Couture and Culture: John Ablaza’s back in TO

Promoting local products and livelihood through fashion


By Rachelle Cruz

TORONTO–His work is marked by the perfect blend of haute couture and culture, precisely fitting for his upcoming fashion show this Saturday, Jan. 18.   This meticulous, hands-on, passionate designer will have more than 60 pieces, featuring couture gowns using organic and indigenous materials such as twigs, “dalet” or barks and seeds; and Sig-id (fibre made from reed grass) through the collaboration with the Mangyan tribe in the Philippines.

The event will open with “Ibong Adarna’s” collections inspired by the Filipino folklore about a mythical bird and cap off with the grand finale – John Ablaza’s unique masterpiece to mark his 25 years in the fashion industry.  Still, the man of the hour shocked some of his supporters and fans when he revealed during his welcome party at Thomson Hotel in Toronto that he was about to give up on fashion.  Ablaza admitted that he was overcome with emotions leading up to the event,

ABLAZA_POSTER2“In putting together the show, it wasn’t easy for us.  We’ve gone through so many things, mainly the Yolanda typhoon that put stop to the production and all eyes were on that.  But then, we are fighter. My producer is a fighter, the head of the team, Claris, is so much a fighters, and I really owe everything to her.  Without her, this thing will not happen.   But at the same time when I  saw that people were supporting us, I have no reason to say that at all,” he expressed.

Back in 2013, Toronto saw first-hand his work at the first Canada Philippine Fashion Week but this time around, he won’t be sharing the stage with other designers. “I want the people to see more of me and my collection.  I don’t normally join fashion week in my 25 years in the industry.  Every single piece that we do, every single dress I make has their own story,” he said.

Although Ablaza has a solid team of 15 back in Manila, from master cutter to master beaders, every single thread and count is under his watch,

ABLAZA_2“Before you come to finish your collections, I don’t sleep, I don’t eat because I am so focused on my craft.   I am very passionate in my craft talagang hindi ko tinutulugan.   I used to cut my clothes but now I have my master cutter.   But I should be there when she cuts my clothes. Every time they do the embroidery, I should start the embroidery, I should watch them, I do not delegate the job,” he explained.

Having always worked with different tribes in the Philippines, Ablaza turned to the Mangyan tribes of Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro when he first discovered their work through his connections with the Ayala family, specifically Doña Bea. By early 2013, he was a collaborator, trainer and mentor for the Mangyan women, in partnership with the Ayala Foundation in the Philippines, to train them in dressmaking,

“I volunteered that I want to teach the women in the tribe an updated form of embroidery that is more modern,” Ablaza recalled.  It took  several private chopper rides from Manila to the island, courtesy of the Ayalas and many visits to explore and learn from this cultural-mentorship exchange,

“I got to see the women do the embroidery and they were really good.  In the beginning, they were kind of shy, ‘nahihiya sila’ and ‘parang sobrang’ serious, so I told Doña Bea that I think I need to spend some time with them, so we can get to know each other, make them comfortable with me,” he said.


“I started my embroidery and they were very willing and enthusiastic to learn.  Talagang grabe yung interes nila to do my style of embroidery and I can see that they started to laugh and they talk while working but they are very focused.  I think my presence there also helped in changing the  way they deal with people. Parang all the time sila-sila lang kasi, and I think their self-esteem rose because every time they did something I really appreciate it that they are doing a wonderful job,” he added.

The Sig-id gown is his favourite.  Ablaza worked side-by-side, with eight Mangyan women, all standing as it was mounted on the mannequin, while they embroidered and handcrafted the gown for a total of  2,000 hours!
“That’s my style of working.  I’m really hands on.  This fashion show, the lighting, the music – pinakikialam ko lahat yan” he smiled.

So while others are using crystals and lots of beading, Ablaza decided to turn the other way and use Filipino products to promote, not simply the culture, but advocate for greater livelihood for the Filipinos.
“If I use coco shell, it creates so much job already.   From the first step of people harvesting the coconut, taking off the shell, trabaho na yan, polishing the shell, trabaho na yan, i-cut yung shell, more jobs..mananahi yung damit, trabaho trabaho trabaho,” he exclaimed.


Ablaza was not shy to point out that there is so much talent and creativity from Filipinos  and he hopes that the Philippine government will provide more funding and subsidies to many Filipino designers who help boost economic growth of the Philippines.

And sure enough, by April of this year, the Department of Tourism commissioned Ablaza to do the wardrobe for a tourism ad campaign in collaboration with Black Eyed Peas member Apl. De. Ap.  that will  showcase four places in the Philippines: Bohol, Palawan, Davao and Manila.

In his genuine effort to combine glamour and promote his advocacy, he won’t be closing down the curtains anytime soon.

See more details at: http://www.em-coutureandculture


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