Style Storyteller: On Late Bloomer Book Dreams, Championing Local, And Nudges From The Universe - LA Lives

Have you noticed how the pandemic led us to purge the unnecessary, but only deepened our love for local? How the small but meaningful brands are rising against all odds, especially when they are rooted in our culture and traditions?

These are the stories I want to continue to tell with pride—and to think I used to be made to feel like my work was frivolous because it involved fashion.

BUT FIRST, WRITER DREAMS

As a shy kid, I had two magical hideaways: my Lola’s walk-in closet, and my baby cousin Tuffy’s room, all four walls of which were lined from floor to ceiling with an eclectic and illuminating collection of books even before he was born (from Dr. Seuss and Shakespeare, to Indian comics and Where Do Babies Come From).

I spent hours dreamily sifting through Lola’s dresses and trying on her shoes, but even more hours immersed in the bedroom of books, a literal fantasy island. Excursions to National Bookstore were the ultimate treat, and in my heart bloomed the dream of becoming a writer.

Pierra Calasanz-Labrador | Photo by Anne Bella for stylistofsorts.com

But for Gen X kids, pursuing the arts was generally discouraged (“There’s no money in that!”), so when the time came to pick a course for college, I chose the pragmatic business route. On my final term of my final year, I randomly took a poetry elective under Dr. Cirilo Bautista (who would become National Artist for Literature), and it reignited a love for the craft of writing.

Around this time, for another class, I submitted a poem in place of an essay, and braced myself for the inevitable reprimand from my teacher Brother Gene. Instead, he introduced me to Filipino poet and novelist Bienvenido Santos, who had been based in the US for many years and was considered a pioneering Asian- American writer. Now retired, Santos happened to be a Visiting Artist and Writer at De La Salle University (they would later establish and name their writing center after him). 

A page from my scrapbook: mini mentoring sessions with novelist, fictionist, and poet, Bienvenido Santos

READ ALSO: ‘People I Have Been’: Atma Prema Publishes Its First Book Authored By Lissa Romero De Guia

In between classes, I would drop by for informal mentoring sessions out of the kindness of his heart. I distinctly remember him stressing importance of persistence, knowing that a young writer’s greatest nemesis is self-doubt. “No matter how many rejection slips you receive, keep on writing,” he said, revealing that he had his share of disappointments but always forged on.

Sir Ben also encouraged me to try out for the National Writers’ Workshop in Silliman, Dumaguete. The three-week writing workshop amongst fellow creatives and fierce but inspiring panelists was a life-changing experience, cementing my desire to be an author someday, somehow. Even as I grappled with the worst case of writer’s block for the next few years, watching everyone else make their mark while I eked out a “decent living” in soul-sucking day jobs.

STYLE STORY

Eventually, I started contributing minor features to MEGA magazine, and on one visit to their office, they asked me if I knew anyone who loved both fashion and writing, as they were completing their team for MEG, MEGA’s “teen sister.” Me me me, I said. When I came in for the interview, Liza Ilarde, then MEGA’s fashion editor and MEG’s editor-in-chief, told me I had the least fashion experience, but the most willingness to learn. And that’s how I officially ended up in the world of publishing, starting off as fashion assistant and making my way up to editor-in-chief. Suddenly, all those hours gawking at my Lola’s sophisticated, sparkly dresses made sense. I was also fascinated by my mom’s 70s boho, funky, and printastic clothes, which I often borrowed as a teen. Add the frou frou influence of the Japanese anime CandyCandy, The Virgin Suicides-inspired frocks, and vintage anything, and there you have the source of my love for anything “Lola chic.” I may not ever have been a head-turning fashionista, but I always needed to put my own tiny spin on things (I still have my 300+ earring collection from high school, where I wore a different pair of earrings every single day to spice up our school uniform).

Fifi’s Finds: The problem with treasure hunting is that I always end up wanting local gems for myself. Here wearing all Filipino in a terno mini by Jor-el Espina, Shield backpack by Zacarias 1925, and Lakat sneakers

Magically, my quirky preferences matched MEG’s more lighthearted approach to fashion, and I found my place in the world of glossies. Because MEG advocated a well-rounded lifestyle, I loved that it encouraged readers to pursue different interests while expressing their own personal style. More than following trends, it honored individuality—from mix-and-match fashion features and pop culture round-ups, to heartfelt guides on navigating the drama of teenhood (remember that groundbreaking article by a young Bianca Gonzalez on embracing our morena beauty?). Along with other teen magazines in the early 2000s, I felt like we helped shape a generation. At the very least, it helped shape me.

When I decided to go freelance, my former editor Liza Ilarde invited me to write a column for Manila Bulletin, where she was then Section Editor of Fashion and Beauty. “Fifi, think of a concept,” she said. (Fifi was what some magazine friends called me). My favorite thing was featuring cute brands on the rise, so I said, “How about a column of finds?” And thus, “Fifi’s Finds” was born.

CHAMPIONING LOCAL

Through the years, I realized that my favorite stories were of homegrown artisanal finds and indie brands (save for the occasional Japan travel story). More and more, I narrowed down my freelance assignments and projects to those that championed local, while “Fifi’s Finds” eventually focused on purely Filipino brands, especially when it migrated to Instagram. I’m not alone in this local advocacy, and I definitely don’t have the massive following of others, but I’m just happy to help share stories of brands that celebrate our traditions, heritage, and artistry. Local budol/shopping enabler at your service!

