MANILA, Philippines — Mingle long enough with the Filipino jet-set and you're bound to hear a recurring quip delivered as an explanation for a surprisingly wide range of phenomena: "Don't forget, we spent 300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood.”
Meant primarily as a droll reference to the Philippines' history of colonisation — first by Catholic Imperial Spain, then by the US — this cheeky turn of phrase alludes to the unique cultural legacy that sets this country apart from its South East Asian neighbours. For many in the local fashion industry, the refrain also serves as a blunt instrument often used to measure a product's sales potential. But if the past decade of vigorous market development has shown anything, it’s that typecasting the upmarket Filipino shopper as a customer who relies on an incongruous mix of restraint, opulent details and classic glamour is a sorely out-dated notion.
"Because of sheer numbers, the status-seeker remains the most popular [type of consumer]," says Carla Sibal, founder of Filipino lifestyle magazine Spark and a former chief editor of fashion monthly Mega, which has been on the country's newsstands for over two decades. "However, the fashion-forward [Filipino] consumer has always been voracious. [Traditionally] they travel to Hong Kong, Singapore and the US to shop for the latest trends... but the potential for growth in this segment within the Philippines is now tremendous."
With Hong Kong a mere two-hour hop across the South China Sea, the shopping mecca has long been a favourite haunt of well-heeled Filipinos tired of the selection in Manila — not to mention the inflated prices, due to hefty import duties. But today, many more international brands are present in the Philippines and offer a better product assortment than ever before, thanks mostly to a handful of joint-venture and franchise operators, including Store Specialists Inc (SSI), H & F Retail Concepts and smaller players like Trio Marketing Adventures. Price differentials, although still a hindrance, are not a barrier big enough to prevent the market's continued expansion.
Around 10 years ago, at the height of Nicolas Ghesquière fever, when wearing one of his designs for Balenciaga signalled a cool insider's knowledge of fashion, Mark "Jappy" Gonzalez was in the process of persuading the brand to let him buy stock for his Manila-based, multibrand boutique Homme et Femme. A few years later, he found himself negotiating with the French maison once again, but this time for the franchise rights to open the first Balenciaga monobrand store in the Philippines, through his new venture H & F Retail Concepts. Since then, Gonzalez has added a Comme des Garçons store, a Y-3 store and seven Fred Perry stores to his portfolio.
"It's been a long and often bumpy road, but as a culture, Filipinos are resilient and natural survivors. What we [finally] enjoy today — a politically and economically stable state — has been a result of nearly three decades of dedication by the people," says Gonzalez. He adds: "Retail expansion opportunities arose here not only from economic activity but also from key developments in real estate.”
Manila's Rustan's department store has been importing designer and luxury goods since the 1950s, when this landmark emporium was virtually the only commercial space in the country that was suitable for international fashion brands. But in the early 1990s, property giants like Rockwell Land, Ayala Land, the Kuok Group and SM Prime Holdings began rolling out mid-tier and upmarket malls, resulting in congregations of fashion brands clustered around Shangri-La Plaza in Manila's Ortigas district and Ayala Center in the Makati district, among others.
At the same time, Rustan's spun off its joint-venture distribution enterprise, Store Specialists Inc (SSI), and began opening free-standing stores in these malls for brands including Armani Exchange, Gucci, Prada, Debenhams and Zara. Today, SSI remains the dominant local player under the leadership of Anton Tantoco Huang (grandson of Rustan's founders Gliceria Rustia and Bienvenido Tantoco) who has helped expand the family firm’s ventures to encompass partnerships with international brands like Marc Jacobs, Burberry and Michael Kors.
"It's interesting to note that there has also been a race [by many players] to bring in brands like Chanel for several years now," says Sibal. "But it's unfortunate that they are ignorant to the real profit opportunities the market currently offers. While they've repeatedly declined a presence in the Philippines, other luxury brands continue to thrive. At Bulgari and Louis Vuitton, which are both present, for example, it's not uncommon to see bags of cash being paid for [some of the priciest] goods... And Hermès Philippines general manager Mario Katigbak has told me that they've had orders for bespoke oversized crocodile Birkin bags that require the skin of a 30-foot crocodile and retail for over $44,000."
