Tracy Dizon On Being A Filipina Designer & How She Became Her Own Dream Girl
Several weeks ago, I visited Tracy Dizon’s home and studio in Varsity Hills, where she has lived with her 14- year old son ever since coming back to Manila from her recent collection’s success in Brooklyn, New York. Tracy’s designs have been recognized by one of the biggest fashion capitals of the world and is well on her way to putting her vision of Philippine women’s wear on the global map.
She lives in a two-storey townhouse, previously her parents’ home and the house she grew up in, a seemingly quaint and tidy place. Doubling as Tracy’s studio is the second floor, which, upon entering, I was taken aback.
Contrary to the orderly first floor I had just seen, here there are heaps of clothes and papers, racks of dresses, mannequin heads wearing kitten-ear headbands, sketches of women that look like Bratz dolls of the early 2000s, piles of pink clear folders, and a coffee table with donuts and strawberry tea.
Tracy herself is a bundle of energy, exploding with enthusiasm and a passion for life reflected in her cat-eyed glasses, bright pink coat, and matching lipstick. You can’t help but feel a sense of joy being around her. Which makes her story of struggle all the more extraordinary. “I have always been interested in how best to represent the Filipino through design. We, Filipinos, are so joyful. We light up the room.” And so are her clothes: she admires the fashion sense of the younger years of the Rookie Magazine founder, Tavi Gevinson and considers Iris Apfel one of her greatest inspirations. They have both been known for their boldly feminine way of mixing prints, colors, and patterns into their personal styles.
Feeling at odds with the world
With tears in her eyes, Tracy recalls vividly how in 2001, she struggled to find a place for herself. Literally.
First, she defied her parents’ wishes of staying in a small college and instead chose to hone her skills in a big university to study Fashion Technology. “My family was super conservative, but I went rogue. Fashion wasn’t a popular thing - to be creative, it’s like you’re a bit weird.”
Then when she became pregnant at the age of 21, she lived in a shelter under the Kaisahang Buhay Foundation, a home for single moms for around seven months. “It was super humbling because the friends that I hung out with, the minute that they got the news, they totally disassociated with me.” She had lost everything, even her sense of identity. ““Homeless, pregnant, kicked out of the house- I thought, ‘Maybe fashion isn’t my field.’”
Yet she made the decision to move out of the shelter, live with her parents again to continue her schooling on her own, while raising her son.
During her classes, she would bring her son with her to school and even breastfeed him while the professor went on with the lecture. Cautious and aware of the risks in pursuing a challenging career like fashion, she took education subjects, so she would have something to fall back on.
“The world of fashion is glamorous, but my life wasn’t glamorous,” she says matter-of-factly, but with a hint of disbelief, as though even she can’t believe what she went through.
“I was so bad in sewing and patterns. There’s this one pattern class I had to make up for my failure and the requirement was to join a competition for plus points. That was my only goal at that time. I didn’t ever think that I would get into the finals and I was the only representative of my university. ” So as part of a class requirement, she joined the Philippine Fashion Design Competition (PFDC) in 2006, a nationwide contest alongside aspiring couturieres who have since then become big names in the Philippine fashion industry. “From a babagsakin (failing) girl, I suddenly became this representative. It became a big divine sign.”
In 2007, not having finished her degree to prioritize her obligations at home, she signed up as a stylist for ABS-CBN. She moved into her own space, with no refrigerator nor kitchen utensils - just an empty space with a bed for 4000 pesos per month (the equivalent today of $76USD).
She worked three times a week, preparing costumes and going on set, working for almost 24 hours on call. A year later, she signed on to become a merchandiser for Kamiseta brand, designing perfume packaging and luggages.
Despite the struggles, Tracy couldn’t give up her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Eventually she resigned from her full-time job as a merchandiser to join the television show Project Runway, where, sadly, she got eliminated early.
“I joined Project Runway not to win, but for my son to be proud of me.”
Despite the disappointment, Tracy, with her characteristic determination, decided to press on and, in 2009, joined the Japan Fashion Design Contest in Tokyo.
From then on, she felt like doors had opened for her, the audience in Japan more receptive of her style. People were more open to what Tracy calls the “poof” in her designs - the way her dresses would balloon along the bodice of the wearer and how she sometimes use her own doodles as patterns.
It was her time in Japan that introduced her to the Kawaii style. During the same year, she began creating Kitty head pieces.
“I really like it, because it’s playful. These are the things I missed out on when I was younger,” Tracy explains. “Kawaii is the regression to childhood, that’s it’s psychological definition. It’s also a form of rebellion.”
These seemingly counterintuitive ideas - rebellion and playfulness - are themes that continue to crop up in Tracy’s designs, showing a way of defying convention and constraints by simply rising above.
“It interested me that [with Kawaii] you were acting out, but not in a destructive way. Even until now, even when I expand to different styles, I’ve grown from it but my roots are there.”
Finding inspiration in Hanoi
When her mother died unexpectedly in 2014, Tracy faced not only the loss of her mother, but it also made her question her identity as a designer. She no longer felt like she could embody what Kawaii stood for because it was so far from her current state.
“I thought, ‘I want to start anew.’ And then I realized maybe I should grow up a little. I don’t want to associate myself with being a Japanese, Kawaii designer. I don’t want to be pigeonholed.”
