“Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I live for opening doors for the young generation of creators. If we do nothing else with our success, let’s open up some doors.”- L.A. Reid
The world of Haute Couture by its very nature, has often been marked by creativity at the highest level, and cut-throat competition among the world’s leading designers constantly striving to outdo each other with their high quality, expensive, unusual fabrics sewn with extreme attention to detail, crafted by a team of most-skilled artisans and craftsmen. In fact, for any collection to carry the label, French law mandates the designs should be made-to-order for private clients, have an atelier (workshop) in Paris that employs 20 full-time staff members and at least 20 full-time technical people; and present a collection of at least 25 original designs twice a year (January & July) at the Paris Couture Week. While its true Pilipino couturiers do not have to comply with such lofty standards, still, it’s indeed rare to find, even among local designers in the regions, someone who generously shares the “tricks of the trade” to younger designers, opening doors not only for local talents, but even going beyond by inspiring and mentoring them to become the best version of themselves. Arrival Even while he was still in high school, Melvin Lachica was already fascinated with drawing and inclined to fashion designing. “I was into arts even at a young age, and most of what are learned I learned by self-study. The way to success was smooth,” Melvin recalls. Although he passed the entrance exams to UST for Fine Arts, his parents couldn’t afford it, so he took up nursing instead, passed the 1990 nursing board exam, and worked as an ICU nurse in Davao for 2 years. But he did not give up his dream. While working the night shift (11pm-7am), he worked as a house designer for C. Pablos (1-5PM), and slept in the morning. “Anything’s possible when you are young and driven by your dreams,” he recalls. In 1995, was given the chance be the house designer of Marilou Venadas’ LOUISSE, a high-end couturier atelier based in Cagayan de Oro City.
“Melvin and his good friend were recommended to me by one of the famous designers of Davao,” Marilou recalls. “I requested them to submit their designs and they were both good, but had different styles and concepts. The designs of Melvin caught more of my attention because it was so detailed and classic. Elegance was there!”
To gain more experience and exposure, Melvin decided to join fashion design competitions which were then very much in vogue during the 1990s.
Aspiring for Excellence
In his first competition, he was proclaimed Mindanaoan Designer of the Year and Grand Winner of Viva Etnika Fashiondayag ‘95 held at the Grand Ballroom of Pryce Plaza, Cagayan de Oro on August 26, 1995.
He followed this up with a semi-final finish in MEGA Magazine’s Young Designers Competition 95 where his triangular-shaped dresses, tent blouses and party pants in hand painted jusí in contrasting black and white, the sole designer from Mindanao to so finish.
After opening his own atelier Casa Lachica at San Agustin-Gaerlan streets in 1996, Melvin made the big leap to global prominence when he was selected by an international board as the Philippine representative for the second edition of the UNESCO Design 21 over the likes of Katrina Goulbourne and his schoolmate Cebu-based designer Julius “OJ” Hofer, who inspired him during his teens to get into the profession.
Design 21, created by UNESCO and the Felissimo Corporation (Japan), is a social design network whose mission is to inspire social consciousness through design. The network connects young creators who want to explore ways in which fashion can positively impact communities.
The second Design 21was organized with the support of Lectra Systems and Trevira, and held in conjunction with World Expo ’98 in Lisbon, Portugal.
Participating countries were asked to select three young designers who were then be screened by an international jury designated by the director-general of Expo ’98.
Thirteen design entries from young Filipino designers were judged by a local preselection board which selected the three Philippine entries, headed by then Tourism Secretary Mina T. Gabor, with the late TV host Maurice Arcache, designer Ben Farrales, CITEM executive director Eli Pinto Mansor, model-turned-fashion entrepreneur Tina Maristela-Ocampo, and model-editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine Philippines Myrza Sison.
Melvin’s design along with other selected entries from 140 country-participants at the World Expo in Portugal were presented on the May 22,1998 opening day, featured in a Fashion Show at the Anfiteatro na Doca on the Expo ’98 site in Lisbon on June 7, 1998, and exhibited until the end of September at Belem Cultural Center.
In the following years, Melvin actively participated in the annual Philippine Fashion Week, and was one of the featured designers during the 2008 launch of Fashion TV Philippines. He also finished as a semi-finalist in another the search for the Philippine representative to the Air France Concours International Des Jeunes Createurs De Mode 2000.
Looking back, Marilou Venadas of Louisse had two words to describe how she feels about selecting Melvin as her former house designer : “Perfect Choice!”
Glory Days, Changing Trends
After making a name for himself in the national and international design competitions, Melvin settled down to attend to his flourishing atelier which experienced its glory days during the 1990s, and moved to a bigger space at Capistrano street in 2000.
But the new millennium brought the emergence of new trends which drastically changed the industry.
Whereas local couturiers previously took charge of styling and dressing an entire bridal entourage, the emergence of gown rentals, good quality RTW imports from China, and wedding events planners changed all that.
“Weddings and other social events used to account for 80-90% of our business, but when the new trends emerged, the share of that business dropped to only about 60%,” he noted.
