Lesley Mobo: Homecoming king
SHOPSIFTED - Ana G. Kalaw () - March 19, 2008 - 12:00am

The last time I was in London, in late 2006, I made sure to check out the Jasmine di Milo collection at the ladies’ section of Harrods. I wanted a firsthand glimpse and feel of the collection that Lesley Mobo, the Filipino who is the label’s head designer, helped create. If I remember correctly, it was the “Broken Dolls” collection for fall/winter ’06-’07 that was being displayed, a series of pieces mostly in black, white and gold that seamlessly blended feminine softness and structure. Way to go, Lesley.

Later that night, I met up with Lesley, who was dressed in his usual all-black ensemble, for dinner in Soho, at this hip Japanese restaurant with long, meant-to-be-shared tables and a youthful, upmarket clientele. Over edamame and marinated tofu, we chatted about his recent trip to Paris for Fashion Week, exchanged opinions about Filipino and international designers, and I told him about the latest happenings in Manila. We talked about Monique Lhuillier’s first show in Manila and he told me that he had just FedEx-ed a gown to Sofia Zobel-Elizalde to wear to the show. We both agreed that I could have hand-carried it back for him had he known in London that I was going back to Manila in a few days. We also talked about the possibility of him coming up with his first major show carrying his own name, whether in London or Manila, and he said he’s been wanting to do so for some time, and that he and good friend and show director Ariel Lozada had been talking about it as far back as 2005.

When I asked Ariel about this, he recollected how he and Lesley had planned to put up a show in London Fashion Week or East London Fashion Week three years ago.  “We were set and ready to go broke then just for Les to start off his own label.  We were already working on a simple concept but very experiential. I remember vividly how Lesley would work with a video camera (during one of those sleepless nights at his house).  He would stand in front of it and play with shapes and forms using garments.  It was so amazing and scary at the same time.”

That Soho dinner was the first occasion I spent time at length with Lesley Mobo, the young Aklanon who completed his biology degreeat FEU only to pursue fashion studies at London’s reputable Central Saint Martins, eventually bagging a job as head designer of young Harrods label Jasmine di Milo, outside of an interview or an event. That night, I discovered that Lesley is an intensely private individual who can’t be enticed to indulge in petty, tawdry gossip, who is against name-dropping of any sort (even if he has the right to) and who is rarely daunted by the gloss and glamour of the industry that he works in. Really, a very decent fellow.

I met Lesley for the first time sometime 2005 at a press lunch held by the British Council. Months prior to that, I did an e-mail interview with him, the London-based fashion designer who was recently given the Diesel award for his “Obesity in the North Pole” collection in the 2004 International Talent Support (ITS) competition. He tells me his mom showed him a copy of the article that I wrote. “I didn’t recognize you just now. You look so young. Ang ganda mo doon sa column photo mo …” The sentence left off at that, loaded with ellipses and maybe a bit of confusion. “I’m not wearing makeup,” I smilingly replied. I knew right off that I would like this Lesley Mobo.

Apart from his refreshing candor and purposeful, avant-garde aesthetic, there is much to like about Lesley. His story is inspiring for sure — his family and relatives could very well have done the hat-passing routine so he could take up studies in London. What’s more inspiring, however, is how he hasn’t allowed his success story to get blown out of proportion or go to his head. He always acknowledges where he came from, and with even more pride because he had to work extra-hard to get to where he is now. Which probably makes his first major fashion show in the Philippines extra-special.

This solo fashion show will be directed by Ariel Lozada (of course) and is titled “Bravo Filipino Presents Lesley Mobo.” The collection showing is one of the main events, and the only solo presentation, of the Bravo Filipino festival, a tribute by the Ayala group to Philippine artists — dancers, musicians, designers, sculptors, painters. To be held on March 27 in The Gallery of the posh Greenbelt 5, this fashion show will feature Lesley’s “Matavenero” collection and will also feature a film presentation that Lesley did himself, as well as a fashion exhibition.

Says Ariel, “When Lesley commissioned me to handle this project, we both said, why not create a video art installation that we wanted to do a long time ago, and we both laughed. It is always an advantage if you know the designer by heart. Les gave me full trust to work on the umbrella concept for Bravo Filipino then; I just presented to him the specifics. If you only know — and even those people he works with in London — what Leslie can do as a designer ... He is a true artist.”

In our latest interview, the designer reveals more about life in London and analyzes the real intent of fashion:

Tell us about your “Matavenero” collection. What inspired this collection?

Matavenero is an eco-village in northwest Spain in the Montes de León where so-called  “new tribes” or the people of a Rainbow Gathering live. I was inspired by the simplicity of their way of life and the way they approach and embrace nature — it’s a “ back to basics” philosophy.

How does it feel to be the head designer of Jasmine di Milo?

It’s a fantastic opportunity to be able to work and be part of this amazing group of young people.

You basically started your career in fashion apprenticing for Inno Sotto. What was it like working for him?

