leather bags from Morocco, and Wayuu mochila from Colombia. After a few months of learning from suppliers about bag making and materials, I started making my own designs. So really, Ethnique is a continuous process of learning and adapting for us since the business did not start out as a fully-developed idea.
“Since it was not my plan for Ethnique to be an ongoing enterprise, I did not spend much time thinking of a name. The word just seemed the best fit. It's French, which lends the name a bit of an air of romance, but still sounds a lot like ethnic, so it's easy to understand; and it's straightforward—it succinctly tells customers what the brand is about.”
According to your website, you are originally from Cagayan de Oro but your stockists are found not just in the country but also in Paris, Lebanon, and Switzerland. Was going global part of your plan from the start? How did that come to be?
“As mentioned, this was not my intention. But within a few months after launching Ethnique, we were already getting orders from other countries. We even received wholesale orders from Chile, Venezuela, and the US. So early on, it was evident that there is potential for the brand to have an international presence.
“However, it took another year to 18 months for us to go full blast on marketing the brand abroad. We had to work on building a strong brand identity, to creating our own designs, to refining them for international sales.”
Your accessories are obviously inspired by local weaves, patterns, and materials of different ethnicities. How do you make it your own or different from what’s already available in the market?
“I am not a trained designer, and being in fashion was not a goal, so I do not have a studied approach towards designing. Most of the time, I just create what I would want to buy myself, thinking there are probably others who want the same. At times, it's as simple as finding materials that are just so beautiful, or techniques that are truly amazing, that I cannot not use them. Obviously, ethnic patterns, weaves, and crafts are constants for us—we will always strive to promote and honor them. But it's clear that Ethnique's strength and aesthetic also come from the mix-and-match of different patterns, colors, and materials. At the end of the day, we just have fun with it, and are actually quite astounded when people respond positively.
“Ethnique manufactures in remote facilities. So, for instance, if I send a bag sketch to India, it might come out slightly altered because the artisans could only translate the design with the available materials and techniques. They would stay as faithful to it as possible, but I also have to accept that this could happen. Even though this does not always happen, I recognize and appreciate this relationship with them.”
What are your choice materials to work with when producing your accessories?
“I have a weakness for colorful, ornate fabrics. Sometimes it's bad because I would force a bag out of something just to be able to use it.”
Is there a difference in what sells faster/more in other countries versus here in the Philippines?
“Yes. Our beaded bags seem to do better in the international market. On the other hand, the Raya collection (tote, mini, round, belt bag, etc), which are bags made of this material of woven recycled fabrics, do so well locally when it doesn't get as much attention internationally. Although, the Holi (embroidered bag with tassels) performs equally well in both markets.”
How often do you come out with a new collection and what inspires you when creating a new product?
“I'm constantly experimenting with designs. Or, when I find a material I just cannot resist, something that happens often, I would find a way to use it. But it has never been a scheduled, structured thing. It was always something that would naturally happen. However, now that we are joining shows abroad, I am now more mindful of piecing together cohesive collections at certain times of the year. But again, it's still very much a learning process.”
Who is the person you envision wearing/using your creations? Do you have any dream style icons you want to use Ethnique?
“Honestly, I have no type of person in mind. It's still a big surprise and thrill when I see people carrying Ethnique bags. This is the first job I've had that truly feels like play (the creative side, at least). So far, I have not pressured myself to produce items just because I think they would sell well. It might be a bit of an indulgence, but it just makes sense. But I hope that the buyers realize and appreciate the work our artisans do to make their bags; and consequently learn more, and want to learn more, about the cultures represented in them.
“As for style icons, I absolutely love Sofia Sanchez de Betak. She's glamorous, sophisticated, and stylish but in an effortless way. She actually passed by our booth at NY Now last February. I wanted to play it cool, but could not help myself and blurted out that I was obsessed with her. She was so sweet to post a couple of Ethnique photos in her Instagram stories. I wanted to ask her if we could give her some bags, but thought I should dial down the fangirling before she gets a restraining order.”
Are you open to collaborating with other designers or even infusing other cultures into your products? Who is your dream collaborator?
“Of course! It's always fun learning from others. We collaborated with Andre Chang a couple of times for Preview, and both times I learned so much from him.
“Right now, I am so proud of the many local brands doing so well. There's too many to list, but I really admire Zarah Juan, Filip Inna, and Ann Ong. If you ask me to name big international brands, it would be Etro and Dries Van Noten for the fabrics they use and how they utilize them.”
For a first-time Ethnique shopper, what would be the best accessory to add to cart?
“It's like Sophie's Choice! Haha! But I am really proud of the work that goes into our beaded bags. For instance, the Mati (evil eye box bag) takes two to three full days to make. The box bags are also a bit of a diary for me, since, more than the other designs, I incorporate random things that I love, such as artworks and textiles. The Minervas, a box bag iteration, features four female figures as a representation of my bestest friends [and myself], so it's very personal.”