Story by Kristine Ortiz
When asked what his 10- year-old self would tell him today, Rafe Totengco jokes, “Why didn’t you get started sooner?” Even as a young child, the Filipino American accessories designer — who has been designing for his coveted namesake brand Rafe New York for the last 16 years, and serves as the creative director of handbags at The Jones Group, which handles more than two dozen labels including Rachel Roy, B Brian Atwood, Stuart Weitzman, Givenchy Jewelry and Nine West —always knew that fashion was in the cards for him.
A self-described “creative,” Totengco remembers growing up in the Philippines and making alterations to his school uniforms and Sunday church clothes on a seemingly weekly basis. “Since the fifth grade, I was already designing. The tailor and I had a very good relationship,” he says with a laugh. It was his realization that simple aesthetic changes to something as basic as trousers could bring him “instant gratification,” that laid the foundation for his future in the fashion industry.
After starting his own fashion business in Manila, Totengco made his way to New York to pursue his love for design, a move that his family supported. It was his time in the Big Apple that allowed Totengco to explore and to hone in on how he wanted to make his mark on the industry.
“I felt that the only way for me to be independent and be my own designer was to start an accessories company,” he says. “I didn’t have to go through the drama of producing so many sizes per style and all of that. You can essentially do a capsule collection of 10 pieces and be in business. So it was a great way for me to still be in fashion and express a different side of my creativity.”
But it wasn’t until Totengco saw one of his pieces in a fashion magazine that he felt his place was affirmed in an often-brutal industry. “I was like, ‘OK, here we go! It’s gonna be a whirlwind, it’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fun!’”
And what a whirlwind it’s been. Since his start in 1997, in addition to his namesake label, he has designed a collaboration collection with retail giant Target, has been recognized by prestigious organizations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and Gen Art, and received the Pamana ng Pilipino Presidential Award from the Philippine government for bringing honor and recognition to his home country through his work.
The praise that he has garnered seems inevitable given his ability to draw inspiration from an “amalgam of different things.” For the fall season, he takes cues from graphic marbled floors in Venice (“[Everyone] was taking pictures of the frescoes, and I’m the only one taking pictures of the floor,” he laughs), a vintage photo of Eartha Kitt and Barbra Streisand featuring a leopard clutch, and the Art Deco aesthetic of The Great Gatsby. His pieces range from the structural Maryanne minaudiere, which he describes as one of his “iconic” designs, to practical zip clutches and totes, some of which are inspired by his time growing up in the Philippines.
Totengco is always prepared for visual inspiration, using both old-school and new-school technologies. He says that he always carries around his sketchbook, which he considers a type of “therapy” and a “second crutch” — it gives him a space to get all of his ideas out. But he also relies on his iPhone; an avid Instagram user, Totengco calls the popular phone application his “visual library,” a public space that enables people, both peers and customers, to get a glimpse into his world. Full of photos from his collections and various travels around the world, his feed lets people see where he draws his inspiration from. For Totengco, this allows him to nurture a close connection with his customers.
In a market flooded with big names and designer “It” bags, this intimate relationship is “something that’s really special” to Totengco, who’s more than pleased to have his small niche in the industry. “There’s a woman out there who wants something different [and] who wants to take the road less travelled,” he says. “There’s something authentic about what I do, [and] to me, that’s something I’m really proud of.”
ON RAFE’S RADAR:
- Go-to comfort food: Filipino food of course. Fortunately in New York I can run over to Jeepney, a restaurant in the East Village, to satisfy my craving.
- On repeat on my iPod: “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke.
- Pet peeve: Ill-fitting clothes — on anybody.
- Talent I’d like to have: I would love to be able to play the piano.
- What I love about being Asian: There’s an automatic kinship when you meet a fellow Asian, this unspoken understanding that you “get” each other.
This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here.