Selling face masks and supporting an Indigenous tribe—here’s how a fresh grad is doing it

How can we be sure that weavers are compensated properly and their culture isn’t being appropriated?

Many have taken an interest in supporting local crafts especially since the lockdown canceled trade fairs and restricted tourism which were significant platforms for the handweavers. Now that washable cloth masks are highly encouraged as surgical masks and N95 respirators should be reserved for frontliners, creating handwoven cloth masks has become a reliable source of income for Indigenous people such as the Itneg community in Abra.

We reached out to Ysabelle Sarayba, a fresh graduate and the chief operating officer (COO) of Abra Indigo Manila, and found out that Abra Indigo Manila is a slow fashion brand promoting traditional clothes handwoven by the Itneg community in Abra. Ysabelle’s business is not the only company supporting local crafts by Indigenous people and with it’s growing popularity, how can we be sure that weavers are compensated properly and their culture isn’t being appropriated?

By directly working with the Itneg community, Ysabelle took the responsibility of learning as much as she can about their culture to make sure that her business would not do more harm than good. Ysabelle made sure to follow a set of guidelines from the community and regularly communicated with them herself to properly promote their crafts.

“I follow guidelines and ask if this thing is possible from the Itneg couple I’m working with. For instance, they are not allowed to conduct workshops on how to create Itneg embroideries. Kaya I decline workshop offers since Itneg embroideries should be learned by the Itnegs only. Also, I need to learn about their fabrics kasi baka mamaya death cloth na pala yung binebenta ko,” she said. 

“For the Itnegs, wala naman silang pinagbabawal [na suotin], but their symbols have meanings such as the crown symbol. The crown symbol sa kanila are only worn by scions. Yung workshops lang talaga sa pagturo ng embroidery yung bawal since nawawala raw yung sense ng meanings of the embroideries,” she added.

Despite the tribe allowing people to wear their crafts, one way to show respect to the weaves you’re wearing is to learn the culture and the community behind its production. Since handweaving is a meaningful part of the Itneg tribe’s culture, Ysabelle hopes that being transparent on social media would hopefully make buyers more conscious and respectful of the weaves that they’re buying.

“Abra Indigo Manila is transparent. We are never ashamed of what people will see or say about it as it is the tribe’s daily routine. Also, our prices are more affordable than other brands. The reason why people do not tend to buy locally made products is because of its price. How can we promote Indigenous products to everyone if they cannot afford it? We just don’t want people to have a piece of Abra Indigo, but we want them to have more of it,” she said.

Hi Ysabelle! Could you introduce Abra Indigo Manila to our readers?

Abra Indigo Manila was just established this February 2020 with a mission to promote Indigenous crafts, specifically Itneg crafts, online and for our Indigenous people to continue their craft. Soon, we will be catering to Ilocano and Cordilleran crafts too. What differentiates us from other brands is we personally connect our clients to the Itneg Tribes through showcasing the authentic day-to-day life of the Itnegs creating these masterpieces on our Facebook page

Being a fresh graduate, what is it like handling such a big role with this brand?

I know it [sounds like] a cliché, but it is a tough challenge and working alone is hell. I started Abra Indigo Manila alone. It was a one-woman business. I handled sales, customer service, documentation, purchasing, marketing, and even advertising all by myself with a little help from my boyfriend and brother. I am grateful for my brother, Nikko, for helping me with accounting since I’m pretty bad at math. However, the downside of being a one-woman business is the human error I was causing especially during the time the demand hugely increased when I released Itneg face masks. 

In June, I was blessed to have an opportunity to have a business partner named Tita Cherry who happens to be a mother of my classmate, Jershon. Jershon and Tita Cherry, along with our team are now working together to maximize Abra Indigo Manila’s fullest potential in the field of social enterprise and promoting Indigenous crafts. With their help and teamwork, I can vividly see the great success of Abra Indigo Manila in the future.

How did you start Abra Indigo Manila? What made you decide to commit to the brand?

It was during February when I personally met an Itneg couple selling their crafts at a mall. I was selling my handmade earrings as well and since our booths were beside each other, I had a chance to personally talk to them. I started selling their crafts by first purchasing worth 20,000 pesos of Itneg ponchos. It was the greatest risk I took in business especially since the 20,000 pesos was just loaned. Each day I’d wake up thinking how will I be able to sell these expensive ponchos and how will I pay my 20,000 pesos loan as someone who has no sharp business acumen yet. On the bright side, my boyfriend was the only person who believed in me despite the uncertainty. 

As Lady Gaga said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you, but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life”. Two months later, Abra Indigo Manila reached 10,000 likes on Facebook, and that was the start of Abra Indigo Manila’s success.

As advocates of slow fashion, could you describe the work process of the brand? 

Slow fashion with the Indigenous tribe is pretty new to some people. It is not just the usual couture to make gowns and dresses by famous designers. For people to be able to order customized Itneg clothing, it would take them a maximum of two months now of waiting due to the high demand. But before, it only took two to three weeks to make. 

We first start with the weavers. Weaving doesn’t happen overnight as it takes days and weeks to make handwoven fabric. Fortunate if we have readily available fabric. But if not, we have to wait for weavers to hand-weave the fabrics. It is the weavers that provide us the fabrics, Itneg seamstresses stitch it to a particular style, and lastly, the Itneg embroiderers hand embroider the clothing.

Working closely with the Itneg Tribes, how did this business help them especially during the pandemic?

Abra Indigo Manila’s achievement in this pandemic for the Itneg Tribes is that it was able to achieve roughly 400,000 pesos in sales in just two months. Our sales went even higher when we released handwoven face masks. Before Abra Indigo Manila, Itnegs would post and ask for help online to buy their products. When Abra Indigo Manila was established, the Itnegs had a good source of income to help them during the pandemic.

What were the struggles in promoting local products and encouraging locals of the Itneg community in Abra to show their talents in weaving the masks and other clothes?

Our main concern was the uniform creation of the masks. Since it’s a whole barangay creating masks, the masks had variations. We also had trouble selling the masks each as each mask is a unique creation. No repeating designs so it was a common problem to have mishaps on customer orders since even we get confused with the customers’ chosen designs. Human error was inevitable in this part. For the clothes, the problem we always encounter is the uneven replication of a certain style. Itnegs rarely repeat designs, but when they do, there is always a variation.

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@ichibelle wearing Paraluman Restocking soon!

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What advice can you give to young entrepreneurs who also want to promote local products and culture?

Start with good branding. This was my not-so-secret secret. Also, you have to connect other people to the Indigenous people in your own creative way using your brand. Give the Indigenous people the appropriate percentage they deserve. 40 percent of sales isn’t enough for them. Give them at least 60 percent of your sale. It’s natural that they will get more than you, after all, your goal was to help them promote and preserve their crafts.

Lastly, how can we get our hands on your products and how else can we help this cooperative?

For now, you may order through our Facebook and Instagram. Very soon, we will have our own website to streamline our services and to cater to more people better.