The budding designer fills Document in on his graduate collection—a metaphor for the Filipino woman, derived from personal memory

When Jessan Macatangay set out to build his graduate collection, which would round off his master’s at London’s Central Saint Martins, he knew it had to be personal. That certainty took him back to the Philippines of his youth—trips to the beach with his loved ones, under the glaring Batangas sun. “I noticed that women were putting t-shirts on top of their swimwear to cover up their bodies,” the budding designer tells Document. “In a religious country, where 80 percent of the population is Catholic, we grew up in a culture where we had to be modest.”

Whether or not to show skin, of course, is a personal choice, at the center of a thousand culture wars. Sculptural Sensuality, however—the collection that emerged from the restrictions Macatangay sought to challenge—was created with a specific person in mind: those young Filipinos bent on controlling their own bodies and modes of dress, experimenting with fashion in front of an online audience, perhaps more receptive toward upheaval of the cultural status quo.

Geometric, scanty, and distinctly sculptural, Macatangay’s garments harken back to the history of Filipino design—namely, 20th-century swimwear advertisements and editorials, which leaned on cut-outs to subtly push the envelope. Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1970 work Untitled (Layers of Underwear) was likewise a prominent influence; “I merged principles of sensuality and softness with restrictive, harsh, and contrasting materials,” says Macatangay, referencing the sculpture’s characteristic juxtaposition, between hardware and delicate fabric, “almost subconsciously creating a metaphor for the Filipino woman.”

Here, Macatangay meets with Document to expound upon his winding road to design, touching on Rei Kawakubo, arts and crafts, and the value of provocation in the process.

Morgan Becker: Tell me about the process of discovering your love for design.

Jessan Macatangay: I consider myself a late bloomer when it comes to design and fashion. But when I was a child, I enjoyed drawing and any school activities involving arts and crafts. When I was 17, I came across a Comme des Garçons fashion show on YouTube. It was one video after another—I started binge-watching all of the CDG shows I could find online.

At this time, I’d already started a nursing course. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents and shift to another curriculum, so I finished my degree and got my nursing license. The next year, I started taking pattern-cutting short courses in Manila. I naturally learned about Central Saint Martins.

I feel like, because I grew up in a modest place, I have this urge to explore—to experiment, and to do things that are not modest.”

Morgan: Your latest collection explores themes of feminine expression, sensuality, the meshing of softness and sharpness. Can you tell me about the roots of your interest in those ideas?

Jessan: It started when I was young, when family or friends would go to the beach in the Philippines. I noticed that women were putting t-shirts on top of their swimwear to cover up their bodies. In a religious country, where 80 percent of the population is Catholic, we grew up in a culture where we had to be modest, and showing a lot of skin is frowned upon, especially in the countryside. Though it has gotten better, even in this modern day, women in my country are faced with a lot of judgment around the way they dress and present themselves. If you wear a skirt that is too short, you are considered provocative. If you show your cleavage, people will definitely raise their eyebrows. We even have a local rule in our church that, when you get married, the neckline should not be low. My collection started with this fear and discomfort [around] showing skin.

[Coming from] the fierce and internal restriction imposed on women by the Roman Catholic Church, my research began with ’90s swimwear advertisements in the Philippines. Of all the magazines and papers I [looked at], I found only a couple of Filipino editorials and advertisements that showed a woman baring skin, in a swimsuit with side cut-outs. These images birthed my entire collection. I became intrigued by the history of swimwear design, for men and women, and started looking at much earlier styles that date back to the 1910s—with cut-outs prevailing.

I was also inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s sculpture Untitled (Layers of Underwear), where soft fabrics are stretched and imposed onto hardware. I merged principles of sensuality and softness with restrictive, harsh, and contrasting materials, almost subconsciously creating a metaphor for the Filipino woman. The hardwire symbolizes the restrictiveness of the Catholic Church. Three-dimensional layers provide depth, while the imposed feminine form gives birth to unexpected tensions, textures, and shapes. Sculptural forms sprout from contrasting layers of crepe jersey, stretched by wired frames, existing to mimic a swimsuit’s outline, acting as a surrealist manipulation and extension of the body.

Morgan: Apart from codes of dress, how has your upbringing in the Philippines informed your design practice?

Jessan: I grew up in a small town called Batangas in the Philippines. While I love my hometown, there [isn’t much] going on in terms of art, design, and fashion. When I discovered my love for arts and crafts at school, that was the only place I was able to explore it. I feel like, because I grew up in a modest place, I have this urge to explore—to experiment, and to do things that are not modest.

Morgan: Do you see a tangible future for your work in the Philippines, despite the conservative culture?

Jessan: Right now, yes—which I am very excited about. I see a lot of young women voicing their views on taking control of their bodies and the way they dress, despite our [conservative] culture. Young Filipinos are getting more experimental, in terms of wearing less conventional pieces and garments. The growth of social media has given people an additional outlet to express themselves, and a receptive audience. It has been validating to see my designs resonate.

Left: Kristie wears bodysuit by Jessan Macatangay. Right: Dress by Jessan Macatangay. 

Morgan: Your clothing is distinctly sculptural: In the past, you’ve integrated pieces of furniture with gowns, representing the process of finding beauty in struggle. And more recently, you’ve played with geometric shapes, extending independently from the body. What draws you to these sorts of structural challenges?

Jessan: I love the idea of building something from scratch, using my own hands. Experimenting with looks that involve structural elements beyond pure fabric comes from my love for arts and crafts. Structural thinking helps me look at fashion differently and inspires me to be bold. Never mind that it often makes my looks harder to perfect—it’s not just stretching aesthetics, it’s stretching me.

Morgan: Are there other designers you’re inspired by, or creatives in general?

Jessan: Rei Kawakubo has always inspired me. What I love is her ability to produce garments that are very innovative and inspiring, but at the same time translate them into clothing that you actually want to wear. I also love the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Filipino painter Benedicto Cabrera.

Morgan: How would you describe your creative process? Do you spend more time ideating, or actively constructing?

Jessan: After a few years of studying and experimenting, my creative process has evolved. Right now, the starting point of every project is the woman—my muse—who I want to represent in [all of] my work. My initial research must have something to do with her.

For this project, I started with a conceptual idea. From there, I worked on the body. I usually select parts of the research that had a visual effect on me, that can be translated in a tangible way. My work is mostly 3D, and it is always about making. Personally, this is what I love to do the most: I love the creative process of building and developing something. I do a lot of draping, fittings, and pattern cutting. I spend a lot of time in this phase. From these [experiments], I select the final looks that I want to make.

Morgan: How do you imagine your practice evolving from here?

Jessan: Aside from garments, I am planning to expand my product range into accessories. I will definitely continue to experiment with the sculptural and more 3D parts of my work. I’ve also been so happy creating this collection in a more pragmatic, disciplined, and marketable way. This has opened possibilities for how I could expand the more ready-to-wear part of my work, making it more accessible so that people can actually wear my clothes.

Model Kristie Lai at Models 1. Set Design Tors Beedles. Casting Abi Corbett.