Lockdown Economy Philippines in an Abel Textile Business with Chem Torrente
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Danielle Hormillosa
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Chem Torrente, the founder of Locano, a hand-woven textile company in Metro Manila. Locano was started in 2015 as Chem’s hobby and a form of appreciation of the abel (also known as “inabel”) textile, an abel fabric from the Ilocos Region. It advocates for the preservation of the weaving tradition of the region which essence lies on togetherness like how the woven material is put together. The lockdown took a toll on the business because their products were not considered to be essential to the point that they had no customers for a few weeks at the start of the pandemic.
Chem, tell us something about Locano?
Chem: Locano started in 2015. Back then, it was just a hobby and I did not know what to do with it besides being so in love with the product, patterns, and how it was made in the Ilocos region. My intention was to share it with people who I know would appreciate it also. In October 2015, I decided to try and sell inabel and here we are, five years later, Locano has continued to sell and share the tradition of local weaving in the Ilocos region.
Chem, what is the difference between inabel textile and other Philippine textiles?
Chem: The tradition of handloom and hand weaving is shared across the country. What sets inabel apart from all the others is how this tradition originated way back when and it was a means of using the blanket for day-to-day purposes. It was crafted by women for their families and to share with their friends, and evolved into creating patterns that reflect their day-to-day lives, such as the pineapples, mountain ranges and flowers. It also symbolizes meaningful values, such as two people holding hands or “agkib-kibin” as it’s called in the Ilocano dialect. It means “we stand together (or side by side)”. To give you an example, that particular pattern in fabric is usually given to newlywed couples as a symbol and reminder of being together and of togetherness.
You are based in the Ilocos region, am I correct?
Chem: I live here in Manila, but have roots in Vigan, Ilocos Sur where my mother is from.
How many customers do you usually have?
Chem: When we started out, it was really just our friends, close connections and circles. Then it expanded to new customers who had fond memories of the inabel being given to them when they were kids, when they were young, or by their lola (grandmother). We have reached an average of around 200 to 500 customers already, both local and from abroad.
Chem, can you share with us the advocacy of Locano?
Chem: Locano advocates and takes pride in ensuring that our traditions are alive and relevant in our lifestyle today, not just for those who knew about it way back when but also for the new generations that need to know about it. Locano advocates for craft and culture, as well as giving tangible and beautiful expressions of the pride that we have in our culture and community.
Tell us something about the donation drive that you conducted for your weavers during the start of the pandemic.
Chem: At the start of the pandemic, I was eager to help our weavers as much as I could because I knew that operations had to stop. I also knew that without our weavers, our tradition would not continue as much as we want to. Sa kanila nakasalalay ang paghabi at pagpasa ng skills at craftsmanship sa mga younger generations. So kung wala sila, wala yung source, wala na tayong abel or inabel na matatangkilik. Simula nung quarantine, kausap ko yung partner weaver ko sa La Union (in Ilocos), si Marie, and we were thinking of a way to support our weavers. The best idea that we came up with is to provide medicine. We pulled together funds and distributed medicines to the weavers in the community who work directly with us and supply us with their inabels.
In general, how did the lockdown and the pandemic affect your business?
Chem: Our business took a toll during the lockdown such that it got deprioritized. The quarantine period really heightened the question of what is essential and what is not. That was also a challenge on my end as to how we were supposed to remind the community that it is still critical to preserve and sustain the weaving tradition with or without the pandemic.
What are the challenges that you faced and how did you conquer these?
Chem: We had zero customers for a few weeks when we entered the quarantine. We also experienced having zero supplies so our weavers were not able to work on their looms. That was a really difficult time because even when the customers started coming back and began to take interest again in inabel, we could not provide the supply as soon and as fast as we wanted. Kasi nga, wala pa kaming makuhang weaver who is able to go back to work. We also felt that it was the responsible thing to do — not to make our weaver also work. Syempre at a time like this, everyone is also concerned about people’s health.
How did you stimulate the business and attract more customers?
