Accessories Designer Rafe Totengco Bring Us Something Different

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!’”

Audrey ad rinko

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.”

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  • 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.

MUST WATCH: Talented Filipino YouTube Sensations on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”

Months ago, a video of a pair of young and talented musicians went viral. The only problem? No one could identify them. For a while, different YouTube sources were placing various labels on the mysterious duo. One source titled the video “Asian kid,” while others took a stab at guessing their race. Finally, it was confirmed that the pair are from the Philippines, but all other information about them remained a mystery.

That’s when Ellen Degeneres set her sights on finding the talented boys and sent out a public invitation.

Months later, the teenagers were identified as Aldrich Lloyd Talonding and James Walter Bucong. The two musicians accepted Ellen’s invitation and found themselves in Burbank, Calif., to perform in front of an excited audience.

During the interview, it was revealed that Talonding’s father passed away in June due to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Because of this, their cover of Luther Vandross’ song, “Dance with My Father,” became even more meaningful.

The boys talked about handling YouTube stardom and girls, and even went home with a handful of goodies (a guitar and a piano!) and a check for $10,000. Watch their breathtaking performance below:

FIRST U.S. INTERVIEW: DJ Rocky Rock is Ready to “Rock The World”

“In and out.  Shake it all about.  Let’s go!” Those are the wise words from the poetic, lyrical master DJ Rocky Rock.  In his first US interview, Rock divulges on his hardships as a kid growing up in the Philippines and trying to stay afloat as a newcomer in the States.  Majorly influenced by his cousins, Rock discovered the world of music as a kid in junior high growing up in the Bay Area.  He even DJ’ed at his high school prom much to his prom date’s dismay.  With an urge to learn more and master his craft at the turntables, Rock went on to participate in DJ competitions, including one sponsored by Linkin Park.  It would be this competition where he would win and begin his life transforming friendship with Joe Hahn of Linkin Park.  Hahn pushed Rock to eventually move to LA where he would get discovered by the owner of the hip-hop music festival, Rock The Bells.

In 2002, Rock entered a DJ competition called Koolmix where the actual prize was the opening act for the Black Eyed Peas.  Rock formed a unique friendship with fellow Filipino, who would ask Rock to work on a single with him (“Bebot”, followed by “Monkey Business”).  After working with the Black Eyed Peas, Rock found himself on the road again with the band, Sublime with Rome and then on his own tour in Europe.

With a strong conviction of his style of music and a flair for knowing what the crowd and his fans want, Rock is now ready to “Rock the World” with his new EP as DJ, rapper and producer.  Audrey sat down with Rock to get inside his mind to find out how he got his start, what’s next for him and what keeps him grounded.

AM:  Tell me all about your, your background, where you’re from?

DJRR:  I was born in the Philippines. My Grandma had her own restaurant under the house. She left something on and our house burned [down]. The first three years of my life was a disaster, my mom told me.

We got petitioned by my Grandpa to America in 1983, so I flew out here.  After that, we lived a hard life.  Music was a big part of my life.  I had uncles that were breakdancers back in the day. My mom re-married again and it was my dad’s second cousin.  It was crazy because I was wondering why my dad wasn’t visiting me.  And then, throughout the years, I got to know his family and my cousins from his family.

I was hanging out with them and they were all really into music.  They’re all DJs.  And they’re like, “Hey Rock, we’re going to dentist school.  Jerry’s going to be a nurse.  You want this equipment?”  I said, “Yea, sure”.  So they gave me the equipment.

After getting all the equipment, I started practicing in my junior high years.  I was DJ’ing my high school dances.  Even my prom date was mad at me.


AM:  Who influenced you as a kid, musically?

DJRR:  My cousin, Jerry.  He was one of the main DJ’s.  Our DJ group was called Abstract Vibes. I was always the guy trying to learn behind-the-scenes.  So, when they gave me the turntables my high school year, I became a crazy guy.

I started joining competitions like DJ Battles.  I won my first major battle at Guitar Center in 2001.  They were promoting like – the first DJ to win a car out of two thousand DJs in America.  And I was like, ‘Really?!?’  So I joined the competition, signed up and just had to win two or three battles until I got to the finals. I beat everybody there and then after that, I went to the US Finals at the Key Club.  It was four minutes out of ten DJ’s [battles].  It went from two thousand [DJs] down to ten.  And then I just took that in four minutes, won a car and thought, ‘This is crazy.’  I’m winning cars.  There’s something cool here.


AM:  What’s it like when you go back home [Philippines] and perform there?  I know that the Asian market is huge, they love their music, and they’re loyal fans.  What’s it like when you go back?

DJRR:  They seem to be very amazed when I DJ for them out there.  But again, it’s like, as a person, when you meet me, I’m totally just a normal guy.  So, its like when they see how hard I really put into my music and DJ-ing, they go crazy.  They’re like what the hell?  What’s going on?  This guy is crazy, phenomenal.  Like Superman on the turntables. They find it really cool and exciting.


AM:  Do you ever feel like it’s been more challenging to rise above as an Asian artist?

