She’s got it Indie bag
Cheeko B. Ruiz (The Philippine Star) - August 21, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - It was never her dream to be a bag maker and designer. But there are certain things that are simply written in the stars.

Zarah Juan was a flight attendant for an American airline from 2000 to 2007. It was during layovers in Japan, her favorite place to visit, that her story as a bag maker began.

“I would stroll through the streets of Tokyo looking for unique ?nds, and this was where I discovered the use of environmental bags or what we now call ‘green bags.’ Back then, the use of environmental bags was not yet introduced to Filipinos,” she says.

“I adapted the use of green bags. During my days off in Manila, I would source for natural materials such as katsa (cheesecloth) and make my own ecobags. I would use it during my trips and layovers. My friends would ask why I carry katsa bags with me all the time and I would always explain to them how we should reduce the consumption of plastic bags to help save the environment.”

In no time, her bags were being used as souvenir items for baptisms and weddings, and the demand for them grew.

But her growing business did not stop with ecobags. She has since started collaborating with indigenous communities “to create beautiful and meaningful products.”

“A part of my personal advocacy is to share my knowledge in bag making and product development. With so many natural resources and hands-on knowledge in basic farming, how can indigenous peoples (IPs) be so poor?” she asked.

Zarah vows to do what she can to help sustain the IPs’ livelihood.

“I design bags that are inspired by their indigenous patterns mixed with contemporary elements to make it relevant and updated. I have a team of talented graphic designers who assist me in giving the community a more structured system. The tribes live in remote areas, far from the city, so a very well-planned ?ow process should be in place in order to maximize productivity and cut cost,” Zarah says.

She stresses that they are still in the trial and error stage and designs are studied very carefully.

“We are trouble-shooting our production system to increase productivity and deliver on time. Currently, designs are coming slowly but are creating an impact in the market,” she says.

Most of the materials that they use are locally sourced, like leather from Bulacan, fabrics from Ilocos, Abra, Benguet, Mindoro, Iloilo, Davao, South Cotabato, Zamboanga and Sulu, and abaca ?bers from Bicol.

She describes her company as a team of professionals and artisans.

“We run a firm that can cater to small and big orders for different retail companies. Our company, with 105 people, is composed of 90 percent women,” she says.

She adds that the business is doing well despite the occasional occurrence of challenges which are essential for growth.

While they are not yet exporting their products, which she describes as affordable, they are making preparations to accommodate the opportunity when the right time comes.

Zarah finds ful?llment when she sees an indigenous family slowly realizing their dreams.

“It becomes very rewarding when young IPs realize that they need to uphold their own cultural heritage,” she says.

This weekend (Aug. 26-28), Zarah will be joining the annual MaArte Fair, a fundraising bazaar that showcases and promotes Filipino products, to be held at the Rockwell Penthouse.

“This will be my ?rst time to come out as a designer showcasing my own work of art in collaboration with indigenous communities. I will also be side by side with the iconic fashion designer Rhett Eala and I am a consultant for the Iraya Mangyan Collection of Mindoro through Beatrize Zobel de Ayala Sr. for Ayala Foundation,” she says.

The price of success is hard work, according to Zarah.

“There is no shortcut. You have to put in time. Bag making is a

craft that entails practice and patience. To create remarkable designs you have to think outside the box. And in order to think outside the box, you must know everything there is about the box, in this case bag making,” she tells aspiring entrepreneurs. 

While she misses flying, her first love, Zarah has found a new purpose: “My dream is to create beautiful products that tell a story of who we are as Filipinos.”

She adds: “I would like to see bag makers put our country back on the map as the premier exporter of handmade goods.”

 

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