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Gabbie Sarenas blooms where she is planted

By Patti Sunio Published Dec 23, 2022 5:00 am

"Off the Record is Gabbie Sarenas’s breakup letter,” reads the Filipino designer’s pre-show write-up. And it’s one she pens to her 17-year-old self, once bright-eyed and beaming with confidence, an endless wellspring of creative ideas.

It feels very personal, a revelation of her innermost thoughts, the challenges at hand, and how she’s enduring. “It’s mourning the loss of the best version of herself who has gotten her far in this journey,” reads the statement. “She clings to hope that she will eventually regain her former self, but the void keeps getting bigger the more she exhausts what remains of her.”

An ongoing story, we have yet to see where it’ll go. Unveiling “Off the Record” is a bold, brave move, and a scary one, too, but Sarenas’s light, although it wavers, is one that perseveres. “I can’t afford to stop,” she says.

Gabbie Sarenas (left) unveils her most personal collection yet, “Off the Record,” a 12-piece collection of multitasking, modular pieces: belt, bigkis collar, pañuelo bags, anahaw tapis, long-sleeved and vestida tapis, long and short vests.
In full bloom

In high school, Sarenas designed her first attire—her prom dress. She had always wanted to become a designer, but it was only in 2008 that she intentionally pursued it, enrolling herself in fashion school. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be one,” she shares.

In 2016, she launched her eponymous brand, which she fondly calls her “love letter to the Philippines.” Her first collection was Alamat, a retelling of Filipino folklore tales and its main characters, through the delicate details of her clothes. Then there were Pintuho and Pagtánom, 2017 collections that paid tribute to the tedious processes of farming and harvesting, their labor of love.

Veronica was a deeply personal repertoire, an ode to her late grandmother, a soft unraveling of the memories she holds dear, with every fold and frill.

Presented at Finale Art File, Sarenas fastened and layered the pieces on renowned model-photographer Jo Ann Bitagcol (above) and model Song Jin (far right), as it can be worn on its own, or styled together. Ultimately, each piece is open to interpretation.

At the height of the pandemic, Sarenas continued to create while in lockdown. She turned to the home as a sanctuary, crafting pieces for dining and living, as well as delivering a special release of kitchen wear, if you may, in a fun collaboration with a local bakery.

A definitive Gabbie Sarenas creation is the Hindrika Bouquet Apron, a versatile statement piece that’s bloomed with the times, akin to the designer’s relentless spirit, as it continues to be worn and wanted by the stylish set, the modern binibinis and ginoos of today.

“Back then, I could think of a concept right away,” says Sarenas in hindsight. And as it does in the world of fashion, since the world came to know GB seven years ago, everything went by so fast.

There is no rose without a thorn

As a designer and business owner, Sarenas had to keep up with herself and was often preoccupied thinking about what came next. As with most creative endeavors, they say you’re only as good as your last.

“In the last few years, I’ve always released a collection once a year only—and there’s a reason for that,” begins Sarenas. “Because apart from my collections being concept-heavy, my energy needs to be focused. When I release pieces, it’s not just about the clothes. It really starts with the concept-building. I can’t release something ‘for the sake of it,’ I have to think about why I am doing this to begin with.”

“I also learned this year that I’m not a multitasker,” she adds.

Sarenas likens her vision to Cubist paintings: “Sharp-edged, geometric, and abstracted,” as described in her pre-show writeup.

Coincidentally in her seventh year, it can be interpreted, per Chinese belief, as the end of a cycle, the year when a person changes. The pandemic, which had restricted her usual travels and in turn, forced the designer to have conversations with herself, and took her off-track, too.

“I’m trying to learn to be more present and enjoy what’s in front of me,” she shares of her journey so far. “I have to learn to have this relationship with myself, because it’s the relationship I’ll have for the rest of my life… To go with whatever I have right now and what I see, find the good in where I am and make use of it in the best way I can.”

Birthing a collection takes a lot out of a designer, and the 35-year-old Sarenas is one who’s always taken her sweet time with the process. In the fast-paced world of fashion, she considers herself a “slow person.”

She shares the stories that inspired her pieces with a sense of respect, such as in the remembrance of a loved one who has passed, or in the visualization of the sacred rituals of farmers.

Painstaking time, careful hands and a lot of tenderness are necessary in embroidering blooms onto delicate piña, as much as it requires patience and humility to sew together, in pitch-perfect precision, the volumes of ruffles and patches of fabrics that give joy and pomp to Sarenas’s pieces.

And it’s all in the name of creating beauty, fashion, and art—from the heart. “Before, it was like an impressionist painting. Even if it’s blurry, if you squint, you see it… there’s light,” she recalls, illustrating her state of mind in a style that suggests abstract art: “Now, it looks like a Cubist painting. It’s distorted but proportioned. It’s magulo but cohesive. That’s what my brain is like right now, with everything that’s been going on.”

As with her willingness to endure the long and winding process it takes to create every GB piece, Sarenas, at present, is trying her best to sit with the uncomfortable uncertainty she finds herself in, a period we may call a season of growth: a season she never foresaw, a season she initially wanted to get out of immediately. A season she fought so hard against.

“It all started with the realization that I’m not any more the person I was three, four years ago… or the person I hoped I would be,” Sarenas concedes, still in longing.

But as seasons come and go, this, too, will pass.

Pulling out the weeds

Along with acceptance comes the courage to push through, and for Sarenas, it means finally showcasing her most personal collection yet, despite initial reservations. “It’s me putting myself out there,” she says with conviction.

“You know how when people bring out things, they don’t want other people to see the bad parts? Or they’ll say that they’ve grown out of it already,” she says. “But this one is currently happening, it’s what’s happening to me right now.”

“Off the Record” breaks down her letter in 12 parts: belt, bigkis collar, pañuelo bags, anahaw tapis, long-sleeved and vestida tapis, long and short vests.

“I know that in fashion, what matters is the outcome, but we want them to feel like this is what growth looks like,” Sarenas says of the collection. “We want people to see the concept of growth, to understand where I’m coming from, to understand the entire show, to see how we do it and why we are doing it.

Presented at Finale Art File in Makati, surrounded by the artworks mounted on its walls, to a mixed audience of dedicated fashion fans, the GB binibinis and ginoos, and friends from the media, and on a dramatically lit stage accompanied by music that stirred emotions, Sarenas took out one piece after another—draping them onto the model, adjusting how each fit, tying the ribbons, spreading out the collars, buttoning up the closures, and layering on the pieces.

In Sarenas’ words, the collection is decidedly “kulang-kulang.” “If you look into the entire thing, it’s pieces. It’s stuff dismantled from the past and made into something because, in a way, we are still holding onto the past… And it’s still part of the brand—you can add, subtract.”

In other words, in true Sarenas fashion, and as with the essence of Cubist paintings, interpret it as you will, style it as you please.

“When you look into abstract art, it does change every now and then,” Sarenas muses. “And I think that’s me as a person: the artist that changes every now and then.”