Chem: During the middle of the second quarter, I was able to introspect and reflect on the things that were really important. One of the realizations that was revealed to me was how we should tell the story and keep on telling the story of our craft and tradition. That led me to create a simple campaign promoting the patterns of the inabel and what the symbols mean, where the weaving centers of inabel are located in the northern regions of the Philippines, and the people behind the patterns — the weavers who craft these beautiful textiles. Kaninong mga kamay ang naghahabi ng mga tinatangkilik nating mga kumot, mga abel, at mga iba’t ibang klaseng executions ng abel tulad ng mga kitchen towels and face masks, which have become so popular. These three things led to a pivotal moment in our business when we realized that Locano is not about me anymore. Hindi na siya tungkol sa akin as a business owner trying to make ends meet. It became more about the bigger picture — the pattern, art and expression, the places and centers of inabel weaving and the people and community behind it who work together to make sure that the tradition is well and alive, and able to survive and adapt during this pandemic.
You recently worked with gift boxes, a trend common in small business here in the Philippines. Tell us something about that.
Chem: My friend approached me and we collaborated on gift boxes for their business, Camaraderie By Capture. For every set of photos that you want printed, you could also select kitchen towels that comes with the gift box. That was successful because both products were very personal. This is a quality that we wanted to highlight because the gift that you give or buy for yourself should really be meaningful. I consider this collaboration very successful.
Is the number of your customers rising? Do you know how your customers are doing right now, as well as your competition?
Chem: There are still customers out there and those who are true advocates of the craft. When we talk about customers, there are two factors that I consider. One is the quantity or number of customers and who patronize the product. The second is the volume of the products being purchased by each customer, which I correlate with quality because handmade products are of premium quality that customers tend to buy repeatedly for their own use or as a gift to share with others. Looking at the number of customers right now, mukhang bumalik na siya sa dati if not even better. Ang pinaka goal ko, not just for Locano but also for inabel, is to reach a younger market to make the younger generation appreciate it. I think we’re there. Hindi pa tapos ang challenge, but I’m very happy to take that on and continue to share inabel with a young generation.
Tell us how your business is going now and what are your plans for the next few months?
Chem: Locano is going to play stronger next year. As 2020 closes, Locano is taking a break so that we can be fully charged and have all the energy it needs for the next year. In the last few months, Locano has also been working with the art of yarn, with a larger advocacy effort to promote and share education and knowledge about weaving. There is a lot to appreciate when it comes to weaving, especially hand weaving, and it should not be viewed as intimidating or difficult. This is something we’re cooking up our sleeves and sharing next year.
Chem, in terms of operating Locano, could you name three things you need help with?
Chem: For the business, one would be a more optimized way of handling logistics from our source in the Ilocos region to here in Manila. Another need is the sourcing of raw materials such as the types of thread and colors that we need access to. The third and most pressing need is to maintain the community of weavers across the Ilocos region. There is an urgent need for them to feel secure with the craft that they continue to do and get support, such as getting new equipment and access to resources, so that they can innovate, create new patterns, develop the speed of weaving and encourage the younger generation to participate in this craft. By the younger generation, I refer to the younger craftswomen in the weaving centers.
If you are to address your potential customers, can you tell them why they should choose Locano?
Chem: Locano is something you carry with you that lasts a lifetime. It symbolizes tradition and gives birth to new expressions of inabel and weaving that you can identify yourself with. It’s something beautiful, made by hand and unique!
About the Guest
Chem Torrente helps in creating new expressions of the weaving tradition in the Philippines through Locano — a brand selling handmade textiles for the bed and the beach made in the Ilocos Region of the Philippines. She also loves to celebrate women creativity, collaboration, community and empowerment through various platforms. Chem believes in the power of the Filipina Spirit and a good cup of coffee.
A hand-woven abel textile business with roots in the Ilocos Region, Locano is about love for things beautifully made, love for discovery and grounding, and love in relationships, especially that of mothers and daughters.