Finding Filipino Identity In The World Of Shoes

Discover local heritage and culture unraveled through the art of shoe-making.

Some say that there is no room for tradition in a constantly changing world. In recent years, social advancements have disrupted our way of life, altering how we shop, communicate, and express ourselves. While these changes present significant challenges for many communities, the pursuit of inclusion can lead to positive transformations.

One specific progress came strongly; the movement towards being proud of our own. When the world around us pushes for a new way of living, advocacies acknowledging that tradition and heritage are all the more important have led us to where we are now. In the Philippines, both the public and private sectors are lobbying for ample support for our local industries. The market is gradually becoming more aware of how vital their patronage is to maker communities. Almost every promotional campaign today calls for more people to support ‘local’ and embrace their Filipino identity.

A work-in-progress shot of Sierra designed by Carla Apostol and made with Zapateria/ Photo courtesy of Zapateria Hub

This was not the case a few decades ago. Growing up, I was raised as a proud Filipino, but not everyone shared the same sentiments I had among my peers. During my time back then, being more fluent in English than Tagalog was applauded. Wearing imported signature brands determined whether you were considered cool or not, and being updated on the latest MTV TRL was the talk of the town, rather than the OPM daily top ten of MYX. In short, being anything other than Filipino could dictate your sense of belonging. Gradually, my fondness for local culture was put to the test when I started questioning why we were not like other countries. Fortunately, I was reminded of who I am when I went back to my roots and stepped into Filipino shoes.

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Following the footsteps and starting anew

I was born into a family that has been making shoes since 1887. My father, Rico, started as a shoeshine boy when he was 13 years old at my grandfather’s factory. He learned how to make shoes from his father who also learned from his father. My family has gone through their own share of ups and downs in the industry. But, the love for craft always remained. They say the joy that shoemaking brings to us is more than what we can even benefit from it. 

Rico and Unyx Sta. Ana serve as the legacy bearer of their family’s shoemaking heritage that began in 1887./ Photo courtesy of Zapateria Hub and Mark Neto Diaz

In the past, shoemaking was highly regarded as a noble profession in Marikina City, providing a decent livelihood for many. However, as time passed, skepticism towards manual labor became more common, especially when compared to supposedly lucrative corporate professions. Mass manufacturing in the era of globalization further influenced how artisans, including those in shoemaking, are perceived and treated. There are those who view artisanal professions as dead-end jobs, often considered a last resort for those struggling to secure a stable income. Even back in the day, Michelangelo’s father expressed dissatisfaction when he learned of his son’s desire to become an artist, stating, “Artists are laborers, no different from shoemakers”.

Unyx and Rico Sta. Ana/ Photo courtesy of Zapateria Hub

Because of this mindset, many parents steer their children away from becoming creative makers, envisioning them in suits rather than aprons, working in secure high-rise offices far from the clamor of factory floors. My family, too, fell into this pattern. Perhaps, this belief influenced their choice not to pursue careers in footwear, except for my father. Surprisingly, he always wished for me since I was a little kid to follow in his shoemaking journey, aspiring to bring back honor to our ancestors.

A mold of her own

Despite his subtle cues in my youth, the local shoe industry was struck hard by imports from large offshoring countries. Thriving in that sector during those times seemed like an unattainable goal for us, forcing us to adapt to new challenges. Personally, I discovered my passion for technology and forged my own path in that field. While my family’s history in footwear initially inspired me, it eventually became a mere footnote in my journey, losing much of its appeal. However, when my father got into an accident in 2015, it seemed inescapable to run away from a non-tangible legacy. Despite the difficulties it brought us, it was the only thing that kept us together.

Zapateria founder Unyx Sta. Ana with her father Rico receiving the ArteFino 2019 Pamana award/ Photo courtesy of ArteFino

In 2017, I founded Zapateria, the Philippines’ first creative hub for footwear design and development. While different from what I was accustomed to, I knew that somehow I could marry my background in tech with my family’s heritage and innovate the space to make it more future proof . Little did I know though that the more I became immersed in the business, the more I appreciated our Filipino ways of making and the magic that makes it so unique. Our mission grew beyond ourselves.  It is important for us to nurture  our longstanding heritage beyond the bloodline by fostering creative innovation for more generations to continue appreciating and learning about the craft. In the process of connecting our roots to our progressive like-minded community, I have found to learn more about what it means to work with our hands and what it means to be Filipino.

A Handmade Culture that Can Shape the Future

Shoes are way more complex than it may seem. Fit is always a concern, styles must always be relevant, and there are so many moving parts that allow people to stride with pride. Here in the Philippines, the birth of the shoe industry was rooted in a desire to diversify an agricultural province’s economic opportunities. From rice fields to craft stations, shoemaking fueled a community to start anew with a home-based industry with sewing machines in living rooms while children played on leather heaps.

