From farm to fashion: How sustainable designer Chona Bacaoco overcame bullying early in her career

MM Milano’s models travel around the world to showcase the company’s sustainable designs. | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Milan-based designer Chona Bacaoco turned emotional after a successful fashion show at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in New York City’s Lower East Side last week in celebration of New York Fashion Week.

While it is her third time to showcase her designs in the Big Apple, Bacaoco recalled how she was bullied early on in her career and how she used the experience to motivate herself instead and work hard every single day.

“This is like a dream come true for me,” she said. “After being bullied in the industry, they said I’m not qualified to be a designer, and now we’re traveling the world, our family has grown. We just did New York Fashion Week, Dubai Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week!”

Chona Bacaoco describes this yellow number as her “mango dress” in honor of her hometown, Guimaras. | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Some of her colleagues in the industry belittled her because she didn’t study fashion design. Little did they know, Bacaoco grew up with a mother who was a trusted dressmaker in their hometown of Guimaras. Determined to reach for her dreams, Bacaoco planned and designed her life’s trajectory at a very young age.

“I think it’s all about my personal mission, the sincerity of believing in yourself, even though the rest of the world might not believe kung ano ang makakaya mo but I think I’m the number one fan of myself. So, making it to New York, making it to Paris Fashion Week, working with Michael Cinco… he has really been my mentor. He’s my number one support while the rest are not believing in me, he was the one telling me ‘Kaya mo yan’ and I look up to him and he supports me that’s I am thankful,” she said.

A loud and proud Ilongga, Bacaoco incorporates the local hablon fabric into the gowns they create. Hablon is the traditional fabric from Iloilo made from pineapple and abaca fibers and they combine them with organic fabrics from Italy and Germany. She works with small weavers from Antique as well, providing them with livelihood projects.

“It’s not easy to be a sustainable designer because your sources are limited, but if you want to do it, you can really make everything possible,” she quipped. “We’re happy that we are helping our community over there in the Philippines.”

An emerging sustainable brand from Milan, Italy & Frankfurt, Germany, MM Milano is a firm believer in inclusion.

“It’s one of our core values,” Bacaoco remarked.

She also acknowledged 83-year-old Frank Lam for showing the world that he could rock the runway. | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Which is why one of the emotional moments that made a mark in their show earlier was when Frank Lam, an 83-year-old grandfather walked the runway and modeled MM Milano’s suits.

Bacaoco said seeing Lam walk the runway amid the cheers and applause from the audience was a very emotional moment for her because she had envisioned her father walking in one of her shows someday.

Aside from being her own brand, Bacaoco is also a talent consultant, and they help young talents who want to express their creativity through MM Milano, which she started as a modeling agency in 2016.

The first portion of the fashion show featured their Pluto line, designed by Pluto Ernsberger a 13-year-old talent from Ohio.

“It’s futuristic and galactic, the fabrics are made of organic fabrics from Milan, from Germany. A lot of them are hablon but you don’t see it because we’re using mostly plain,” she shared. “I know that I should be going with a traditional pattern but I tried to make it more modern so it’s wearable because our market is more international.”

Chona Bacaoco and her business partner Andreas Volkmar acknowledge the applause of the audience after they showcased MM Milano’s latest collections in New York. | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Andreas Volkmar, a German music composer, model and finance consultant is Bacaoco’s partner at MM Milano. He is thankful for everything that she has been doing for the agency.

“The partnership with Chona is really amazing. We are so connected, we complement each other so much, she’s just so great,” he said.

Their team had to quarantine for 14 days in Dubai before coming to the United States because of COVID-19 regulations. They ended up doing photoshoots in those two weeks as they finalized the looks of the 24 models who were going to walk in New York.

The New York fashion show almost didn’t happen as the organizers decided to cancel it because of the numerous COVID-19 restrictions. Some of their talents have already booked their flights and hotels in NYC while they were waiting it out in Dubai. Thankfully, another group stepped in at the right time.

Rest is for the weary as right after New York, the team will fly back to Milan to prepare for their show at Palazzo Barozzi. After that is a big show in Paris alongside Michael Cinco.

Looking back, Bacaoco said she is happy with what she has achieved so far but she is not stopping anytime soon.

“I’m so proud of myself,” she said. “I always believed, you should not let anyone tell you what to say. You are the one who designs your future and your life. We are the designer of our life.”

“So, kung in-allow ko lang young mga nang-bu-bully sa akin, na I’m not supposed to be a designer kasi hindi naman ako nag-aral maging designer, I won’t be here right now so I really fought hard. I said to myself that I will not prove myself to them but I will prove it to myself na, we don’t need to have ten diplomas, what is important is kung ano ang gusto nating gawin.”

Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at [email protected].

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