As that old adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention. In the local scene, Gouache bags are a great example.
It all started with Louie Poco’s broken camera bag. Despite scouring the malls with his fiancée, Ann Enriquez, they couldn’t find the perfect replacement. They were looking for one that’s sturdy enough accommodate all his gear, while still looking stylish. It was then that Louie decided to create his own camera bag.
Armed with an industrial design background plus a number of online tutorials, Louie set off to design his own waxed canvas bag. After experimenting with numerous batches of wax, he finally perfected a custom wax blend, eventually collaborating with Marikina’s artisans to create the first Gouache bag. The brand eventually went on to be crowdfunded through The Spark Project.
And as they say, the rest is history.
But in reality, this is only a portion of the Gouache story. To learn even more about the brand and how the bags were made, we spent a day with Louie and Ann at two of their artisans’ workshops. And truly, it was an eye-opening experience.
More Than Just the Money
With a successful crowdfunding campaign, it would be very easy to assume that everything was smooth-sailing for Gouache. Yet Ann confesses that more than the money, they were just extremely lucky to meet the right people to work with for their brand. Even the artisans from Marikina who made their bags never needed any training. Many were already skilled in the craft and only needed better equipment to work with the tough waxed canvas.
One good example was how they met Rio, one of their first bag artisans.
Originally residing in Calumpang, near the banks of the Marikina River, Rio learned the art of bag-making from her mother. However, after the floods of Ondoy, they were forced to transfer to safer ground—up to Cogeo, in the mountains of Rizal. It was there, in a humble single-room home, that they started all over again.
It was through a kind supplier in Marikina that Louie and Ann met her, assigning her a batch of bags to work on.
While initially it was only Rio and her husband working on the products, the good demand for Gouache bags soon meant more work. Today, her entire family participates in the creation of the bags, with her husband cutting up the patterns while her mother applies the finishing touches to some parts.
It was even a boost to the entire community. Rio has now employed some of her neighbors in the bag-making business, all working from home. The home-based workshop setup allows them all more flexibility—Rio shares that their neighbors prefer it since it allows them to keep an eye on the children while they work. The setup also allows them to accept work from other clients during Gouache’s lean months.
And as business expanded, Rio’s space also became bigger. She eventually had a newer two-story house built beside the old one; the single-room home now a full-time workshop. And for that expansion she hired the construction workers in the community as well, giving them work while they wait for the start of larger projects in the city.
Meanwhile, for Mang Rico, bag-making was more a trade he learned on the job. He originally started back in 1992, just as a helper for the bigger shoe and bag manufacturers in Marikina. Eventually, he picked up all the necessary skills, graduating to bigger tasks until he was able to make items on his own.
Now, with the earnings from Gouache, he is looking to expand his shop. Other than adding a second floor to his house—which doubles as his workshop—he is now looking for a new apprentice to train.
But while the Gouache team was lucky to have met the right people, there were still numerous challenges that they had to face. The biggest was getting a consistent supply of raw materials for their bags.
While they were easily able to source the beeswax from a beekeeper in Laguna, other parts like buckles were harder to find. This is due to the lack of locally-made parts. Some of their suppliers actually end up importing raw materials overseas, which cost substantially more.
This, Ann shares, is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Filipino brands. With other countries such as China able to tap cheaper sources for raw materials, they are able to export very cheap goods. This pushes local companies to skimp on labor costs, just so they can still compete with the prices of cheap imports.
That’s why Ann believes there should be a change in the mindset of the Filipino consumer—that local goods should be available for cheap. She explains that while Gouache bags are sold at a premium, it is only because they pay their artisans better rates. After all, high-quality work doesn’t come cheap.
The Making of a Gouache Bag
And this is especially in the context of how a Gouache bag is made, as everything is pretty much done by hand.
The first step in making a Gouache bag is for the parts of the bag—both canvas and lining—being cut out from bolts of cloth. This step is done at the bagmaker’s home workshop.
The cut pieces are then sent to the in-house Gouache workshop for the application of wax. The wax, which is a custom blend made by Gouache, has to be applied by hand. It can only be done after the canvas is cut.
While applying the wax on the canvas before it is cut can save time, this has previously resulted in the uneven application of wax. Applying wax beforehand can also make the canvas tougher to handle and hence, harder to cut.
Once the wax has been applied and cured, the parts are now sent back to the bag artisans for assembly. This is also done by hand or by using specific models of manual sewing machines. After all, the toughness of waxed canvas makes it hard for other kinds sewing machines to handle.
Finally, once the bags are done, they are sent to the Gouache workshop for quality control. While no Gouache bag is completely identical, a QA process is still necessary to guarantee that each bag is up to standards. The bags are then eventually sent to the client for corporate orders or to be eventually sold through partner stores.
Because of this process, each batch of bags requires at least a month to be completed.
This attention to detail has meant good business for Gouache, with orders pouring in even from international partners. As such, they’re now looking to expand. Far from just offering a line of bags, they are now transitioning into a lifestyle brand. They have recently launched other items made of waxed canvas, such as a tool holder and an apron. Experiments with local woven fabric are also underway.
Ann also hopes that more collaborations with the younger breed of designers and the older generations of artisans happen. She explains that one of the reasons local shoe and bag designs don’t sell well is the fact that some designs already look dated. By collaborating more with younger designers to create trendier shoes and bags, experienced artisans will get to break into a much younger market.
As for Rio, she’s just hopeful that business remains strong. And with the continuing interest in locally made products, the future seems bright for the local artisan communities.