DJRR:  Yes, of course, but that can only get so far because the hard work usually pays off and it shows.  I had a lot of struggle with that.  And I still do, at times.  But it doesn’t affect passion.


AM:  Have you had to overcome any other struggles to get to where you are?

DJRR:  You have to go through a lot of struggles to actually get to where you’re at.  As far as for me, DJ-ing was a very experimental thing for me.  And I figured out – what does a DJ do?  And actually in the game, you realize there are four big parts of being a DJ.  There’s a Radio DJ, or you’re either a Turntable-ist, which you’re just the bedroom DJ, scratching in there, or you battle sometimes.  And then there’s another one where you’re a crowd rocker, where you’re rocking clubs consistently and killing it.  And that’s the big thing, that’s where the money is. And then you’re this other DJ that produces, makes the beat, and just packing up arenas.  I’m already on that arena. And now, there’s one thing that a DJ never did, and that’s actually get off your turntables and rap your song


AM:  Before you get out there and you’re about to perform as a rap artist, do you get really nervous, do you have any rituals?

DJRR:  No, because I practice the song so much.  And you won’t even tell because if my song isn’t your favorite song, then your favorite song will be coming after that.  What’s kind of cool is that I get to play your favorite song plus me as myself.  Which is kind of cool because people get a concert right there while the club is happening.


AM:  As a producer, do you also produce other performers, artists as well?  Or is that something you want to build on?

DJRR:  I’ve actually been doing that.  I scratched on and helped out on a song called “Bebot” with Black Eyed Peas.  Sold millions of singles.  “Bebot” means hot girl or it could mean your auntie, too.  I actually have an Uncle called Bebot, so it’s weird. I was like, what was your mom thinking?


AM:  What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

DJRR:  Just being patient.  Just inventing yourself.  Create yourself.  You see it.  You figure it out.  I always try and be different.  I don’t want to be the same as everybody else.  The way I see it is to stay humble.  That’s always the best.


AM:  How do you stay humble?

DJRR:  Just hang out with the family.  I’ve got a daughter so I try to spend time with my daughter.  I haven’t seen my mom for awhile so I’m excited to see her.  I always look up to God at the same time. I grew up Christian and in the church, so that’s important.


AM:  And what do you tell those that want to be you? What advice do you tell them?

DJRR:  My advice is – well, if you’re trying to be a DJ.  Just stick with being original and at the same time, just keep your head down. Keep doing what you’re doing.  You’ll find your way.  Your passion will see if it’s really for you.  You just gotta keep striving.  That’s it.


AM:  If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, alive or dead, who would it be?

DJRR:  That’s a good question.  Marilyn Monroe.  One time.  I want to just stare at her mole and just look at her and just drink.  I would just want to talk about why she’s so beautiful.

Dream Destinations | Asia’s “Newest Wonders” & Its “Best Islands”

This past July, Travel & Leisure released the list of the “Newest Wonders of the World,” a list, compiled by UNESCO, of World Heritage sites, or places around the globe that have “cultural, historical and environmental importance.”  In addition, the well-known travel mag released their picks (with the help of readers) of the “World’s Best Islands,” complete with white-sand beaches and romantic get-aways. Seeing these lists will spark the travel bug in anyone, and we’re very happy to say that Asia is well-featured on the list.  Take a look below for the newest additions to our travel bucket-list in Asia.

The Newest World Wonders

Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, China
Located in southern Yunnan and over 1300 years old, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces are a complex system developed by the Hani people to channel water from the Ailao Mountains to their as-equally sophisticated terraces and farms.


Hill Forts of Rajasthan, India
Found in the Aravalli Mountains lies six forts that are “a standing testament to the power that Rajput princes enjoyed from the 8th to 18th century.” These series of eclectic forts utilizes the natural surroundings, such as hills, deserts and rivers, as defense while also using fortified walls to protect temples, palaces and other structures.


Mount Fuji, Japan
Also known as “Fujisan,” Mount Fuji has become an icon of Japan, serving as an artistic muse as well as a site of sacred pilgrimage. As described by UNESCO, “The inscribed property consists of 25 sites which reflect the essence of Fujisan’s sacred landscape” including Shengen-jinja shrines, natural volcanic features, lakes and waterfalls.

Kaesong’s Historical Sites, Korea
Located in the often-elusive DPRK and near the demilitarized zone, Kaesong is made up of 12 different sites that tell the story of Korea’s Koryo Dynasty.

Xinjiang Tianshan, China
Taking up over 600,000 hectares and part of Central Asia’s Tianshin mountain range, Xinjian Tianshin is made up of a four geographically diverse components (Tomur, Kalajun-Kuerdening, Bayinbukuke and Bogda), ranging from snow-capped mountains to forests and meadows to wide-spanning deserts.

World’s Best Islands
Palawan, Philippines (No. 1)
A favorite get-away of both local and foreign celebrities (including Mariah Carey, Pretty Little Liars’ Shay Mitchell, and Rachel Weisz), Palawan has a pure, almost surreal beauty that is something out of a movie.  When you’re there, go diving in the area’s warm waters and find yourself surrounded by natural coral reefs and abundant tropical fish or check out the world’s longest underground, navigable river.


