Made in the Philippines: Embroidered T’boli Espadrilles by Zarah Juan
It all started with a thorn in Zarah’s heart.
Before she ventured into designing shoes and bags, Zarah was a flight attendant who, during her many travels, noticed the waste people make when they use plastic bags in their shopping trips. In 2006, she started a manufacturing company that creates eco-bags, reusable non-plastic bags that now populate our grocery stores and kitchen drawers.
Ten years later, Zarah Juan is now known as an independent bag maker with an eponymous brand who partners with local artisans, weavers, and suppliers to create pieces that are a testament to the Filipino journey. She describes her products as a collective. “[They are] never just by one person,” she said.
This sentiment shows in her first line of shoes. The beautiful embroidered espadrilles incorporate communities close to her heart: master shoemakers of Marikina, leather suppliers from her hometown in Bulacan, abaca vendors from Bicol, and the women of the T’boli tribe, whose embroidery makes the shoes stand out.
It’s her work in bag manufacturing, where she would take regular trips to Marikina, that led her to venture into shoes. Zarah would encounter Marikina’s famous shoemakers during her visits and would spend hours just watching them create, fascinated.
The fascination evolved into determination when Typhoon Ondoy struck the country and Marikina’s shoemaking industry took a great hit. Artisans who worked on the sidewalk or in workshop basements were affected. This tragedy, coupled with the effects of the influx of cheap shoes made in China and Korea, is what drove Zarah to venture into designing shoes.
“[I’m inspired by] love for our indigenous brethren; the creative community behind this rich culture; pride in their dying art; the need to revive it and remind us of who we are by strengthening our roots; steel resolve in pushing this through even if it breaks me; and the joy of being part of a group that could help make this happen,” Zarah shared.
Aside from wanting to work with the Marikina artisans, she incorporates her passion for indigenous textiles in her new line of shoes.
“I've always had a deep fascination for indigenous crafts. I felt that it was undervalued and ignored, [and] it broke my heart to learn that it was dying; [the younger] generation refused to pick up and continue the tradition.”
Using her skills in manufacturing and designing, Zarah vows to help continue the art of our indigenous communities and eliminate their need to find less desirable means to sustain themselves. She does this by taking the time to sit down and truly listening to the story of these artisans, a value that we all agree is important when partnering with communities.
“When I started, all I wanted was to create something meaningful. I thought the highlight of my business life would be someone buying my bags, that was it,” she said. "Throughout this journey and transition into designing, I realized that my goals have somewhat organically evolved into something bigger than me––bigger than all of us."
Businesses that are borne out of a thorn in people’s hearts––and a need to change something for the better––are increasing in the Philippines. Zarah Juan is just one of the many brands that are doing their part in uplifting our nation's economy and building a culture of love and pride for our local craft.
“Always start from the heart. Start with something you would like to see happen, something you love or something you hate and want to change,” Zarah advised to people who want to take a similar path as hers. “It doesn't always have to be a positive catalyst. Most of the time an advocacy that turns into a business starts from that single thorn that struck your heart, prompting you to want to do more and to want to be more."