When we first met Randy Gonzales, the founder of Pineapple Industries, we were in a small coffee shop in Toronto. He had just flown in from NYC with his large duffel bag next to him, a little tired, but full of passion and enthusiasm. He was telling us his story starting Pineapple Industries, an independent boutique for handcrafted, made-to-measure custom barongs.
The Barong Tagalog is the national garment of the Philippines, traditionally made of pineapple fabric, and worn during formal occasions. The barong has a long and rich history in the Philippines, but many younger Filipinos and people outside of the Philippines know very little about it.
Randy is on a mission to help people appreciate the beauty of the barong and therefore re-connect with their Filipino heritage.
1) First, tell us a little about yourself. Who IS Randy Gonzales and what drives you?
I’m just a Filipino kid that grew up in Queens, New York in the 80’s and 90’s. I grew up on TV, hip hop and the popular culture of those times. I haven't changed that much since then.
I found my Filipino self in my 20’s and 30’s. But Filipino culture always surrounded me, throughout my life, whether I liked it or not. My small world back then was very Filipino and diverse - it was just my family, friends from school and local community. I’m 40 years-old now. I still live in Queens, but my world and community is much larger.
I love Filipino culture. It still surrounds me, and I’m quite happy about that.
Succeeding drives me. Happiness drives me. Doing good things for others drives me. Making a difference in the lives of others drives me. Doing these things for people in the Philippines drives me. Becoming more Filipino drives me.
"I felt more Filipino knowing that I had barongs that were custom made in the Philippines. I felt like I gained new friends or family members. I was that happy."
Randy Gonzales from Pineapple Industries wearing his father’s barong for the first time in public at the Philippine Independence Day Parade in New York City in 2013
2) You talk about the first time you tried on your father's custom-made barongs and how that was a game-changer. Tell us what that experience was like - how did it feel to wear a barong for the first time and why did that impact you so deeply?
My father took out these two old custom barongs from his closet and handed them to me. I saw them, and I instantly noticed how beautiful and well-made they were compared to what I’ve seen in stores, on the internet, and out and about. I knew that these were special because they looked vintage, they looked like they were from the Philippines and they were more than likely one-of-a-kind. I never saw anything like these before anywhere.
I felt transformed when I tried them on for the first time. I felt like a new man. They fit me perfectly because my father was almost exactly my height and build when he was my age. I get a rush when clothes fit me perfectly. Throughout my life, it’s always been difficult to find clothes that fit me. I’m 5 feet 6 inches tall, and clothes in the US are just not made for men like me.
Most Filipino people I know never owned a barong. So, I felt more Filipino knowing that I had barongs that were custom-made in the Philippines. I felt like I gained new friends or family members. I was that happy.
3) Who are the artisans behind each Pineapple barong? How did you connect with them?
I spent a month in the Philippines trying to find the best barongs I could possibly buy. One month was not nearly enough time. I left the Philippines pretty much empty-handed.
Thankfully I connected with some new friends while I was there, and these connections eventually led me to the great embroiderers and artisans of Laguna months later.
The people that embroider and make Pineapple barongs by hand come from generations of embroidery and barong-making tradition. These are families that have been passing on their craft to relatives for many decades.
Close-up of the hand embroidery of the “Chrissi” barong
4) So we hear Pineapple is turning one year old. Congratulations! What were your first few months like? What did people think when you first told them you were going to sell custom-made barongs?
Thanks! The first few months were incredibly difficult. People loved the idea of a custom barong seller in the US and Canada. A lot of people expressed interest in Pineapple Industries, which shot my expectations through the roof.
But all that interest converted into very few sales at that time. I was very discouraged, and I wanted to give up.
Thankfully I didn't, and I just kept to the plan and doing the work every day.
"When I tell them my story, and I hear theirs, it feels great to find so much common ground despite being from different places."
5) You told us once about your travels across the US and how you've been able to connect with Filipinos across the country, even in the most unexpected places. What has this experience been like?
These experiences have been so rewarding and valuable. The people I meet really appreciate what I'm doing.
Some people tell me they've been waiting for something like Pineapple Industries to come along. Others say that seeing Pineapple Industries makes them feel proud of their culture and being Filipino.
When I tell them my story, and I hear theirs, it feels great to find so much common ground despite being from different places. So, all of this motivates me to keep going, and this makes the world feel a lot smaller and more connected.
6) Each Pineapple barong is named after a member of the Filipino community (who also make great models!). Why was it important to you to showcase real Filipinos?
I've always had trouble finding clothes that fit me, and I still do. For a while, I felt like I wasn't good enough because I wasn't tall enough by American fashion standards. A lot, if not most, of the Filipino people I market to have similar experiences.
The fashion and entertainment industries really have a knack for making people feel horrible about themselves, and I want no part of that. Movie stars and fashion models make up such a small percentage of the population, and I want to show realistic, positive images of Filipinos of all types.
So, I'm very mindful about reflecting the community in the people that model barongs. Also, it's not just about how the models look. Each model does remarkable things. They inspire me, and I hope that people are inspired by them, as well.
Rachelle Ocampo wearing the Rachelle barong on the streets of New York City
Ryan Letada from NextDayBetter wearing the "Ryan" Barong
7) What's something you wish more people knew about the Philippines?
The many cultures of the Philippines are beautiful, and they are worth seeking out, preserving and continuing.
A wedding party in Richmond, Virginia styled in barongs by Pineapple Industries
Photo by Valerie Demo