Dialogue : Lesley Mobo Talks About Reform

PHILIPPINES | FASHION

Reading time : 7 minutes

Illustrations and Photographs by Lesley Mobo
Words by Caryll Cabuhat

Published on January 16, 2021

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Through LINEAL’s Dialogue series, we invite a talent from the region to discuss and visually interpret an important topic that reflects our society now. We launch this series by speaking to London-based Filipino fashion designer Lesley Mobo about “Reform”, the illustrations he created specially for LINEAL. 

Spending his early years in the Philippines before moving to London to study fashion design, Lesley Mobo had scant knowledge of the creative industry then. With Lesley’s limited access to resources about fashion, art, music, and the like, it’s no surprise how moving to London influenced his perspective about the world and life immensely. 

Lesley’s journey in fashion started when he stumbled upon photographs of the now supermodels Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss wearing dresses by Gianni Versace. News of Gianni’s death at the time was on the front-pages. Enthralled with what he saw, “thinking about the dresses kept me awake!” Lesley declares. The next morning, he ran to a bookstore and flipped through fashion books, hoping to learn more about it. During his initial exploration, he also discovered the works of Giorgio Armani. “I don’t know what it  was that attracted me to their works but I was fascinated by their opposing perspectives on women’s fashion.” He continues, “I must say I found Italian fashion appealing before I discovered British fashion.”

As an island boy, moving to London and studying BA Fashion at Central Saint Martins overwhelmed the designer. “Everyone seemed to have made a name for themselves and were knowledgeable about fashion,” Lesley shares. To further his education, he pursued Masters in Fashion, while working as a designer at Harrods, which changed him significantly as a designer. Collaborations with brands such as Diesel, House of Fraser, Bench; runway shows in Paris and Manila; and magazine features in the international editions of Vogue, Dazed & Confused and Another, among others, followed.

But the events of 2020 brought the designer back to his roots.

Caryll Cabuhat: With what’s going on around the world and in a time when it seems like we have reached a momentary pause, how are you able to maintain your creative drive? 

Lesley Mobo: Having been in lockdown in our province meant peace as it is so quiet even in normal circumstances. Here, people work around the clock whilst there is sunlight and then take refuge in their homes when the sun is gone. People sleep early and wake up at around 5:30 – 6:00 a.m. I think losing one’s sense of time is easy during lockdown, but we discipline ourselves by working out a routine and a working schedule for each day. 

When you live in a village similar to ours, everything about life seems clearer. The serenity and calmness allow you to reflect, and there is an abundance of inspiration to be found everywhere. Each day has a balance between fishing, farming, cooking traditional food and designing/making dresses. It is extraordinary to see everyone in the village returning to old skills in fishing, embroidery, weaving, and farming.

Caryll: Are there any changes in your perspective or sense of identity as a Filipino because of the pandemic?

Lesley: I think everyone must have felt the same. Witnessing the horror of this pandemic and the lockdown in the Philippines changed my perspective in life as a whole and fashion in particular, thus affecting my aesthetics. I think we realised what is more important in life and that it is fundamental to be true to ourselves. 

When I was in lockdown in my mother’s village for most of 2020, it was a strange and worrying time for all of us. We got locked down for months and months, and in the middle of it all, I have known people and friends who died from the virus. In the end, I decided to embrace reality  and convert all the negativity and darkness into something that I think is positive. Being in lockdown brought me back to my roots, and I decided to harness it for my designs. During that period, I created a collection of “Tropical Ternos” made of printed floral cotton. 

I wanted to create something authentic and genuine to me, something happy and colourful. It is like an “escape” from what is happening around us. And I hope it will give people comfort and positivity as a powerful counterpoint to the bleakness of the pandemic. So yes, it has changed me so much. I can say that I found my true self in the process.

Caryll: Scrolling through your Instagram, I noticed that your recent works are heavily influenced or grounded by Philippine culture. As a designer who has worked internationally, how does our culture help in shaping your artistic identity and overall brand? 

Lesley: Living and working half of my life outside the Philippines has made me long for my childhood memories and sparked a deep sense of nostalgia. I always missed my family and friends, the local cuisine, and the smell of the ocean – everything sensory that I can recollect from my childhood. I like to think that I have reached maturity in working in the fashion industry. Working for some brands and designers in the West and jumping from one corporate/commercial fashion environment to another can become tiring, and repetitive in the end. You could reach a point where you yearn to do something more meaningful and close to the heart. I felt it was the time to go home more often and pay homage to my roots.

Caryll: And since you’ve been more immersed in our culture, have you thought of reforming what we have in the Philippines?

Lesley: I have had a bit of a romance with the Philippine terno (a traditional dress marked by their puffy or “butterfly” sleeves) for quite some time now. I have been mentoring young Filipino designers during the recent TernoCon 2019-2020, with the support of Bench and the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (headed by Gino Gonzalez). My romance with the terno started some years ago in Autumn/Winter ’08 when I designed a series of terno cocktail dresses for Harrods, London. A few Hollywood and British names such as Anne Hathaway and Talulah Riley wore it.  

I think there’s more to it than just costume or formal occasion wear. It is about celebrating Filipino identity and being proud of it. Like how a kimono is in Japan, the cheongsam in China, the sari in India; the terno can be significant to every Filipino. We need to celebrate being a Filipino more proudly and in the same way that other nations enjoy and respect their heritage.

Lesley’s Instagram images showcasing traditional terno he designed while on lockdown in his hometown in the Philippines.

Caryll: Before moving on, I would like to thank you for kindly agreeing to create fashion illustrations that you think represents “Reform” for LINEAL. Can you describe to us the concept behind your sketches and how do they reflect “Reform”.

Lesley: I would say fun, joy, freedom, and individuality. I like to create and celebrate everything or anything that has to do with freedom and individuality. I would love to explore them in silhouettes, colours, movements, energy, cuts, and volumes. I hope we can start 2021 filled with excitement, positivity and fun. With what we all have gone through in 2020, it is appropriate to see more playfulness, fun, and joy. With the eruption of colours and volumes, we can only hope to see more fun and intriguing colour palettes this year to inject some playfulness and a positive mood. It will set a hopeful tone of recovery for everyone for 2021.

Caryll: What is your interpretation of “Reform”?

Lesley: Freedom, movement, joy, and individuality are the words I believe will resonate. There will come a time when people will want to see more positivity and hope in everything, including the fashion industry. 2020 was such a terrible time for everyone that people would look for hope in every small way. Which is why anything happy and fun is perfect for 2021. Reflecting on what happened in France after World War 1, the Années Folles or what they called The Crazy Years, it refers to the decade of the 1920s. Weary of the war years, people in France decided to dress up and be creative. It was an era that created some of the most memorable and creative movements in history. The rich social, artistic and cultural collaborations produced a historical movement in fashion, dance, music and art. For this year, I hope to see the same revolution through the most colourful, joyful, flamboyant, extravagant, and happiest garments you could imagine.

Caryll: Lastly, what do you expect to reform once the world gets back on its feet? 

Lesley: I hope that we all don’t go back to our old ways that wasn’t working for the industry of fashion, when things get back on their feet. That I will be a better person in general, and I will continue to explore what I have started during the pandemic. I plan to continue my quest/experimentation in finding ways to connect with my roots through my creative language.

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