By Nicole De Los Reyes
The ABS-CBN Ball, which occurred early in September, was arguably one of the most anticipated local fashion events of the year. Over time, the event has gained more fame and popularity, with netizens taking to forums, highly-charged Facebook debates, and Instagram posts to elect their candidates for best and worst-dressed of the night.
Amid the glitz and glamour of the ball’s attendees was Manna Vargas-Morada, the trailblazing, environmental advocate daughter of Vicente Vargas and Cedie Lopez. In her off-the-shoulder top and floral skirt, she looked every bit the part of a fashionable, young starlet.
But she was more than just a beautiful girl in a pretty dress.
A graduate of the University of New South Wales in Australia, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Environment and Development Studies, and a Master’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs, Manna is one of the best-equipped Filipinas of her generation in the fight against climate change.
She has worked as a policy researcher, policy project coordinator, and partnerships manager for the Oscar M. Lopez Center, a non-profit organization focused on Philippine climate change assessment, so it was important that her fashion choices reflected her values.
“There’s no particular story behind my ABS-CBN Ball outfit. It was a skirt I’ve had for a while and a top I had made, which could be used for another occasion,” she says. Rather than coming up with a particular story with the clothes, what she thought most important was to share the mindset behind them.
“Admittedly, I still had something made so there was a considerable footprint to it,” she explains. “But these days, I strive to get the most mileage out of the pieces I already own. After all, the most sustainable piece of clothing is one you already have in your closet.”
It’s a style principle that is consistent in her public appearances and throughout her social media feeds.
For special occasions and evening, Manna usually chooses from wardrobe rental site RSVP.ph or opts for separates, challenging the norms that formal wear should only be worn once. For her wedding, she had local designer Rajo Laurel create a look using the fabric from her mom’s wedding dress.
“I had known for a long time that I wanted to use my mom’s gown,” she says. “It was an idea that Rajo fully embraced from the start. He did a fantastic job of lifting and restoring the intricate lace that had long been sitting in a closet unappreciated.”
After making the wedding gown, there was still enough leftover material to be able to make a dress for her Despedida de Soltera. She explained that dressing in a more environmentally-friendly way is less challenging than most people think.
“People can get caught up with thinking that a garment has to be made out of natural fibers that are organically processed, or made from recycled bottles, or upcycled fabric. When in fact, sometimes creating something new, no matter how well-intentioned, can have an even greater, environmental impact,” she says.
Manna makes it a point to collaborate with designers who share the same values and understand the need to produce sustainably. Aside from Rajo Laurel, she lists bespoke womenswear designer Gabbie Sarenas as one of her favorite go-tos.
“I’ve worked with Gabbie Sarenas quite a bit for my wedding and other outfits. I like working with her because our beliefs about fashion are aligned in that garments are a reflection of stories and thoughtful creation,” she says. Slow fashion is the term that best describes the piña bibs and sleeves that Sarenas makes, which are versatile enough to dress up a pair of jeans or wear as a modern saya over a simple dress. “I easily gravitated to her because of her brand’s inherent respect for local history and material,” Manna says.
Her romantic interpretation of a classic fabric is both innovative yet respectful of the culture and environment that the designer draws her inspiration from.
Sarenas is one of the designers and artisans that regularly participate in the local craft fair Artefino, of which Manna’s mother Cedie is one of the organizers. It was through her mother’s work and exposure to the fair that she was able to translate the principles she learned from her work into a platform for conscious fashion consumption.
“When you work in the area of climate change, you are considerably more exposed to the damage that modern human society inflicts on our planet,” she says, allowing a short pause for emphasis, “with fashion being one of the biggest offenders.”
These days, I strive to get the most mileage out of the pieces I already own. After all, the most sustainable piece of clothing is one you already have in your closet.
Going local is a great solution for minimizing one’s ecological footprint. She warns, however, that “there is a need to better qualify that what is being offered is truly a better option and not just being used as a tool for greenwashing.”
As the interest in local fashion continues to sky-rocket, Manna sees an opportunity to start future conversations on mitigating the negative effects of the wasteful economy we may be enabling. “No doubt local fashion provides an immense number of jobs and opportunities,” she says, “but if we are genuinely committed to averting our impending environmental crises, then we need to rethink how we create and dispose of things.”
The journey of consuming in a smarter, more ecological way is one that Manna has experienced on a personal level. “I wouldn’t go to the extent of saying that I was really interested in fashion growing up, but rather, I liked to dress well, play with clothes, and buy things to do just that.”
“I won’t lie, the convenience and allure of fast fashion and luxury goods really sucked me in when I was younger. I would read lots of magazines and become influenced by what I saw on social media,” she admits. “But the more involved I got in my work, the more I found it incredibly difficult to reconcile it with my choices as a consumer”
As the famous quote by L.N. Smith goes, “Every dollar you spend or don’t spend is a vote you cast for the world you want.” It’s a saying that has greatly influenced Manna’s thought process when choosing clothing items to add to her wardrobe.
“I am going to be quick to say that though I still do like to buy clothes, there is an almost exhausting number of layers now involved when I finally buy something,” she says. “The first one being, ‘is it something I absolutely need?’ and more often than not it really isn’t, and ‘how many times will I be able to use this purchase?’”
Recently, she gave birth to her first child, and the experience of motherhood reinforced her commitment to sustainability and climate restoration. “It definitely enhanced my sense of urgency to address the myriad socioecological issues we are faced with, if my son’s generation is to have the slightest chance of living in a world that our generation would recognize,” she says. “When I sit down and think about the kind of world we are deliberately leaving behind to them, the things I used to consider important, such as ‘will this outfit look good?’ or ‘should I go to this event?’ seem much more trivial.”
“Apathy is our environment’s worst enemy. A commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle needs to emanate from within for it to be genuine and to last. Once you discover that innate desire to make more responsible choices, trust me, it will all just flow organically, rather than it just being a ticking-off-the-boxes sort of thing,” she stresses, giving me some food-forthought as our chat comes to a close.
“It really starts with asking yourself what kind of world you want to live in, and what kind of impact you want to make, and to start educating yourself to make more conscious choices,” she says, ending on a clear note. A genuine example of what it means to live out one’s values, through choices, fashion or otherwise.