Bicolana uses “pinukpok” fabric to style gowns in New York Fashion Runway

OAS, Albay — Grace Brucal, a US-based Bicolana physical therapist, thought that her profession is the most stable job to practice and sustain her family. But she was wrong. 

“I thought [being a] physical therapist is a stable (job), but I was wrong. Everybody had a hard time,” Brucal shared. 

The pandemic took a huge toll on her career, partially losing her job in 2020. 

But what seems to be a blow on her profession was actually a way to rekindle her inner child’s enthusiasm as a fashionista and designer. 

Using her last paycheck as a physical therapist, Brucal bought a sewing machine to create (face)masks to help people protect themselves from the corona virus disease and at the same time to generate income.

Thanks to this initiative, it gave birth to Steadfast Design and Boutique, her very own fashion line, specializing wears made of ‘pinukpok’ fabric. 

In an interview with Bicol.PH, Brucal recalled that pinukpok was first introduced to her when her brother, who is a priest based in Bicol, posted on Facebook a face mask made of pinukpok fabric.

This sparked the idea of creating other formal wears and accessories which leveled up her sewing from a simple facemask to gowns and accessories used in New York fashion runways. 

“I wanted to focus on something, fabric that is really known in Bicol but also rare. That’s when I ended up using pinukpok in my gowns.”

‘Pinukpok’ is a Bicol term for ‘pound’ while pinukpok fabric is made by pounding abaca strands before getting hand woven into a fabric. It is said to be three-times stronger, more refined, and glossier than the usual cotton and silk fibers .

Treading the fashion runway

Brucal always loved bringing Filipino culture to America. And to better promote our culture, she decided to enroll in an online course in New York to develop her skills in fashion-design. 

Within a year, she was able to make a name out of Steadfast Design and Boutique in the New York fashion scene. 

“Americans loved ‘bling-blings’. I wanted to create something different, that’s very rare, so I created boleros with bedazzled crystals and anything that’s shiny,” Brucal shared when asked what prompted her to create boleros.

Just recently, Steadfast Design and Boutique made its second debut in the New York fashion show last February 11 introducing boleros out of pinukpok fabrics. 

Their boleros were all hand-crafted with different and distinct designs that are non-repetitive and can be customized depending on the buyer’s preferences and sizes.

Aside from its unique designs, Brucal shared that another factor that made her boleros stand out in the foreign runway was its versatility as an accessory. 

“It (bolero) is very convenient and practical. When you put [a] bolero on your outfit, it gives a new look,” Brucal said. 

Steadfast Design and Boutique is currently on its fourth season of their fashion shows and will take on a tour this year to different parts of the globe including Los Angeles, United Kingdom, Canada, Orlando, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Philippines in December.

Pinukpok for Small Businesses

Aside from catapulting Bicolano culture into the gleam of foreign fashion stage, Brucal also aims to help local weavers in the region. 

Most of her tailored gowns and boleros were created by pinukpok weavers in the Bicol region. 

Since pinukpok fabric is also rare, she’s exporting them from the region to directly help local designers and abaca workers and weavers in Albay. 

“What I do is connecting (sic) these designers, (abaca) workers and small business people that need manufacturing to the manufacturers (that I know) [and] can supply them,” said Brucal.

Steadfast Design and Boutique also has a 2-year old feeding program that feeds communities in Albay, most particularly in Matacon, Polangui, Albay. 

However, helping small businesses is just one step to nurture the pinukpok industry in and out of the country. As she shared, it needs funding and ample support directly from the local government to support pinukpok weavers in the region. 

“When you put a (rare) [fashion style] in New York, it becomes a hot commodity. People wanted it. So it needs mass production. That’s my fear because this type of fabric is really rare and I might not be able to supply it that long,” Brucal shared. 

With great compassion and love for our local culture, Brucal calls for support to the Albay government to recognize and fortify the pinukpok industry in the region. 

“Hindi ko ‘to fabric, fabric ito ng mga Bicolano kaya gusto kong mapansin ng gobyerno at masupply-an tayo. I need help kasi hindi ko hawak ‘yon (pinukpok fabric).”

[This is not my fabric, these are Bicolanos-made fabric that’s why I wanted the government to recognize and supply us. I need help because these (pinukpok fabric) are not mine to hold.]

Brucal aspires for Steadfast Design and Boutique to grow as a producer and manufacturer and believes that Philippines can be a good manufacturer and supplier of pinukpok fabrics.

“(My) [creations] are a symbol of empathy and hard work. These are creations of love of hardworking people. Anything that can help that pops in my mind I do it. The sky has no limit. Whatever that can help, I will do it and I will make it happen.” | via Ken Oliver Balde

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Photos: Grace Steadfast