Cambio & Co. founders Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer and Gelaine Santiago. (Photo Credit: Jessica Hoang)

Filipino Fashion For Good: A Look At Cambio & Co.

 

Cambio & Co. founders Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer and Gelaine Santiago. (Photo Credit: Jessica Hoang)

Is it possible for creativity to empower beyond the individual? For Cambio & Co., it’s already being done, as they bridge sustainable Filipino fashion to a wider international market.

We’ve all heard about Philippine design making a name for itself all over the world, from the beautiful furniture pieces of Kenneth Cobonpue, to the fabulous creations of Michael Cinco, whose creations have graced the red carpets of the Golden Globes and the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s now becoming more and more obvious that Filipino-driven creativity is making a difference, especially in boosting the country’s profile in more prestigious circles. Yet with the work of Cambio & Co., a Canada-based fashion social enterprise, they are proving that Philippine design not only stands for excellent product quality, but also a better quality of life for Filipinos as well.

 

Cambio & Co’s Beginnings

Photo Credit: Ben Joseph Beringuela

Cambio & Co began as a humble social enterprise, initially branded as Cambio Market. Like many endeavors, it started as an evening and weekend passion project of founders Gelaine Santiago and Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer, two corporate professionals based in Toronto, Canada – who fell in love with the idea of business for social good, as well as each other too.

But as it turned out, working in the corporate field just didn’t seem right for the both of them. A change was needed, not just in an employer, but in an entirely new career path that required a bit of soul searching. As a Filipina-Canadian, Gelaine’s heritage could be traced back to the province of Bulacan, which she felt had been long missing from her identity. Her soul search soon began in 2013, returning with Jérôme for the very first time to the Philippines to rediscover her roots. There, they saw the very idea of social good at work – with ambitious young entrepreneurs doing their part to combat poverty through ethically-run fashion businesses.

Still, knowledge of these enterprises was limited, spurring the couple to set up ChooseSocial.PH, an online directory that lets people discover socially conscious businesses based in the Philippines. For 2 years, this directory operated more as a passionate side project, which they dedicated numerous evenings and weekends to.

Their efforts would soon pay off however with inquiries pouring in from around the world, curious about the nature of Filipino social enterprises. With this increasing amount of attention, the need to focus on these businesses full-time now seemed apparent. Taking a leap, Gelaine and Jérôme would quit their corporate jobs, and finally establish Cambio & Co.

Today, Cambio & Co. is a rising social enterprise, shipping to North America, the entirety of Europe, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand. They have also been featured prominently on news sites such as Rappler, Balitang America, and even online financial giant PayPal.

Wanting to know more about their ethically-powered business, I recently spoke to Jérôme, to tell us more about their experiences of running the social enterprise, what makes Filipino style different, as well as his thoughts on sustainability in the fashion industry.

 

A Shift to Sustainable Wear (And A Surprising Prevalence)

“Unlike in Canada and the U.S [where finding sustainable fashion in stores takes more effort], it’s easier to find them in the Philippines,” Jérôme tells me via Skype call, adding that one has to shop online to buy more sustainably. This comes as a bit of a surprise, given that I always had the impression of “eco-friendly” and “organic” being more accessible in North America.

“That might be when it comes to food, but in the Philippines, one can come across more ethically sourced clothes and accessories more easily,” he explains, comparing the relative ease of finding a sustainable fashion brand in most major malls, pop-up stores, and bazaars in the country.

 

Still, there have been increasing concerns in the West over fast fashion retailers like H&M, as they come under fire for questionable claims on sustainability, as well as wider accusations of racism. On the flipside, luxury labels like Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher have been applauded for their efforts in shifting the industry away from wasteful production practices.

But what about fashion that’s more accessible to the public? “We’re not alone,” Jérôme says. Cambio & Co.’s vision is indeed reaching a wider audience, whose customers include younger wearers. “They seem to understand the importance of where their clothes come from better,” he adds.

While there is still plenty to be done in achieving this mission, Cambio & Co. is also plenty determined to make it happen.

 

From Manila to Toronto (and Beyond)

 The essence of Cambio & Co. is showcasing the best of sustainable Filipino fashion, bringing it to a wider audience outside of the Philippines. Doing this requires constant online discovery, as well as careful vetting of company practices.

According to Jérôme, the process of finding a new partner brand begins online, usually through Instagram. “[The use of] social media is strong in the Philippines,” he notes, with many local designers having a presence on the platform.

After noticing a cool new bag or piece of jewelry on their Instagram feed, they then make the move to inquire with the designer, usually through phone call. “Here, we ask everything about their products, from quality, to [other factors] like who they hire, and how they compensate them,” he says. Asking around also helps, with both Jérôme and Gelaine learning more about their prospective partners through their carefully built-up network.

Then comes the more challenging part of the process, the site visits, which involves them heading to more remote parts of the Philippines to check out the workplace conditions and production methods for themselves. “We take photos and interview the workers too,” Jérôme says, noting how it’s crucial to verify their prospective partners’ claims in person, while taking time to understand their brand story and ethos.

 

On some instances, those visits can be more time-consuming than usual, with them having to wait for a night bus just to head to a workshop up North. Still, every journey so far has been worth it.

 

Unique Challenges to Overcome

 Jérôme shares that running Cambio & Co also comes with some challenges. “In the big picture, finding the right consumer can be a challenge, and sharing the story can be a bit difficult. Ads today are more expensive for example,” he says.

 

In addition, working with people from the other side of the world can make for some interesting cultural differences – as distant as the time zones that separate Manila from Toronto. “Oh yes, there are differences in culture. Business is more personal in the Philippines. [Compared to Canada], we have to create deeper connections  with our partners whenever we come to the country.”

“In the beginning, we would email different brands here in the Philippines – no answer, because we weren’t there… Definitely, being taken seriously at the start was harder,” he adds, driving the both of them to fly to the Philippines to visit their potential partner brands.

 

Connecting With A Curious Audience

Cambio & Co. offers a treasure trove of Philippine-made items, from patterned backpacks woven in the northern Ilocos region, to gorgeous metallic bangles crafted in Lake Sebu down south. Back in North America, these fashionable products have been received very well, with reactions ranging from curious to fascinated.

“Our customers usually say ‘this is interesting’,” Jérôme says, which stems from admittedly, their lack of deeper knowledge about the country. Despite this, stumbling upon a stylish garment or accessory can offer an excellent insight into the Philippines, and like, Gelaine, reconnect people of Filipino heritage to their roots.

Therefore, it’s important for every Cambio & Co. item to have a narrative behind it. “We cannot compete with fast fashion… it’s about people who understand a good story,” he adds.

There have been narratives which I’ve found to be both interesting and heartwarming: there’s a Filipina rescued from a sex trafficking ring, who has found a new livelihood in creating necklaces, there’s also a tribe who has continued their weaving tradition into the 21st century – through modern, runway-ready crafts that are also respectfully made. All of these reflect an evolution in the way Filipinos are helping solve social issues, which in turn also provide a new way of doing business in fashion.

It’s been a common saying in fashion for trends to come and go. “One day you’re in, and the next day you’re out,” like what supermodel-mogul Heidi Klum says.

Yet it’s also possible for a more lasting and sustainable change to emerge – out of a business model that empowers local communities. With the work being done by companies like Cambio & Co, the future for Philippine fashion just got a bit brighter.

See Cambio & Co’s inspiring work for yourself! Follow them on Instagram and Facebook, or shop at their official online store at https://www.shopcambio.co/.