Mention the name Mai Mai Cojuangco and you picture a girl who lives a perfumed existence.
Definitely one of the most beautiful Filipino women of our time, Mai was hailed as an “it” girl when the term was not yet abused. She has the pretty genes (from her glam mom, Tingting), pedigree (her dad, Peping, comes from powerful political royalty, the Cojuangco clan of Tarlac) and brains (she’d rather be called a creative; a modellista in the Italian sense, not a model). Then today, she has a purposeful occupation as bag maker combining the best of what Italians’ centuries-old expertise and the Philippines’ rich culture have to offer. But more on that later.
The truth is, Mai’s life has had its share of tears.
“My life, the past years, has been composed of phases with endings, beginnings, and resets,” Mai explains. “Case in point, I had long COVID for about four months. I also had chronic fatigue, brain fog, and had to go through a series of health tests, as my blood values had changed. I used to take my health for granted, but when you’re unwell, there are really very few things you can do.”
Then there was her “tortuous divorce,” as she calls it. “My nature is to get up, every single freaking time, even while still down. My mistakes have definitely made me a sharper, better person.”
Mai says, “I will never stop working. I am a deeply ambitious and driven person… Yes, I work hard. I will always be a work in progress.”
Her top two main concerns right now are her daughter, Demi, and the bag line named after her, Demetria, which is actually also Mai’s middle name.
Mai has actually been coming and going between the Philippines and Italy for the past two decades.
“Yes, seven years ago, I began a tech startup and worked on that until the pandemic hit. That’s when I decided to focus on my Demetria handbag collection, which I had conceptualized three years earlier.”
She explained that it took some time, between the process of finding the studio to make a small quantity of bags, and having the paper patterns, leather, and metal accessories to make that first prototype.
“Coinciding with all that, of course, was raising my daughter Demi as the first priority. Eventually my tortuous divorce went through in 2018, and thereafter, I spent a great amount of time looking for my own place. I finally found my apartment last year, and things are finally settling down.”
I wanted to learn the craft 360° — from conceptualization, design, and the realization of the product — and was determined to have that edge, and know not just design, but also the mechanics and structure of handbags and their materials.
Mai is still based in Florence, Italy, and flies home here to Manila as frequently as possible.
Years of exposure to Italian arts and crafts may have inspired her to create her own bags, but even during her younger years, she already had the eye for it.
“In general, fashion was fun for me even while growing up, especially seeing my mother and all her girly and glittery things. You know how some people are born liking certain things already at an early age? Inasmuch as I would have preferred to be better with numbers, as a child I painted and drew instead, and was always a creative.”
Mai finished college here as a psychology major, but when she left Manila more than 20 years ago, she had decided to study and explore fashion. “So I enrolled myself in Florence (Polimoda)for a two-year course in 2000.”
At some point it became obvious to her that she wanted to specialize in handbag making. “I wanted to learn the craft 360° — from conceptualization, design, and the realization of the product — and was determined to have that edge, and know not just design, but also the mechanics and structure of handbags and their materials.”
She attended an intense handbag and leather course in a town called Scandicci for a year, which still today, “I consider the best educational experience I have ever had.”
She then worked as a “modellista” (as Italians call it) for a few years, where she continued learning. “I saw how my more experienced colleagues did things and how they worked with their hands.”
Mai explains: “I work with Italian artisans and there is a history in everything they know and do when it comes to handbag making, whether it’s about the feel of the material, or the math in the pattern making. Short of saying, these talents, whether from Italy or France, weren’t developed nor born in a day.
“It’s an industry that has been ingrained in their culture that began hundreds of years ago. I have never worked with the French in this sector, but I do know that they are as equally talented as the Italians. I had worked with freelance modellistas, who did things for Chanel and the like, and in the end it is a very tightly knit group of people.
“Frankly speaking, the French are amazingly talented when it comes to marketing their brands and products, and this is no small feat.”
A visit to an art fair changed her direction as a bag maker.
“As you know, I don’t live here, but at one point I managed to catch the ArteFino fair years ago. It was there I first saw Filip + Inna (of Len Cabili) and the brand immediately caught my eye. It turned out that my eldest sister Liaa was already a client and a fan.
“At that time I had already had my trunk shows with Idee in Manila, and I reached out to Len. During that conversation we had decided that we would do something together — a collaboration — and so she took me to Lake Sebu so I might see the women that weave and sew her designs. We finally made the trip in August 2018, and it was a truly magical experience.
“Len and I are extremely busy women, so we went on our ‘usual’ design paths, until about late 2019 when we said we were ready to embark on this ambitious project.
“I was to source the materials, finalize the designs, and create the colorways and color cards, while she would handle the entire part where the T’Boli, Tausug, and Mangyan women were involved. The entire collection took more than two years to complete, between the redesign of the bags, metal accessories, die cuts, and during this time, we were also waiting for the Filipino artisans to complete their embroidery designs in Mindanao. We managed to make this happen during the pandemic!”
The leathers and woven fabrics were ordered from Florence, where they were first cut in Italy. Each piece had a pattern so that embroiderers knew the space on which they could sew their designs.
Thereafter, the pieces, numbered in the hundreds, were flown to Mindanao, where each piece was painstakingly embroidered.
“Len had procured the threads, and had recommended that each artisan create her own design, expressing her own creativity. So the result of this was, in one word, ART. No piece repeats, and each one is different from the other.
“We only made 50 pieces for this collection, and have 22 here. Some have already been sold, and another portion is with our new partner who is based in Venice, London and Paris.
“I am very proud of this collection, as I know that it truly epitomizes one of the best parts from both worlds: the craftsmanship of women artisans from Italy and the Philippines.”
Not surprisingly, her daughter Demi (short for Demetria) has absorbed all the creative vibes growing up.
“Demi is a very naturally creative person, and so with school I tend to balance that off with more math and science. She’s 13 now, and loves music, fashion, and dance. We are very close — she is my life, after all. I am truly fortunate that she confides in me and that we have a very honest and loving relationship. In addition, she is absolutely protective of me.”
Mai says that Demi’s father, Andrea, loves Demi the way a father truly loves his daughter.
“They have found their own dynamic — his partner watches over their two younger children while Demi and Andrea do the rougher sports and activities together when she’s with him, as they are both highly energetic and outgoing.”
On the road to bag making, Mai has crafted a lot of lessons learned on life, love and loss.
“First, you can never really know yourself unless you go through fire and water, as they say.
“My advice, in one word, pertaining to everything: fearlessness.
“I experienced deep loss years back, and from then on I told myself that no matter how difficult some things can be, it’s even harder and worse to regret the things you didn’t do, when the opportunity has long gone and passed.
“I do see myself in a loving and healthy relationship one day. I always told friends that infatuation and falling in love can be easy enough, but it’s growing up together in parallel that is the real challenge.
“I’ve discovered my coping mechanisms during the worst times — music, meditation, exercise, and mentorship from those closest to you.
“Lastly, as the very few, closest people to me say: Be kind to yourself.”
Her bag is full.
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The Demetria bags by Mai Mai Cojuangco, in collaboration with Len Cabili of Filip+Inna, will be on exhibit on Aug. 12 and 13 from 2 to 6 p.m. at Silverlens Gallery, Pasong Tamo Extension, Makati.