He was my mentor for the Paris competition when I first started in Manila. I did an apprenticeship with him on and off for a number of weeks. I grew up admiring Inno’s work and what he stands for. His “Made to Dream” collection, the show of which was directed by Ariel Lozada, was certainly a memorable one for a budding designer like me. The couture house of Inno Sotto was a mythic house. I am very happy I went through this apprenticeship. I think I wouldn’t be who I am today if I had not gone through that. Inno is a true Filipino legend.

Is there anyone else you’d like to work with?

I would love to work for myself full-time in the future

You must work with a lot of creative talent in your job. Who are some of your favorites (model, photographer, stylist, etc.)?

I enjoy and learn a lot working and collaborating with stylists Sarah Richardson and Jane How.

Your designs seem very conscious of the human form and figure, albeit in an unconventional way. Does this have anything to do with your biology degree?

Certainly! Most of the detailing and silhouettes I use are products of detailed experimentation. My shapes are results of a hangover from my biology degree.

How did Sofia Zobel-Elizalde, who is very outspoken about your talent, “discover” you?

We met in a function in Manila and then met again in London. After that I designed a couture gown for her for an event (my very first gown to be worn in the Philippines).

Who from Manila society would you like to dress up?

Honestly, I don’t know anyone from Manila society as I rarely attend any events or parties in Manila. I would say I’m very happy dressing genuine people with unique personalities and attitudes towards life — perhaps a younger version of Patti Smith or a new version of Jane Birkin — someone who hates working with a formula, someone who can put across looks that are original! As a matter of fact, what I liked about designing a gown for Sofia was how there was a feeling of individuality and a new, softer femininity within her.

For me, fashion has always been about individuality. I believe that what defines style is the detail. It’s the small flash of bright color under a dark jacket, the way a trench coat belt is tied, the quirky cuff that contrasts with a somber shift. In other words, it’s not what you’re wearing, really, it’s the way you’re wearing it. It doesn’t matter how much you paid or where you bought it. Today style is as much about how you feel wearing them, as it is the clothes themselves.

Do you think you’ll ever come up with a collection using traditional Filipino materials and influences?

Why not? My dissertation for my B.A. Hons Fashion degree was all about pineapple fiber and pineapple fabric. And, as a matter of fact, we also revived the butterfly sleeves at work this season in our autumn/winter ’08-’09 collection, and showed it on a catwalk during Paris Fashion Week.

We hear that Londoners call you “Mobo.” Who first started calling you by this moniker?

While at Saint Martins, some people started calling me Mobo as they found it very unique and very Japanese. I always insist that it’s a Filipino surname.

What made you choose London to embark on a career in fashion? Why not Paris or New York?

Mainly because Saint Martins is in London. That’s where I went to get my fashion degree and that’s where I was mainly discovered by people in the industry — I got my first job interview there

When I was only in my second year, I was already interviewed for a job with John Galliano for Dior. That in itself says a lot about the pulling powers of our college in terms of job opportunities.

Do you see yourself working in any other city?

Matter of fact, I already work in Paris four times a year during Fashion Week. At the moment I think this is perfect — two weeks there is already enough per season; I am deeply rooted in London.

It seems as if things came easy for you: getting into Saint Martins, the ITS win for Diesel, the Jasmine di Milo/Harrod’s job. Did it, really?

Not easy at all. I was not given any scholarship (as some think). My mother, father and brother funded my studies privately. I worked beyond what a full-time employee should while doing my full-time studies at Saint Martins. No pain, no gain.

Was there ever a time when you just wanted to call it quits and come back home to the Philippines?

Never. My attitude is completely the opposite. I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else.

Ever felt discriminated against for being Asian/Filipino?

Not at all, at least not in London. Filipinos are respected in the UK because of their great contributions to the national health service.

What are your favorite haunts in London?

I walk a lot with my iPod headphones stuck in my ears. If time allows, a good walk in Camden or from Knightsbridge to Green Park is a good treat. Camden is known for its subcultures and underground energy — everything about it is emotionally uplifting and is a haven for self-expression.

Work hard, play harder: does this apply to you?

Unfortunately not.

What do you miss most about the Philippines, apart from your friends and family?

Filipino food.

What does your mother think of all your success?

She is my inspiration. All my life, I have always challenged myself to work hard and to equal all her sacrifices and unselfishness, but I don’t think I really could.  My mother is not affected by the whole “fashion galore” setup, which I really admire. She’s a cool mother anyway — my classmates and colleagues love her.

What else would you like to accomplish?

Since I am human, it will always be my nature to dream.  Every time I achieve something new, I think I’ve arrived, but I never have.  Don’t stop dreaming because the moment you stop dreaming is the moment you begin to die.

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The fashion show featuring Lesley Mobo’s works is one of the main events of Bravo Filipino. Organized by the Ayala group of companies, Bravo Filipino is a multi-event celebration of Philippine artistry, which will run from January to April 2008. Call 892-1801 for more informaton.

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E-mail comments to ana_kalaw@pldtdsl.net.

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