Filiology on fashion and cultural appropriation

Is it worn with respect? Did you take the time to understand its meaning? And other questions the founders of this shopping site-meets-social enterprise suggest you ask before sporting a malong and other indigenous garb

by Nana Caragay

These days, all it takes are prenup photos in an exotic locale or a selfie while sporting cornrows for social justice warriors to take to the comments section and cry “cultural appropriation.” By now, we know that feather headresses at a music festival (or any other occasion, really) or blackface as costume are simply not okay. But what about the wave of native patterns and weaves making their way into department stores, or the uproar that occurred when a revered tattoo artist was transported to Manila to participate in a trade fair? If a caucasian were to wear a Kalinga headscarf, might he be accused of cultural appropriation as well?


Before you cry foul, first, consider the intent. That’s the advice of the people behind Filiology, a site that aims to be a channel for Filipino artisans to share their products with the rest of the world. As such, they have condensed their mission into three succinct words—rediscover, revive, reconnect—and have made it a point to include products from all three of the country’s major island groups: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

“We thought it was important to represent each region,” says Gwen Torres, who founded Filiology with partners Finina Tugade, Raf Dionisio, and Kage Gozun. “We have a long way to go, but starting with the major island groupings educates buyers who may not be familiar with our geography.” Hence, their assortment of Inabel blankets from Ilocos, malongs from Davao, and wooden goggles that have long been used by the Sama-Bajau fishermen. And that is where the difference lies: the sincere desire to educate consumers about these products and sustain community traditions and livelihood. “Our business model never began with the intent of just selling products,” Tugade adds. “When Gwen and I were discussing the concept of Filiology, our shared vision was to be able to communicate and share the history of Filipino traditions, arts, and everyday items.”


“Anyone can go around the country, pick already-made goods from a middleman or merchant, and then put it online,” Gozun chimes in. “But with how Gwen, Raf, Finina, and I have decided to curate our items, it isn’t enough to have a pretty product. We always ask: what’s the story behind that? Does that pattern mean something to the community? We want to educate our audience as well about the heritage behind the pieces they are perusing.”

And of course, they intend to give back to the communities, too. “The challenge to us is to make sure that we add value to them by providing them with the means to grow, evolve, and make their own decisions,” Dionisio says. “Supporting them economically though fair trade prices is one aspect, but we hope to be able to do more—by bringing in ways that can help them with technology that makes their lives easier, or help educate themselves in a way that balances the past with the present.” The power of ecommerce allows them to spread the word on these artisanal crafts and widen their reach. There is also a section dedicated to the communities’ stories, covering topics like the symbolism behind Kalinga weaves and which malong colors were worn to signify nobility.


And what of the question of wearing all these for purely fashionable purposes only? “We live in a global era and I think it’s a beautiful thing when I see someone of a different nationality or race wear the clothing from a region they never lived in,” Torres reasons. “My daughter is a half-Indian, half-Filipino born in Silicon Valley, California and now being raised in the Philippines. The future is diversity and respect for that.”

“It’s also about acknowledging that you are borrowing or honoring from someone else’s culture and heritage, not claiming it as your own or using it with derision or to poke fun at it,” Gozun points out. “It’s about respect and understanding. If we do our jobs right, we’ll be able to impart a sense of reverence for the items we put on the site and the communities we work with.”