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‘It is definitely a highlight of my career’: Isabel Santos on being the first Filipina to win a Uniqlo competition

By Camille Santiago Published Mar 01, 2021 10:56 pm Updated Mar 02, 2021 6:53 am

Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix T-shirt design contest is always a competition like no other—especially since this year’s prize is a whopping P1.5 milion, the largest purse yet, and the shirts will be displayed at the Museum Store in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. But this year, it also took place at a moment like no other.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, Uniqlo still made sure to give the spotlight to talented artists around the world through their annual T-shirt design contest. For their 2020 edition, the Japanese fashion retailer has teamed up with MoMA with the theme “Draw Your World.” And after carefully screening over 10,000 entries, they have chosen Filipina artist Isabel Santos to be the grand winner.

“I am so happy and honored that they chose me and my design. I still can’t believe it,” Santos said.

Santos’ approach to her art is very personal, to say the least. Coming from a family of artists (her parents are Soler and Mona Santos, and her grandfather is the late Malang Santos), art for her “is always an extension of her person, even if the result is not always obvious or cloyingly sentimental.”

Santos' winning entry, “A Fortune in Jewels Kept in Your Safe,” features vintage cutouts of gorgeous old Hollywood women’s hairstyles in the front and faces of women with different emotions at the back.

“My approach philosophically was deconstruction and fragmentation. I took elements and shapes from images and combined them into a single picture. This is both bewilderingly chaotic and familiar. I like that feeling,” the artist said.

In an interview, PhilSTAR L!fe was able to chat with Santos to get to know a little bit more about her work.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Isabel Santos (@somethingstarwars)

Do you participate in art contests or submit your work often? Why did you choose to join the Uniqlo UT Grand Prix competition?

I don’t join contests very often. I apply to residencies more. At the time of the contest, I was applying (and being rejected) to some residencies. When someone posted the contest on Facebook, I thought, why not? Other themes of the UT GP contests didn’t relate to my works, so this was a perfect time to join because the partnership with MOMA and the theme “Draw Your World” opened up what can be submitted. 

Working with two big names such as Uniqlo and MoMa is a big thing. What was the overall experience like?

Since the pandemic hit, I can’t tell the full experience because every interaction was by email or digital but it was definitely a highlight of my career. 

What was your initial idea behind “A Fortune in Jewels Kept in Your Safe”?

I’m not the best at explaining, so here is a part of my writeup in the show:

Santos frames what she sees through her own perspective, creating worlds that are at once recognizable and unfamiliar. An array of styled hair arranged in a neat grid is a little alien, but ultimately still translates as hair. The women’s faces divorced from their hair still translate as women’s faces, without much prompting.

In "Only What I Want to See," there is an emphasis on a taking away of the inessential, a separation of parts to bring focus to what Santos wants to see. The result is her attempt at communicating her own version of what she takes in. For Santos, art is always an extension of her person, even if the result is not always obvious or cloyingly sentimental. Through these collected images, her playful rearrangements become ways of communicating what she wants to say, a way of delivering her vision to others.

The process you described—deconstruction and fragmentation—is fascinating. How did you develop this process?

The first comics I dismantled was from a collection of DC comics I got from Strand bookstore in New York. I was making collages and then the “throw away” parts or the leftover pieces from the pages of the book interested me. I would put them together, one top works or side by side. These are not limited to comic books. 

What visual references do you draw upon in your work?

I don’t have any references with this particular work. But one of the judges of the contest, Lawrence Weiner, is one of my all-time favorite artists. 

How would you react to meeting someone wearing a shirt with your design?

I haven’t seen anyone wearing the shirt except my brother and some excited aunties but I’ve seen so much support from friends and family. They tag me in the stores and the online Uniqlo websites from all over the world. I can’t believe it to be honest. I’ve been to the Uniqlo flagship in NY a few times and to think I have something designed there is truly unbelievable.

Photos from Uniqlo and Isabel Santos' Instagram (@somethingstarwars). Special thanks to Uniqlo and Bridges PR.