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Juan of a kind |


Juan of a kind

UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN - Joanne Zapanta-Andrada - The Philippine Star
Juan of a kind
Betty Sorbetti (sorbetero) wicker bag.

For designer Zarah Juan, the road towards creating artisanal bags began with her desire to save the environment.

“It started when I was still a flight attendant,” shares Zarah. “I was traveling to Japan in 2005 when I discovered the concept of ‘green’ bags or reusable bags. I noticed that canvas bags and foldable bags were being sold in supermarkets as an alternative to plastic ones. I really fell in love with the idea of saving the environment by just using a recyclable bag. Whenever I would come back to the Philippines, I would go straight to Divisoria and buy katsa. I didn’t have any sewing machine yet, so I just rented a sewing machine in Evangelista, Makati for P15 per hour.”

Her first creation: two pieces of plain katsa bag, which she brought wherever she went until her fellow flight attendants started to take notice of them. But her very first break was when her friend approached her to make 10 bags for her child’s baptism souvenirs.

“This opportunity made me so happy. I really went nuts in producing those 10 bags. My friend was very happy on how the opportunity turned out,” she recalls. “After several months, another opportunity came. A friend of mine was getting married and she asked me if I could produce 100 pieces of bags. I was over the moon. That was when I started investing. I bought two sewing machines and converted our garage into a small happy place where I could just be creative. My husband who is an entrepreneur encouraged me to put up a legitimate business by getting necessary permits. It evolved from there and with that passion, and with the support of my husband, in 2007, we finally registered Green Leaf Ecobags.”

Since then, her colorful bags and shoes have received notice from both the local and international community. Forever the advocate, Zarah used her newfound fame as a means to uplift the livelihood opportunities for marginalized communities.

  Wicker bags created by the Bagobo Tagabawa tribe.

“I joined a platform (Great Women), it is a governance and capacity development project that aims to promote and support gender-responsive enabling environment for women’s empowerment, particularly to the micro-enterprises. Through this, I was introduced to different indigenous communities concentrated in Mindanao. I believe my knowledge in manufacturing can be replicated in small-scale communities to create sustainable livelihood. I started reaching out and developed products for them and created a market for continuous productivity,” she says.

One of the communities Zarah serves is the Bagobo Tagabawa situated in Barangay Lubogan Toril in Davao. She describes it as a “very vibrant and beautiful tribe” because of its rich cultural traditions, which sadly, are slowly diminishing through time brought about by poverty. According to Zarah, the Bagobo Tagabawa tribe used to prosper at the foot of  Mount Apo but because of poor access to health care, education and basic needs, they slowly moved down to nearby cities. 

“We decided to focus on one community at a time for our sustainability program. Like the T’boli tribe, which is  from Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. The T’boli women are impeccable hand embroiderers. Though they create beautiful crafts, their source of livelihood is still not enough due to their geographical location. The Zarah Juan brand collaborated with T’boli Cowhead Cooperative producing beautiful embroidered shoes and bags. It was also through this project that they were connected to the No. 1 Filipino souvenir store in the Philippines. There are almost 200 T’boli women participating in this program, producing souvenir items such as key chains, bracelets and necklaces,” she says.

Other communities include the basket weavers from Iraya Mangyan in Puerto Galera, the Ilocos region, Abra, Isabela and Bicol;  shoemakers from Marikina;  embroiderers and handpainters from Lumban, Laguna; embroiderers and leather tanneries from Bulacan; and woodcarvers from Paete.”

The Zarah Juan collection is an innovative Filipino artisanal fashion brand that creates one-of-a-kind shoes, bags, and accessories that expertly weave traditional Filipino craftsmanship, contemporary and modern design with local textiles; it is a brand that wants to uphold culture and traditions of local communities by partnering with artisans, weavers and suppliers to create unique and beautiful items that can be world-class — a collective of Filipino creativity.

“Every piece collaborated with different communities has a story to tell. It is a brand that celebrates tradition that fuses cultural awareness and social impact. It unifies with the local communities to promote a sustainable livelihood. The brand’s goal is to uphold Filipino craftsmanship. It empowers artisans and supports communities through mutually beneficial partnerships,” Zarah says.

When asked about how she would describe the Zarah Juan buyer, the APEC Best Award for Most Innovative Business Model winner has this to say: “The Zarah Juan woman is a woman who celebrates life. Our audience keenly appreciates the work of hands of different artisans across the country. Our buyers are proud storytellers of all things Filipino. Our clients are strong advocates of upholding cultural continuity.”

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(Zarah Juan products can be found at MGF Champaca Building, 156 Amorsolo St., Legaspi Village, Makati City. For more information, visit and on Instagram.)

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