Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

Rhuigi Villaseñor: A pinoy immigrant’s dreams of luxury

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 09, 2022 5:00 am

The appointment of Rhuigi Villaseñor as Bally’s creative director was big news not just in the fashion industry but also in Philippine communities all over the world. It has been five years since the position was vacated at the 171-year-old Swiss house, so all eyes were on the Filipino-American founder of Rhude, a thriving, LA-based brand. It was the designer’s “natural creativity and energetic spirit,” according to Bally CEO Nicolas Girotto, that got him the job. As expected, there were conservative quarters wondering why the luxury heritage brand is hiring a “streetwear” designer, betraying a condescending attitude that equates “streetwear” with “nonwhite.”

This is nothing new for Rhuigi, who grew up feeling like an outsider. At age 11, his family moved from Manila to Los Angeles, where they stayed in a one-bedroom apartment. He had to learn the language and everything else. “The first day of school, I wore Skechers and a Spalding vest. That’s how far I was from Western culture. The kids made fun of me,” he related in a Forbes interview. But he persevered and arrived one day wearing Air Jordans. “I looked at it like a game. And I play to win. For me to be one of the cool guys, I needed to understand what the style language was.”

From listening to Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, which his parents played, he got into Tupac, which his peers liked. But he also maintained his mom’s predilection for Cary Grant as one of his cultural references. “I never departed from what I loved. I just needed to understand what other people loved.”

Rhude’s bandana plimsolls

Although he graduated at the top of his class in 2010, he still never fully belonged: “While every kid was deciding whether they want to go to Harvard, I’m thinking that my parents don’t have the financial capabilities.” Not to mention that they were undocumented TNTs. But he really wanted to do fashion, so he took pattern-making classes with his mom, who was a tailor, guiding him.

Later, an internship with the Cal-Brit designer Shaun Samson taught him how to manage his own brand. To support himself, Rhuigi used his entrepreneurial skills, reselling signature finds from Goodwill. Meanwhile, thanks to his MySpace pals Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky and Shayne Oliver, he was part of a cult group of rebels that were one of the first to realize that hip-hop and high fashion were converging on the internet.

Inspired by emerging designers who strike out on their own, he decided in 2012 to do the same, starting with a T-shirt that had a blown-up paisley bandana print. He built a website with photos he took himself and with him as the model. Impatient with sales, he bought the first shirt and waited for others to follow suit. None came but what transpired was even better: The stylist of Kendrick Lamar called him to order the tee, which the Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper wore to the BET Awards. This was the turning point for his business, virtually launching his brand Rhude (a tribute to his grandfather who wanted all their names to start with “Rh”).

Rhuigi with good friend Jay-Z

All of a sudden, he had $100,000 in his bank account. “I remember at that time we were driving a beat-up Ford Runner. I cried to my sister in the car. That changed everything,” he recalls. The exposure on national television generated overwhelming interest in Rhude, with George Robertson, a major music agent, becoming a business partner and a crucial connection to the music industry — getting clients like Jay-Z and Beyonce, Justin and Hailey Beiber, The Weeknd and Bella Hadid.

The Weeknd and Bella Hadid wearing Rhude 

Kinship with the likes of the late Virgil Abloh of Louis Vuitton further enhanced Rhude’s status, raising it from the underground to the mainstream, resulting in collaborations with top brands like Puma. Inasmuch as Rhude reflected the subculture of LA, it also had Filipino references, such as the prevalence of the yellow motif from the Philippine flag in his designs.

Rhuigi’s unique point of view expanded the brand further, leading to his first fashion show in Paris for SS2020. Even the pandemic didn’t stop Rhude’s ascent, with the company growing three times larger and hosting an in-person show with champagne and the works at a Beverly Hills manor last year — the icing on the cake of a $30 million business.

Women’s ensemble and Jacq bag from Rhude

He always knew what he liked and always aimed high. His first big check funded a vintage Mercedes that led to many others like the McLaren he now drives. He also started collecting vintage watches, including the first gold Rolex he bought for his father. Assembling furniture with an uncle made him appreciate good design. It’s the classic American dream that he has lived and reworked in a brand that rappers and NBA stars can’t get enough of and their fans would aspire for.

Looks from Rhude FW22

“I grew up having interest in all things that were luxurious because I’m coming from the perspective of an immigrant,” he said in a GQ article. “I may not be from America, but I can reinterpret what American luxury is.”

His pieces are all done with an obsessive attention to detail. Trips to Italy make sure that his bags, like the Jacq bag, which is a tribute to the Birkin, which he collects, are made of the finest materials and craftsmanship.

Rhude dinnerware collab with Corelle

Another reason for his success is that he is always engaged with his customers — talking to them, teaching them and guiding them through the pieces that he designs. For his FW22 “Bull Market” collection, he was thinking about young investors like his fans, who are slowly becoming more aware of their finances. For a new breed of techno-art investors, he offers classically cut suits that emphasize comfort, as well as highbrow sweats, tracksuits and leather Formula-1 inspired kits. “Comfort and mobility is the key to the new way of working,” he told Vogue.

Rhude collab with Chicago Cutlery

If his show in Beverly Hills was a tad too extravagant for pandemic times, it’s because he’s an incurable optimist who wants to keep reminding us of having a forward-thinking vision of the good life. “I think we’re forgetting the American dream. It’s my duty to re-usher that Rat Pack era, and all things that make America so luxurious,” he said backstage.

It’s a dream he only knows too well — a realization that struck him during a recent trip back to the Philippines after 18 years, seeing his humble roots and how he had come a long way, thanks to his parents, “Rhod and Teresita who saved everything and flew my sister and I for a fighting chance,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “I’m coming home tomorrow to gift my people the goods I designed. More so I want to show that a kid who grew up with the least of things but a family that prayed and stood together can achieve anything. Anything!”