For many years, the wealth of the Philippines was both underestimated and overlooked by luxury brands, in part because this wealth was difficult to quantify. "The typical Filipino who has recently come into wealth often times holds on to old beliefs and traditions when it pertains to money," explains Sibal. "That's why it's difficult to objectively measure how much someone earns or saves, because many still rely on putting money 'under the mattress' [which can lead to] many things being undeclared simply because of custom... But the truth remains that sales are robust and the market appetite continues to grow."
For Eman Pineda, founder of Manila's trend-setting multibrand concept store Adora, which sells labels like Chloé, Valentino and Proenza Schouler, the Philippines market has shown a marked evolution since he first opened shop five years ago. While many of the high-end brands entering the Philippines back then tended to focus on accessories, "the nice thing about it, now, is it's not just the usual entry level items," he says.
According to Bain & Company's May 2013 update to its Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study, the Philippines is one of the six South East Asian countries (in addition to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia) that the management consultancy firm now considers to be "driving Asian growth" since China’s economy has slowed. In fact, the firm goes on to estimate the luxury market in the Philippines, alone, to be worth €300 million (about $400 million, at current exchange rates). And although this is about the same figure attributed to Vietnam, which has a similarly sized population, the Philippines has consistently received considerably less attention than its nearest neighbour to the west. Presumably, Vietnam's faster growth trajectory has appeared more exciting to luxury observers than that of the Philippines, even though investment in Manila may have reaped comparable rewards. But even more eye-opening is when the Philippines is compared to the headline-grabbing giant to the south, Indonesia, with almost triple the population but a luxury market only twice as large.
Just last month, the authors of another recent study, Wealth Report Asia, by Swiss private banking group Julius Baer, spelled out the situation clearly: "The economic rise of the Philippines has been overshadowed by [that of its] larger neighbours, but the strides made in recent years have placed it on an exciting path."
To wit, the most recent macroeconomic numbers coming out of the country are impressive. Its gross domestic product grew by 7.8 percent in the first quarter of 2013, beating most forecasts and outpacing China for the very first time. The Philippines has also secured good investment grade status after Standard & Poor’s became the second major agency, after Fitch, to raise the country’s credit rating.
Not counting a few tumbles in recent weeks, Manila’s PSEI index has also been the region’s best-performing stock market index this year, excluding Japan, according to the Financial Times. Admittedly, the local currency, the peso, has been volatile this month and has therefore negatively affected some other indicators, but much of this has been attributed to external forces (quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve) and has hit nearly all emerging markets in Asia. Most analysts remain highly optimistic about the Philippines, overall and within the apparel sector.
Euromonitor International's Singapore-based emerging market analyst Jason Wong says growth of the Philippines apparel market outpaced the market average of 7 percent for the Asia-Pacific region last year. "Its more dynamic growth is a result of the entry of numerous fast fashion brands. These include international brands such as Uniqlo, Cotton On and G-Star Raw. Existing brands such as Forever 21 and Liu Jo continue to expand their number of outlets in the Philippines. Internet retailing has also experienced a notable increase in apparel sales, especially after the entry of brands Zalora and Lazada," he adds.
Wong's upbeat outlook is shared by Sibal, who reports that, thanks to the country’s growing middle class, Bershka and Stradivarius have also opened in Manila, joining other well-established Spanish brands like Zara and Mango.
"This is the most exciting segment of the market," she says. "And popular brands serving the middle classes are highly likely to be welcomed with enthusiasm. This, fuelled by the growing BPO (business process outsourcing) industry... and the increasing remittances from the 10 million OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) abroad are the main drivers for the current economic boom. Children of OFWs are image-driven and eager to show people their status has improved — thus the increased desire for branded and designer items."
Following the second wave of upmarket malls which took root in Manila in the 2000s with the arrival of Rockwell Center's Power Plant Mall and Greenbelt Malls in Makati, in the last few years development has concentrated around Fort Bonifacio High Street and the SM Aura Premier Mall in the Taguig district.
"Returning to Manila recently after being away for almost two years left me unprepared for the change in landscape," recalls Sibal, who had been in Europe reformatting Spark for international distribution. "There were new buildings, malls, and whole shopping districts that emerged. There was a palpable feeling of vibrancy."
Indeed, Adora's Pineda believes that, despite being both overshadowed by its Asian neighbours and misunderstood by international players, "the Philippines has recently been increasingly on the radar of those in the fashion industry. I definitely believe that international perceptions about the country are changing…. After all, Asia is what's driving the world economy and the Philippines is a part of that."