Lockdown Economy Philippines in the Design and Fashion Business with Anna Escalona

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 hosted by Julie Jerusalem, we meet Anna Escalona, the CEO of Aesca Designs — a fashion brand based in Metro Manila. Anna talked about the start of Aesca Designs in 2017 with the concept of featuring artists through their masterpieces incorporated in their products. During the start of the lockdown in Manila in March 2020, the brand had zero sales. It then adapted to the needs of its customers at the time hence launched masks made of Abaca, which provides excellent filtration. True to the brand’s identity, the products still featured artworks.

Watch the video version of the interview.

Hello Anna! How are you?

Anna: Hi Julie! I’m okay here, just coping with the day-to-day struggles of what the pandemic has been bringing to the world, but here we are! We’re still standing and we’re still fighting. How about you, Julie? How are you?

Well, I’m fine, thank you for asking! Anna, can you tell us what does Aesca Designs do as a business and what does it advocate for?

Anna: Aesca Designs is an advocacy brand for local Filipino artists. The brainstorming happened about three years ago, but this was launched about two years ago here in the Philippines, in Metro Manila. The brand helps local Filipino artists showcase their art or artworks in different forms. We highly believe that artworks should not just be limited to canvases hung on the wall or the usual, typical ways of showcasing artwork. Aesca Designs has different, locally-made products that showcase local Filipino artists’ work. We started with shoes and evolved to include scarves and linen clothing, specifically abaca masks, and we’ll be launching more products after that.

Aesca Designs — it’s a very unique name! Can you tell us the reason behind its name and what urged you to start it?

Anna: “Aesca” is actually my name. My name is Anna Escalona so I took my first initial and “Esca” which is part of my last name. I’m an artist by hobby so I love to paint using watercolor as a medium. Ever since I was young, I was already painting, but I somehow stopped along the way. I revived my painting about six years ago. At that time, I felt that I was reviving my passion as an artist and felt a need to showcase art in different forms.

Aesca Designs started with just me. Some of my artworks were featured by a certain brand. They printed some of my works on placemats and were also thinking of other products. From there I thought, “Why don’t I evolve into other products?” Also, instead of just having my artworks printed on these products, why not invite more artists to do this? Filipinos are very talented and I really believe that the artworks of local Filipino artists should be seen by the world. That’s how Aesca Designs evolved.

So this is a brand established by an artist to feature other artists for art’s sake. Anna, you mentioned earlier that you are a one-woman team. Can you tell us if you have employees? Also, how many clients do you usually have?

Anna: With regards to employees, I have one permanent employee. For this year, I had to cut it down since we haven’t had any events since the start of the year. Last year, we had more, about three to five employees helping us out because we used to join a lot of bazaars and events to sell our products. Now, I’ve cut it down to one. We’ve actually realized that even if you cut down your number of employees, you tend to maximize yourself and tend to push other people in the team to do more. There’s that realization so it’s not so bad after all.

I hope you’ll do great in the following months.

Anna: Thank you!

What is Aesca Designs up to during the lockdown?

Anna: We noticed since the start of the lockdown here in Manila in mid-March until about June or July, there was essentially zero sales. During that time, we were only selling our scarves and our mules — those are the products that Aesca Designs are known for. Our mules and multi-purpose scarves are designed with the artist’s artwork. During that time when people would just really buy essentials, our types of products were the least on their list.

Sometime in May or June, masks became popular and people want to see products that are evolving. Products that are new in their eyes. Products that can also soothe the soul while the pandemic is happening. I thought, “Why don’t we make masks?” It is the most basic and most essential item that we need during the crisis. Of course, Aesca Designs cannot do any products without artworks on them so I thought, “Why don’t we make art on masks?”

At first, I thought of printing artwork on cloth, but then it’s not really what I felt like doing. I always want products that are unique, products that have not yet been seen or touched before. Here in the Philippines, the abaca mask was developed, which is sustainable, eco-friendly and made from abaca leaves. I did some research on that and according to the DOST (Department of Science and Technology), it has seven times better filtration than the normal cloth mask. This would be the best material to use for my masks. However, the second problem was, “How do I put artwork on the abaca mask?” The abaca masks were slowly getting popularized here. People were noticing it because of the beauty and sustainability the product brings. I believe I was one of the first to place artwork on abaca masks, so I had to go through several trials and errors before getting the final output. Finally, we were able to develop and put artwork on our abaca masks. We then saw how the brand picked up. Believe it or not, in the span of three hours, our abaca masks sold out.

That’s amazing!

Anna: Yes, the moment we launched it and boosted it on Facebook, so many people inquired. Maybe it’s because people were thirsty for something new during the pandemic crisis? Art activates something in us. The collection that came out was by Alelia Ariola, who is an empowered Pinay local artist here in the Philippines. Her message behind her artworks, I believe, made an impact on the people who are struggling so much.

Adopting to the wants and needs of your customers, and retaining the identity of the brand — that’s what you’ve done! How is your business doing right now, in general?