Boracay, Philippines (No. 2)
An hour’s plane ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manila, Boracay offers visitors white-sand beaches, crystal clear blue water and a well-developed nightlife scene.


Bali, Indonesia (No. 6)
With its myriad of landscapes, ranging from rice terraces to rugged coastlines (not to mention to the world-famous beaches), Bali has become one of Indonesia’s largest tourist attractions, drawing in people from all over the globe for its “world-class surfing and diving, a large number of cultural, historical and archaeological attractions, and an enormous range of accommodations (Wiki).”

Koh Samui, Thailand (No. 9)
This 13-mile wide island, referred to as simply “Samui” by locals, is a favorite of beach-lovers and backpackers alike with its numerous and beautiful natural resources, perfect beaches, clear water and coral reefs.


Phuket, Thailand (No. 15)
The largest island in Thailand, Phuket is the Southeast Asian country’s most developed isle with world-renowned beaches, affordable (and more expensive) dining, fancy resorts and much more.  Be sure to make your way to the almost-undiscovered Mai Khao Beach or the visually stunning Phang Nga Bay.


For more information on this year’s additions to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites as well as a complete list of all World Heritage Sites, visit UNESCO.

[All images courtesy of Google]

Concert Recap | Takes You to the Philippines

Taboo, and performs at the Takes You to the Philippines – A Celebration of Global Filipino Music which took place at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, July 8, 2012. Photo Credit: Craig T. Mathew-Mathew Imaging

A packed Hollywood Bowl celebrated Filipino culture on July 8 at a concert curated by Black Eyed Peas member The show featured traditional and modern dance, Original Philippine Music, and hits by contemporary Filipino artists. Fellow Black Eyed Peas members and Taboo joined to perform some of their group’s chart-topping songs and celebrate this historic night.

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Philippines Bound: The Simple Life

The seaside nipa-hut style restaurant where Libagon students spend their lunch break eating and singing karaoke.

I have always wondered how my life would be like had my parents never left their hometown of Libagon, Southern Leyte for the United States. Having spent the last two weeks here in this town (where it’d only take you 15-20 minutes to walk from one end to the other),I’ve gotten a taste of what that life would be.

The best word to describe the lifestyle of Libagon residents is simple. Students attend school from 8 am until 4 pm. During their lunch breaks they’ll either get snacks from the street vendors, play computer games at the Internet Café, or sing a couple songs on the karaoke machine at the seaside restaurant (designed to look like a nipa hut).

Libagon can be compared to the city of Las Vegas because it is a town that never sleeps. From sunrise until sunset the town is alive with people who always have something to do. If they aren’t working, parents will pass the time by visiting friends and relatives to make kwnetuhan (share stories and gossip). Fishermen will get on their boats to catch fish or squid to sell. Young boys climb up palm trees to gather coconuts for a refreshing snack.

Even though I am not completely worry-free and have my Audrey assignments (like these series of posts) to do, I cannot help but feel calm and relaxed in this town. Everyone is so friendly and quick to help others out. Everyone knows each other and if they don’t they do not hesitate to introduce themselves.

I may not have been born here or know every family and their history like my parents, but Libagon is a very special place to me and I do feel at home.

However, I know I won’t ever be able to relate to the impoverished life that most people in this town live. Both my father and mother’s families are fairly well off, but they have always managed to stay humble and know that the best way to really give thanks to God for their blessings is to help those who are less fortunate than them.

The children of Libagon.

My brother has celebrated his 5th, 13th and (most recently) his 18th birthday in Libagon. I can recall on the day of my brother’s 5th birthday, my mom and aunts were running around decorating the area along the beachfront where we would be holding the celebration. My brother started to cry because he noticed there were no gifts for him to be found. He sobbed to my mother, “Mommy, where are my presents? It’s my birthday!”

My parents took my brother aside and explained to him that here in the Philippines many children are not as lucky as him. They don’t have closets full of clothes or bedrooms full of toys. Some children aren’t even able to go to school because their parents do not have enough money to pay for their education.

As with all of his birthdays that have been celebrated in Libagon, my family invited many children to the party so that they could enjoy the many delicious food we had prepared: lechon (roasted pig), pancit (noodles), fried chicken, and fish among other dishes. It may just be one day out of the whole year that they can enjoy this kind of feast, but you can see in their eyes how happy and appreciative they are.

Once all the children are fed my parents distribute “presents” we brought for them from the United States. This year they brought a box full of various types of shoes for boys and girls and another box filled with notebooks, pens, pencils, calculators and other school supplies.

My mother passing out notebooks, pencils, and other school supplies to children.

Living in the U.S. it can be easy for me to get caught up in my daily routine of working and worrying over petty things like a friend not returning a call right away, but when I see the big smile on a little boy or girl’s face over something as simple as a pack of pencils, reality hits me. My so-called problems are nothing in comparison to what many people deal with day in and day out in the Philippines. At the age of 5, my brother may have cried because he wasn’t receiving a table full of presents, but we both now know (thanks to the example set by our parents) the importance of sharing one’s blessings.