Master shoemaker Ed/ Photo courtesy of Zapateria Hub

Small but many, limited but capable; Filipino shoemakers are talented folks who have always been resourceful since the dawn of the craft. Supplies and materials are scant, machineries are scarce, tools are self-made, and most expert artisans are also self-taught or trained out of actual working experience. There was no formal training for shoemaking in the Philippines back then. Mind you, even the father of the Philippine shoe industry, Kapitan Moy, learned the craft together with my great-great-grandfather Anastacio Liquitco solely by dissecting different parts of shoes and reconstructing them back. Meaning, that all that has been practiced and passed down for over a century is an exercise of individual mastery and resilience. Yet, we still witness a thriving sector bloom as a Php 1 Billion industry and was once a center point for global export. 

Master Shoemaker Ester, aunt in law of Unyx / Photo courtesy of Zapateria Hub

Grounded soles

What sets us apart though, is not just the concept of being a landscape run by mom-and-pop shops, but the adept versatility of enjoying working with our hands and how it impacts the community as a whole. Despite the majority of the industry leaning more towards handmade, this same capacity was able to maximize itself to serve almost all segments: from mass markets to high-fashion scenes, from retail ready-to-wear to expressive customs. Furthermore, our “small but capable” structure also allows us to provide services that can fit specific demands, namely the Filipino pasadya. Unlike the international bespoke footwear services offered around the globe, Filipino shoemakers present the same caliber of customization and personalization for their own people at a flexible offering. This same feature in the industry also normalizes non-medical orthotics for those in need, as well as eccentric pairs for special occasions.

The iconic Leonor and Charito of Rico Sta. Ana, featuring his signature skin stitched “mokmok” soles and woven leather accent / Photo courtesy of Common Room

This is further expounded upon acknowledging that Filipinos in general are expressive as a society. We like to wear what is both familiar and can represent our individuality or sense of belonging. While oftentimes riding the coattails of local and global trends, we still patronize what we wish to be best affiliated with. Aside from this, we are by culture, maximalists. A trait that drives the creativity of shoemakers so that they can provide what the clients would prefer and what they personally will deem their own artful expression as artisans.

Footsteps of hope

In recent years, at Zapateria, we have explored and stretched the capabilities of our Marikina makers with creative challenges. While most of our in-house artisans are highly skilled, creating a pair of mythical sea-serpent wooden clogs made from X-ray films could bewilder even the best in the field. Nevertheless, the challenge was met with eagerness, fueled by our genuine interest in bringing such an imaginative concept to life.

A bit of extra love and care for Zapateria’s Leonor heels by their footwear finisher, Nanie; an artisan devoted to the aesthetic polishing of each shoe made at the studio/ Photo courtesy of Zapateria Hub

Upon launching a space dedicated to craft and creativity, the culture of openness to experimentation and tinkering inspired even the new makers in the studio, many of whom were accustomed to creating standard designs throughout their careers. Since then, we have observed our Filipino artisans at their most dignified and curious selves, witnessing how their interactions shifted from ‘worker mode’ to ‘artist mode’ in between huddles.

The heartwork of Filipino made

Taking strides in the world of footwear opened me up to so many experiences that I would never have imagined. Being able to spend time with our local makers, hearing their stories, sharing their hardships and learning from them about their passion can surely inspire a person to embrace their Filipino heritage. Filipinos pour their hearts out into everything they make. An unrequited passion passed down from generations are added into each pair crafted, sharing a little piece of devotion to its wearer; hoping that maybe a handmade shoe can make someone appreciate others’ hard work. Shoemakers are creators not only of shoes but of Filipino tradition. And they deserve a place in the ever-changing world. 

Dayang Mahalina is a contemporary wearable art inspired by the traditional Filipino bakya by Zapateria x Glorious Dias / Photo courtesy of Zapateria Hub

It is no wonder that my father dreamt for me to be part of this craft, he wanted me to remember where I came from and to never forget who I am. Of course, Michelangelo’s artistic talent and dedication eventually led him to become one of the most celebrated people in history, challenging the notion that artists and laborers were of lesser social standing. I hope that we do not need to refer only to Michelangelo or foreign concepts to value our own craft. We have our resources and talents in making beautiful pieces from here. We do not have to go far. Achieving independence as a country is one. It is in our hands now to keep building and supporting our nation with our own culture. The real pride in Filipino heartwork is when each one of us can truly embrace local as part of our everyday life and to proudly respect its intricate value that we can share with the world.

Banner photo courtesy of Zapateria Hub.

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