Anna: I can’t say it’s 100% there. We’re struggling on a daily basis. We’re trying to adapt to all the changes that are happening. During these times, we all know that it’s very uncertain. We don’t know exactly when this pandemic will end or when people will actually have more buying power. The number one thing I’m doing right is that I’m not quitting. I’m trying to develop more products as we go. After the masks, I developed a clothing collection made of linen. It’s something you can wear at home while you’re on Zoom meetings or having social events with your family at home. That’s what’s in right now, right? Nobody is really going out, so I’m trying to constantly evolve and meet the needs of our customers during this time. It’s not perfect, but I feel that businesses now are under a risky endeavour. If you don’t try, then you wouldn’t know, right? You wouldn’t be able to tell what your clients’ needs are. It’s a bit risky, but the fulfilment that we’re getting out of helping local artists here in the Philippines is what keeps us going.

You mentioned knowing your customers. Do you know what your customers are doing right now?

Anna: I believe I am just a mirror of my customers. I’m also a customer. I’m basing my customers’ needs not just on myself, but on people around me. As I go through daily life now during the pandemic, I see more and more of what people need as well as what I need. I’m also very much into customer relations and communications. I chat a lot with our customers on how they feel about our products that they buy. Right now I can’t exactly pinpoint what they need or want, but I do have my own research about their basic needs.

Hopefully, eventually, as we try to get out there in the world again and with the development of the vaccines, people’s buying behaviours become more normal. I can’t expect that it will ever be the same as before — I think that is not reality. The adaptability towards digitalization and knowing people’s essentials and basic needs — for me, those are the safest assurances that you can offer customers.

Can you share with us the projects that Aesca Designs did to help the vulnerable before and during the pandemic?

Anna: Before the pandemic, one of Aesca Designs’ main advocacies is helping women who were raped. I would personally go to a specific facility where I provide counselling. We use part of the proceeds that we get from the brand to help these women. We run small programs and counsel women. During occasions like Christmas, we design programs for them.

During the pandemic, our initiative was to help those who are hungry. That’s what we did. We are continuously putting aside some financial aid for those who are going through the daily struggles of this pandemic.

What does Aesca Designs intend to do in the following months, particularly as we approach the December yuletide and holiday season?

Anna: Right now, we’re about to launch a new product again and it is connected to sustainability. We’re going to be launching a multi-purpose towel that’s recycled from plastic bottles. It’s more of an initiative to help lessen the waste in our environment. Still in line with Aesca Designs’ concept, different local designers or artists will be making artworks for this product. I thought, “Why make a multi-purpose towel?” It’s a basic need, right? It’s a basic necessity. We’re at home, probably doing yoga, working out at home, or simply doing relaxation. Siguro we plan to travel to the beach, sooner or later. I thought this kind of product would be a good basic need for people nowadays, plus it has the art of course! The artworks that will be displayed on these towels will help soothe the soul.

I’m looking forward to your launch. I would like to see it! Lastly, can you name three things that you need help with?

Anna: Number one would be a wider marketing channel or having a multi-channel approach. Right now, I believe we are limited. If I could get more ideas or more concepts for a multi-channel approach, then that would be a great help. We all know that this is a digital age, so learning more about that or being taught more about how we can market our brand through different channels would be great.

Another need would be securing liquidity. It’s what all small businesses need. I don’t plan on giving up or stopping my brand at all so when we innovate or develop new products, the challenge is how to secure your cash flow. Like I said, developing these products involves trial and error. We could be releasing a new product, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will sell. That’s quite a challenge, but we’re trying to balance everything. Even if we feel like releasing a lot of projects, products or different designs, we still have to secure our liquidity. That’s something we need help or could use good training on.

Another one I thought would be the ability to stay ahead of the game through SEO, or search engine optimization. Of course, we would all love to rank at the top when being searched on Google, right? When people search for “sustainability”, “art” or “eco-friendly products”, we want to stay ahead of the game by being known for the concepts and products that we develop. The challenge with that is knowing the ins and outs, learning and getting more SEO training.

A local brand that advocates mental health and sustainability, and champions the artist and the arts. This is Aesca Designs. Thank you so much, Anna!

Anna: Thank you, Julie! I really appreciate that your organization has noticed our brand. We’re a very small brand, but we’re so glad that you chose us to be part of this very wonderful initiative for entrepreneurs.

About the Guest

About Aesca Designs: “A strong woman and artist, Anna Escalona, who started with nothing but a dream, created Aesca in 2017. Today, she lives her dream of expressing her creativity with a vision. She envisions Aesca to be an epitome of her country’s rich history, culture and nature by breathing life and pride with creative individuals whose stories are worthy to be told. The birth of Aesca was the merging of passion for what should be seen and a call for acknowledgement for local artists and hidden talents to be known. Aesca positions itself as a platform for Filipino artists and creative individuals to express themselves widely with visuals that not only echoes but also embeds its existence in the hearts and minds of those it reaches. By incorporating masterpieces on all Aesca creations, the stories that are too rich for words to express will soon be beautifully recognized by the world. Aesca dares to dream, create and be seen.”

www.aesca.ph

https://www.instagram.com/aescadesigns/

http://www.facebook.com/aescadesigns

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.