The barong as canvas
Edu Jarque (The Philippine Star) - February 16, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The barong that we know today as the national dress is quintessentially Filipino in style and sensibility. As a garment for formal occasions, it is usually made of piña or jusi and requires meticulous care. The first was woven out of fiber from the pineapple plant and required arduous labor from local weavers who produced a fabric called pinukpok. The jusi, on the other hand, was crisp and easier to dye and embroider.

Jeanne Goulbourn has had this ongoing love affair with the barong. And even as several local designers have put their stamp on it, they work mostly with piña or jusi. But not Jeanne.  Constantly in search of ways to make her creations both elegant and comfortable, she experimented 18 years ago with gazar and organza, using layer upon layer – sometimes as many as four – to make the new fabric she wanted. She developed one that used mainly silk but had piña, abaca, hemp and threads in different materials and colors. The cloth – produced under the Silk Cocoon label – is softer, more supple and versatile enough for her to explore a gamut of ideas.

Finally, Jeanne found her medium – her canvas, so to speak. She used it to turn out barongs never-yet-seen by those accustomed to the traditional shirt. It was only when she was making them for milestones and certain important events that she worked with a theme.

For instance, when she was commissioned to do the barongs of the 18 leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation who gathered in Manila in 1996, she embroidered each front panel with a column of intricate reproductions of windows from ancestral homes and bamboo huts. The ones she did for former President Joseph Estrada had church doors as motif. She also had a collection that used tattoo patterns – tribal, indigenous to the Philippines and Africa, and those used by other social classes – as main design element. And she has even explored art deco nuances.

This year, as she marks 18 years in the profession – quite a journey, for sure – Jeanne needed more than a reason to celebrate. Being a lover of the barong – which her late husband Sidney wore fondly – she came up with the wonderful idea to immortalize the works of some of the Philippines’ most prominent artists, to include painters, sculptors, architects, a furniture designer and a photographer. 

A reception was held at her boutique that extended to a garden. It was a convivial gathering of power brokers and philanthropists, diplomats and entrepreneurs, literati lights and celebrities.

Eleven artists – all of them her personal friends – liked her plan. They are: National Artists Arturo Luz and BenCab, painter-sculptors Manuel Baldemor, Gabriel Barredo, Impy Pilapil, Claude Tayag and Ramon Diaz, interior designers Lor Calma and Ed Calma, furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue and photographer Wig Tysmans. 

There is no special significance to the number, she hastens to add, “I just like it. Separately, one plus one is two, it is a good start to something, that is where it all begins, actually.”

For starters, she guided them with a template of the actual size of the area where their designs will be embroidered. All of them sent sketches, some in black and white, others with colors. From these initial inputs, Jeanne went to work with consideration of the shades of the fabric, what stitches and threads to employ. “I did a lot of tests and trials and did not stop until I was happy,” she declares.  “At times, I would have to start all over again when it was not developing well. Only then did I show the finished garment to the artist here at the boutique where we sat over a cup of coffee.”

Jeanne gave the artists complete freedom to conceptualize the barong of their choice. As she describes their designs one readily sees the aesthetic synergy that went into the whole process.

“Arturo Luz and Bencab were very much themselves, their signature elements there for all to see. Arturo, with his linear symmetry and Bencab, with the face of Sabel. The challenge for me was to make sure that art work and fabric blend while remaining distinct from each other,” Jeanne says.

“The excellent grasp of dimension, the playful way space is employed are very palpable in the works of Lor and Ed Calma and even Kenneth Cobonpue with his skyfall of little people, deftly uses this element as required of all artists working with the interiors of a house and the scale of the furniture that will go into them.”

“Manuel Baldemor, Gabriel Barredo and Ramon Diaz all presented me with great surprises. Manny with his rendition of the carabao and sarimanok ‘lifted’ neatly from the mélange that usually ‘crowd’ his canvases. Gabby stayed away from his avant garde metal works and sketched bamboo trees. Ramon sent me the koi, again not what his collectors would expect to see.”

“Impy Pilapil’s swirling cosmos and clouds did find resonance with Claude Tayag’s circles as well as Wyg Tysman’s spare photographs of a man and woman.  I interpreted Impy’s oeuvre with lines of colors interwoven with black but left Claude’s unending white circles against a stark black background. Wyg Tysman’s very austere snapshots, I put inside hand-stitched frames.”

As painstakingly elaborate as her work to produce the prototype of every design has been, Goulbourn enthuses: “I enjoyed my times with all of them. It was such a pleasure to collaborate with them.”

Then when the barongs are ready for the roster of Silk Cocoon’s discerning and loyal clients, Jeanne emphasizes that each new owner will have something that is uniquely crafted for him. Only 10 pieces in 10 color variations will be produced of each design. 

As he decides which artist’s barong he prefers, the customer may then choose from any of the following hues: a natural original color, nude or flesh tone – which Goulbourn claims makes a man “look younger,” champagne in two shades, Chanti – “rich red wine,” Chinese red “ala Valentino,” pine green, zinc or light grey, silver grey, charcoal grey or what she calls a “softer black” and a dramatic black. He is then asked to finalize the style of collar, cuffs and sleeves – will these be cut Italian style, Philippine style or with drop shoulders, and even the buttons to be used.

Once all these details are ironed out, the Silk Cocoon informs the artist through a Certificate of Authenticity and a thank you note because part of the proceeds of the limited edition line of barongs will support the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation, an NGO that Jeanne and her husband established after a daughter passed on. The organization helps in developing trainors who handle the emotional rehabilitation of people suffering from severe depression and gives assistance to those who have to cope with the trauma of losing a loved one or a friend to this dark malaise.

The barongs Goulbourn has made – hand-washable and properly cared for – are in themselves heirlooms. Some have used their barongs continuously for over 15 years. With this new collection, their wearer not only gets to bequeath a valued piece of garment with all its memories but also the signature pieces of some of the country’s most eminent artists.

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