Since 2000, younger women have favored RTW from brand by designers like Goulbourne which were more affordable. Good quality party gowns from China typically cost only P1,800 vs. P10-12K charged by local couturiers for custom-fitted gowns with full embellishments, quality material and finishing. Also, wedding planners had their own favored suppliers which catered to most budgets.
But Casa Lachica chose not follow those trends and maintained its Class A & B clients who appreciate good design and good taste.
“It’s a constant challenge to the artist,” Melvin said, but says it’s the kind of challenge to their creativity that couturiers like himself like to meet.
In 2015, the constantly rising overhead costs forced him to close his atelier on Capistrano street in downtown Cagayan de Oro and move it to his residence in Tagoloan, Misamis Oriental.
To adapt to the changing trends, they had to accommodate other businesses, such as making uniforms which was another challenge which constrained artistic creativity since it basically challenged them to fit the same design for different types of persons, and entailed engaging a bigger work force since contracts usually included also meticulous repairs and adjustments.
Casa Lachica chose to focus on serving small offices and professional conventions for this niche, but even this market has been reduced due to trend towards RTW mass produced by Manila-based, large scale garment companies
But every cloud also has its silver lining, and the local couturier industry is no exception.
Such is the emergence of fashion conscious chic males who follow the latest fashions, and affect wearing clothes that are elegant, hip, stylish, swanky, tony, and trendy.
In fact, Melvin notes how orders for his line of men’s fashion generated the most response during the Mindanao Fashion Summit hosted by the Oro Fashion Designers Guild (OFDG) last August.
“Young males are now more fashion conscious,” Melvin observes. “The K-Pop Wave also led to this trend that Filipino males identified with.”
On the other side of the coin, the industry still faces an uphill struggle with the diminishing number of skilled workers such as sewers, embroiders, and beaders.
Ideally, each shop used to maintain in-house workers. But now, production has shifted to sub-contracting, with cutters working from home, choosing their working hours, and setting their own rates.
Even more alarming perhaps is the aging work force, with the younger generation seemingly uninterested to pursue the various trades of sewers, and most especially beaders and embroiders.
Melvin believes OFDG needs to address the issue collectively to establish a manpower pool-tie up with TESDA for training a program specific to their members’ particular needs.
Passing the Torch
The door will be opened to those who are bold enough to knock.” – Tony A. Gaskins Jr.
Through his performance in past design competitions, Melvin takes pride in how he opened doors for Kagay-anon designers to join national and international competitions and gain prestige for CDO as a Fashion City.
He urges the younger generation of fashion designers to go into design competition. With his lofty finishes in design competitions here and abroad, he made CDO prominent and opened the doors for the younger wave of fashion designers who got invited based on Melvin’s showing in the fashion scene.
He takes pride in how his “babies” like his former Casa Lachica apprentice Roel Rosal moved abroad later and has now established his own atelier in Binondo, Metro Manila; Shine J. Casiño, who finished first runner up in the Habi Kadayawan 2019 and now also has his own home-based atelier championing the Mindanao Look to the World, and Alan Yugo Sajulga, whom he encouraged to focus on, and is now one of the established Hair and Make-Up Artists of the city with Bella Donna Haute Couture.
He encouraged them to compete in national and international design competitions to build up their names and experience, and all three are now also engaged as full time as Stylists.
Despite having to look after his own business, Melvin says his door remains open and welcome for those who wish to learn and work for it.
“People can open doors for you, but you… must walk through.”- John C. Maxwell
Although not in the same scale as the booming nineties, Casa Lachica has maintained its clientele in the A&B market, which is still expanding. As a home-based atelier, it does not have many walk-ins, but nevertheless gains new clients mostly through referrals by its original loyal clients.
For the future, Melvin is encouraged by the prospects for Laguindingan Silk (formerly styled as Mindanao Silk) when his RTW collection got raves and quickly sold out at a national expo.
He was among the first to champion Mindanao Silk when it was originally promoted by the Ayala Foundation and Ben Lego in 1999 but failed to take off. Now, the local silk industry has been revived by DTI and DOST, and he looks forward to promoting it at a US tour scheduled for October 2023 in Los Angeles, USA.
Meantime, he continues to maintain his classic look, adapting his lines to new trends, but not necessarily changing his signature image.
For instance, despite the industry’s current mania with silhouettes, he advises his clients to maintain their public image based on their status and career, and not to totally embrace new fashion trends, hook-line-and-sinker.
“Client-Designer relationship is maintained by trust,” Melvin notes.
“While a person’s silhouette is the first impression a garment exudes when it comes to catwalks and fashion walks, they are a vital part of your personal style—and you don’t have to live in Paris or wear Chanel to make deliberate fashion silhouette choices.”
In fashion, your silhouette is the shape that your clothes make when they hang on your body. It is used to look at overall shape before jumping into the details of fabric, texture, etc. It helps in making decisions which part of the body needs to be emphasized and which part should be hidden, he adds.
Trust indeed, is a vital part of a client-designer relationship in projecting the former’s image, and Melvin will continue to toe the line in their interest. And that, is what makes all the difference.