I love it when people I interview end up becoming good friends. Here with Filip + Inna’s Len Cabili, both wearing Filip + Inna.

Working on the fringes of fashion for over two decades, it’s been wonderful to witness an incredible shift in people’s mindset—from a stubborn colonial mentality, to supporting proudly homegrown.

And as devastating as the pandemic is, it helped foster the need to appreciate and protect our own. Of course, not just because something is stamped with “made in the Philippines,” it gets a free pass—we need to strive to be world-class in anything we do.

MANIFESTING DREAMS

While my magazine experience was instrumental in carving out a life path, the best thing about going freelance was that it freed up time to work toward my biggest dream—writing books. Here, I have to credit having a supportive partner in my husband Toto, who is a professional photographer. As a freelance artist himself, he understands the need to do what we love, even as our parents probably worry about our finances.

Still, there’s a loooot of self-doubt that comes with sharing personal work. I had no idea who would be interested in my poetry or how to even go about getting it published, but a series of seemingly random events gave me a push: an invite to reiki sessions with Happiness Doctor Lia Bernardo to manifest my dreams; a self-publishing workshop by author and @romanceclassbooks founder Mina Esguerra; and most importantly, reconnecting with my friend and Silliman Workshop co-fellow Randy Bustamante, who convinced me to join his creative writing workshop at Ayala Museum. I hadn’t attended a writing workshop since Silliman two decades (!) before, but Randy really helped me feel seen as a poet and build the confidence to share my voice with the world. (Randy was not only gifted in nurturing writers, but was also a genuine friend to many, so it broke our hearts when he passed away in 2020).

The Heartbreak Diaries by Pierra Calasanz-Labrador, illustrated by Celina de Guzman

My first book, The Heartbreak Diaries: Poems on Heartbreak and Hope, was self-published, though very much a community effort (thank you, beta readers, cheerleader family and friends, the helping hands who manually stuck price tags on hundreds of copies…). It also features the dark and dreamy illustrations of Celina de Guzman. When it launched in 2015, the first kind souls to carry it were artisan shops Hey Kessy, Common Room, and cult favorite Baguio bookshop Mt. Cloud, before I got up the guts to knock on the door of National Bookstore. 

The Heartbreak Diaries by Pierra Calasanz-Labrador, illustrated by Celina de Guzman

When they said yes, it spelled nationwide distribution for my book, which was pretty incredible. Spotting The Heartbreak Diaries on their iconic shelves for the first time was a major pinch-me moment. What’s more is that they saw a genuine interest in my poetry, and their publishing arm Anvil (then helmed by Andrea Pasion-Flores), offered to publish my next book. Of course I said yes.

The second book, Dear Universe, is a collection of poems on love, longing, and finding your place in the cosmos, beautifully illustrated by Frances Alvarez. Released in 2018, Anvil also produced a matching audiobook (voiced by podcast celebrity Joyce Pring), thus pioneering audiobooks in the Philippines.

Dear Universe by Pierra Calasanz-Labrador, illustrated by Frances Alvarez and published by Spark Books/Anvil Publishing 

Nostalgia and coming-of-age are favorite themes, so both books are written for the eternal inner teenager, and probably won’t appeal to everyone. But once in a while, I get messages from readers of all ages, and each time, I’m awed at how the power of words connects us.

With husband Toto at the launch of Dear Universe in 2018 at The Podium

IN THE WORKS

I used to feel terribly pressured by the question “What are you working on?” until I finally learned to honor my own path and pace. My third poetry book is actually overdue—it’s been in the works for quite some time, but I love how my community of friends affirm my faith that it will be ready when it’s ready. Its working title is The Year of Paying Attention and instead of romance, it’s shaping up to be more meditative, slice-of-life, and full of gratitude.

I’m currently collaborating on a series of zines with my sister- in-law Chinggay Labrador, who runs Practical Magic. The first volume is out; it’s called Ancient Alchemy and is available on Practicalmagic.co.

Practical Magic’s Ancient Alchemy zine (Also in photo: earrings by beautiful Filipino heritage jewelry brand Amami)

Launched last June in time for Independence Day, it gives readers a taste of our pre-colonial magic through prose, poetry, and beautiful illustrations. You’ll also find my poems on Tricia Gosingtian’s dreamy fashion site Hinhin.com. I truly appreciate that it gives me a platform to merge a love for clothes and poetry, and share it with kindred spirits. Sometimes, when I feel cringey about my raw, vulnerable poems (especially those in my first book), I only have to remember these words from my wise friend Denise Weldon: “Please free yourself from judging your younger self. Every step has brought us to where we are and where we are going next.”

Pinch-me moment: Spotting my Dear Universe next to mentor Bienvenido Santos’ book at National Bookstore, over two decades after he promised “You’ll get there!”

And that’s the story so far—perhaps not wildly spectacular or even successful according to other people’s standards, but when I think about how I am slowly, surely, happily living out a childhood dream while also championing meaningful local enterprises, it feels pretty magical to me.

Connect with the author on Instagram @tinypoem.

Photos courtesy of Pierra Calasanz-Labrador.

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