Shaken by the death of her mother and desperate for new inspiration, she booked a one-way ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam. Like out of a tragic romance novel, she went to Vietnam to follow a French lover, only to discover he was already with a Vietnamese woman.
Dispirited and heartbroken, Tracy became fixated. “Sino ba yung girl na yun?” (Who is she?)
Her trip to Hanoi, though, gave her something surprising: a widely accessible and affordable textile dream. “When I came back that’s when I started designing again, I was so inspired by the fabrics in Hanoi. It was so ironic because the fabrics are cheaper there. And their indigenous materials are flourishing. There you can buy it in bulk. You can buy it outside your hotel room.”
Meanwhile, Tracy continued to obsess about The Other Woman. And it was this obsessive revisiting of this mystery woman that actually inspired her Miss Hanoi collection. This would soon be her entry to the Spring Summer 2018 Fashion Week Brooklyn competition, in which she would eventually be hailed as the grand winner, her first major win.
The dresses in the collection have a very traditional feel - the process entailed research and meeting with her Vietnamese friends to ask them of their lifestyle and worldviews, but they would remark, “Why are you so curious about us? Every Vietnamese girl would want your life. You are independent, you can travel, you have a life.”
Eventually, along the process of designing the dresses for her collection, Tracy found them becoming more and more like the dresses she used to design when she was in college. “The dresses gradually become doll dresses. And that’s when I realized that I didn’t have to look elsewhere. I can be my own dream girl.”
Inspired by tea cups, stamps, flowers in the park, and ceramic piggy banks, Tracy created a collection that resembled postcards in living, breathing bodies. Her trip to Hanoi, which once was a chase for an idea of this Mystery Other Woman, became a personal revelation instead.
Photo Credit: Not Just A Label
Pinoy Pop! Collection: A glimpse of childhood in the Philippines
After a year, she re-entered the same competition, hailing a different collection. Her Spring Summer 2019, “Pinoy Pop Life”, which won third place, was more reminiscent of her life back home.
After exploring the Kawaii in Tokyo and the indigenous textiles of Hanoi for inspiration for her designs, she decided to take it one step further by making a collection that showcases not just her personal story, but her personal heritage. “I’ve always been inclined to use indigenous materials, being an Iskolar ng Bayan (Scholar of the Nation), the University of the Philippines taught me to give back to my country as much as I can,” she says.
Tracy believes that to represent the Philippine culture entails an awareness of its history, backed by genuine experiences.
“Promoting culture should involve ethics, research and certain awareness of things. It’s not just fashion, it’s also in daily life, it’s a matter of human etiquette, you should have respect.”
Indeed, her latest collection is a narrative of her life, borne from her own experiences growing up in Manila. She collaborated with Girl Scout to create a dress inspired by her prepubescent days of outdoor camping activities. In the collection as well are denim doll dresses and pantsuits that speak of Tracy’s personal recollections of jeepney sign boards, dirty ice cream vendors on hot Manila afternoons, pink petals of the Bougainvillea, and Taka Horse Paper Mache Toys during provincial town fiestas. She wants to create youthful pieces that stir the hearts of young Filipinas, who themselves have gone through similar childhoods and hold these same memories.
Tracy’s Pinoy Pop! Collection was made to be reminiscent of her life in Manila, inspired by her personal recollections of jeepney sign boards, dirty ice cream vendors, pink petals of the Bougainvillea, and Taka Horse Paper Mache Toys.
Photo Credit Not Just A Label.
On her website, she writes: “I want to be appreciated as an integral part of the daily street fashion of the youth not only for Filipinos, but open to be appreciated by the whole world.”
From Manila To New York
When I visited her home, her son mentioned his dreams of being an actor and his excitement over moving to New York. Tracy has been documenting their new life since February on Instagram. One photo is of her son acting in his first theatrical show, another is of them both witnessing their first snowfall.
I remember her saying, “It also bled me a lot to shoulder every collection I made, just to offer something beautiful.” This is especially true if we look back on her life: A young Tracy, who recently discovered how harsh the world can be, showing up to class with her son and designing her doll dresses anyway. And now a much older Tracy in her cat-eye glasses and pink coat, wiser now because of her experiences, bringing her warmth and vision to New York.
Tracy remains ambitious that wearing Filipiniana would, in the future, not seem like a cultural show, but a mere form of self-expression.
“I would still want young girls to wear this.
I want more occasions where young women can wear their own Filipiniana. ”
Maybe from Tracy we can expect more events like her tea parties, where it can be commonplace to wear her blazers and skirts made from indigenous materials. One in which we have also sorted out the matter of production costs and taking proper care of the hands that weave the fabrics. It’s a hefty vision, one that inspires her to keep on creating. We can look forward to the day, as if in a sort of utopian world, that maybe in bookstores or cafes, young women will don these articles of clothing, as easily as they do multinational brands, but more valued for the stories they tell.
Although the elements of Tracy’s life changed - her houses, jobs, and friends - she stayed true to her unique vision and pursued people and places that encouraged it. Maybe this is what it means to be your own dream girl: Like Tracy, we can find it in us to have faith in the world’s sensitivity to our dreams, to have courage in offering something beautiful over and over, despite how complicated the pursuit has been.