Wearable art gets on retail freeway

Walk into a Freeway today and you can walk out with an Imao. If you're lucky, you might be able to catch the last of the Bencabs, too.

And even if you have no idea who Imao and Bencab are, you'll still end up with a couple of very chic fashion buys with their signatures, the likes of which you'll never find in another shop.

Every now and then, a breakthrough act advances an art. In the local ready-to-wear business, Freeway has evidence of that in their careful and conscientious fusion of art and fashion.

The brand's followers have even coined a word for what it is doing: Fashionalism.

Abdulmari Imao and Ben Cabrera are National Artists for Sculpture and the Visual Arts, respectively. Their works are among the treasures that have been reproduced by Freeway on shift dresses, loose tops, shirts, maxis, jumpsuits, jackets, shawls and scarves as well as on tote bags, watches and makeup kits.

 Art appreciation

In this country where art appreciation is hardly common, the series contributes to the popularization of the works by artists of great consequence.

As one Freeway fan puts it, "If I can't own a Manansala, at least I can wear one."

Sheree Roxas-Chua Gotuaco said the idea to use fashion as an alternative canvas for the works of National Artists became a reality when the technology improved to a point where her suppliers could faithfully print art on a variety of textiles.

Gotuaco is CEO of Omni Moda, the umbrella company that owns three fashion retail chains, including Freeway.

"We made a sample product using our own graphic design, showed it to the Ang Kiukok family and the Joaquin family, and they said yes," Gotuaco said.

The immortal words of Nick Joaquin, National Artist for Literature, were the first to grace Freeway's National Artists Collectors Series.

The year was 2009 and only seven designs with quotes from Joaquin's writings were included in the pocket collection.

That cautious beginning was followed in the same year by an exuberant holiday line that paid tribute to Ang Kiukok, National Artist for Visual Arts.

"For the Collectors Series, we decided to use the Freeway brand because it had more visibil    ity than Ensemble and Solo, our other brands. Freeway had more branches. Also, its product line was wider," Gotuaco said.

Freeway makes it look easy, but putting together a National Artist collection, while exciting, entails a demanding process.

First, Gotuaco has to talk to the artist if he (so far no female artist has been featured) is a living artist like Bienvenido Lumbera (National Artist for Literature) or Bencab, or meet with the artist's family or heirs, if the artist has passed on.

She has had no problems in this area so far.

"It may be because they have seen how we executed the clothes and accessories for the earlier artists in the series," Gotuaco said, "I think they liked what they saw. They trusted us to do what we needed to do in order to put out a collection."

Visual artists

Once permission has been granted by the artist or the family, the parties select the art pieces, as in the cases of the visual artists Ang Kiukok, Vicente Manansala, Botong Francisco, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, Bencab and Imao; or the phrases that could be excerpted, as in the cases of literary icons Joaquin, Villa, F. Sionil Jose and Lumbera; or the lyrics, as in the cases of National Artists for music Levi Celerio and Lucio San Pedro. The Ramon Valera line was a walk in the park because, well, he was National Artist for Fashion.

"We tend to do well with visual artists," Gotuaco said. "The paintings and sculptures are right there."

With the National Artists for Literature and Music, the work was harder because Freeway's own designers had to create vintage or upbeat abstractions to overcome the visual weakness of written lines of poems or lyrics.

The more material available from the artist, the better, according to Gotuaco.

Once the designers, graphic artists and merchandisers in the Freeway team have the artist's works, they then match the material with the fabric, the printing and the fashion silhouette.

Sublimation printing

Gotuaco said they often use sublimation printing, which relies on heat transfer, because the process allows the fabric to absorb more color. If the cloth has a high cotton content, they use screen printing.

In the beginning, a portion of the National Artist collection had to be made abroad, Gotuaco said. But once their suppliers here had upgraded their technology and equipment, they started to job out production to local vendors.

"People warned us that others would copy what we were doing," Gotuaco said.

But so far, there has only been one such instance.

The culprits were under a Chinese company with no inkling that the design they stole was the work of a venerable Filipino artist.

She sent the offenders a tough demand letter written in Mandarin, and the copies were promptly taken out of the market.

Gotuaco's instinct for the right material and her knack for choosing the range of goods that Freeway could produce for each series are no accident.

After all, she majored in fashion design and studied business at the University of Southern California.

"Every year, we try to integrate something different that is suitable to the artwork," Gotuaco said.

Wide collection

For the Luna line, Freeway came out with iPhone and iPad cases. The Bencab collection added matching passport covers and luggage tags. For the current Imao collection, the new accessories are fans.

Where it used to honor two National Artists every year, launching one mid-year and the second one in time for the Christmas season, Freeway would now focus on one artist, having seen that the formula worked with the huge Bencab collection it put out last year to help mark the artist's 50-year retrospective.

So this year, Freeway launched the Imao line in June in partnership with Zalora, which also sells  the collection online. The selling period will stretch to the holidays, with two to four new design arrivals at the stores every week.

"It's been fun," said Gotuaco, who launched all 14 National Artist Series collections via cultural celebrations with museums, heritage school, painting classes and the like as venues. "Meeting our great artists and their families is always the nice part," she said.

The Imao collection is available at Freeway stores nationwide. Shop online at www.freewayonline.com.ph, visit www.facebook.com/Freeway Online or follow on Twitter and Instagram @FreewayOnline.

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