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#LifeLokal: Jewelry designer Farah Abu shares her stories of passion and hard work

By Camille Santiago Published Feb 04, 2022 5:02 pm Updated May 16, 2022 6:59 pm

Farah Abu's accessories aren't for the minimalists. For her, the bigger and bolder the piece is, the better.

The Iligan-born jewelry designer combines her innate skill with hard work and perseverance to create statement earrings, and she credits her childhood for it.

Despite her parents’ wishes, Farah already knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur at an early age. But because of her stubbornness, which she says can be a good and a bad thing, it drove her to go for what she always wanted: “to make things beautiful and make beautiful things.”

“The environment that I had around me was all about being an entrepreneur. I think at one point I remember my parents were selling earrings for a sideline business. As early as grade three, I learned how to sell on my own—nobody taught me,” she told PhilSTAR L!fe

“I would ask my parents to buy me a pack of stickers and then I would cut them and sell them to my classmates. In high school, would study how bracelets are made and sell them for P10 each. And then my Lolo and Lola would give me a bag of stickers that you put on your ears,” she said.

But the architecture-graduate has gone from selling accessories from the back of her trunk to catering to clients all over the globe, all thanks to her attention to detail and quality materials.

Her look-at-me pieces have been worn by influential women like Catriona Gray, Miss Universe Philippines 2021 Beatrice Luigi Gomez, and American R&B singer Ashanti. Not to mention, her earrings, along with many other local designers' works, were also recently featured in The Broken Marriage Vow, the Philippine adaptation of BBC’s Doctor Foster and South Korea’s The World of The Married.

In an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, Farah shares more about her humble beginnings, the challenges she faced, and how her Filipino upbringing influenced her designs.

The designer

PhilSTAR L!fe: When did you first know you wanted to be an entrepreneur and what was the point that really made you go for it?

Farah Abu: I had a classmate in college who got pregnant and asked me what she can do for extra income. At that time, fashion accessories were already becoming popular. And so, I told her, “You know, why don’t you make fashion accessories?” And then she did, and they looked so nice.

My forte in architecture was modelmaking. I'm good with my hands. I'm good with arts and crafts. When I saw the accessories, I said: “Oh my God, they seem so nice. I'm so jealous.”

So I tried it myself. I made six pairs of bracelets and sold it for 250 pesos each. And during sembreak, I’d go back to Iligan for vacation. I would leave the accessories at the mini mart in our gas station. And then, boom sold out, all by myself.

In 2006, I put up a shop in Iligan, where I sold my accessories and clothes from Bangkok. But after two years, I lost everything— lost my friends, lost my money, lost my shop, lost everything.

It's really embarrassing, you know? And it's really tough when you lose everything that you worked for.

Months later, I told myself, with the very little money I had, maybe it's time for me to go back to fashion accessory design and concentrate on it.

So I did. I booked two bazaars and they went extremely well. It was a really good sign from God that this is for me. I need to go back to Manila.

Tell us about that time when you were just starting.

The real challenge there was when I went back to Manila. Being a girl from Mindanao, I don't know anyone. I don’t have any connections.

There was only one bazaar that time that happens once a month and you needed connections to get in. That was my only source of income. There were times I earned and there were times I earned nothing.

I would make the accessories every day and then I would sell it. I would carry the boxes, set up, and drive. Sometimes I would bring my earrings with me in my trunk, and after dinner, I’d show my friends my stuff and sell it to them. Or I would be with a friend at a coffee shop and then people would pass by and buy. Other times I would go to my cousin’s office and sell it to her officemates. May times they would ignore you. It takes a lot of guts to be noticed.

I lost everything— lost my friends, lost my money, lost my shop, lost everything. It's really embarrassing, you know? And it's really tough when you lose everything that you worked for.

How does your Filipino heritage/culture influence your brand values and identity?

A lot of who I am now and what my design influences are was greatly influenced by my childhood memories. My dad is from Jolo, Sulu and the reason why my designs are intricate is that I saw what Muslim jewelry looks like. And it's still in my memories. When I was really young, my mom showed me golden buttons that she got from my Muslim auntie. It was so cool. And I really loved it.

As seen on Jodi Sta. Maria on The Broken Vow Marriage 

I've also always been fascinated with pearls. Me and my sisters would always look at our mom's stash and my staple to school was pearl earrings. Those may be just little dots on your face, but you can spot them from a mile away.

This is why we make things that are bold, eye catching, head-turners. Because for me, a good accessory has to be visible from a mile away. Even though the person is far away, you can already tell she's wearing good accessories and already make heads turn.

There are so many competitive brands within the world of fashion right now, how do you make your brand stand out from the rest?

It's the experience.

My design principle is that each new collection has to be better than the last. And because of that, over the years, it evolved into something more and more and more difficult to make—more intricate, more made with love. And with that also the materials we also upgraded each time.

Since 2017, Farah Abu became a premium brand. The reason why we shifted from premium was because there was one comment that said: “Ay yung Farah Abu, nakakakati 'yun ng ears.” I realized then, of course, my brand is my name and I spent more than a decade building it. And I realized there was just so much at stake. Because you know what? I'm not going to compromise anymore just so I can give a cheap price. I have to do whatever it takes to give the best.

I know there's a big shift in the pricing, but at least it's what can make me sleep at night knowing that I gave a good product. I want to give a product that I know in how many years will still be okay.

Assorted Farah Abu earrings

I know there's a big shift in the pricing, but at least it's what can make me sleep at night knowing that I gave a good product. I want to give a product that I know in how many years will still be okay.

Aside from that, also, I would say we have really good customer service. Just because I sold the product, it doesn't mean it's bye bye, that's it. You're not gonna see me anymore. No.

You know what I do at night sometimes? I read my previous messages my clients just to see if I missed anything, or sometimes I look at their photos to see if something is not worn correctly, or if somethings breaks, they will message me and fix it.

So, it can't just be just about the accessory. It can't just be about the product. It has to be everything in it—how you treat your customers, and also how you treat your people. I really care about my people and my dream is for them to reach their dreams as well.

From your own experience, how is social media leading the way in spreading the message on promoting local?

I have to say social media really helps. Knowing your hashtags, it really matters—copywriting, knowing what to say. And then of course, you have to be the face of your brand. You have to tell your story.

With social media, it's not just about good products and then that’s it. The story behind it matters a lot. I'm really having fun sharing things about myself that led me to design this piece.

Catriona Gray wearing Farah Abu earrings

How do you want your clients to feel when they're wearing your products?

I want them to feel like they can conquer the world. I want them to feel fearless. And, you know, unafraid to be who they want to be without worrying about what other people think. So that's what Farah Abu is.

Farah Abu is a brand for anyone who wants to be bold and to be whoever they want to be—unafraid of being judged.

Farah Abu is a brand for anyone who wants to be bold and to be whoever they want to be—unafraid of being judged.