A History of the Country’s Longest-Running Design Show

Two directors share a visual and oral story of Manila FAME.

PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM

(SPOT.ph) Long before Filipino products were showcased in multiple trade events and bazaars throughout the year, there was Manila FAME, arguably the grand dame of Philippine design fairs. 

Manila FAME, which is the second longest-running biannual trade fair in the Asia-Pacific region, has grown into a global lifestyle show after 35 years. The show has been crucial in helping push Philippine-made furniture, fashion, and other accessories into the export market, and has also been instrumental in launching the careers of many local designers. 

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With the fair on its 70th edition from October 17 to 19, we look back at its history and take a peek at its future through the insights of two directors—from different generations—of the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions.  

The Beginnings of FAME

Big Chinese and Thai furniture fairs had yet to exist in the early 1980s to mid-1990s and Maison et Objet, the famous Paris design show, was not launched until 1995. If the international market was looking for specialized manufacturers for furniture and fashion, they all had to go to FAME. 

Mina Gabor was the founder and first president of CITEM under the Ministry of Trade and Industry. She launched Manila FAME in 1983 to build up the country’s export industry.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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Manila FAME was launched in 1983 by Mina Gabor, founder of the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM), which was under the then-Ministry of Trade and Industry (now Department of Trade and Industry). 

CITEM’s execom in the 1990s (standing, left to right) Deputy executive directors Lourdes Ilusorio, Felicitias Agoncillo-Reyes, and Lita Madulid; (sitting, left to right) deputy executive director Art Dimaano and executive director Eli Pinto-Mansor.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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Lourdes Ilusorio, who worked at CITEM from 1991 to 2008 as Deputy Executive Director, recalls those days. “It really started with Mina Gabor. She was the one who laid out all the groundwork, and asked all the buyers to come here. She was very much for upgrading the export industry and the quality of Philippine products, as she was very design-oriented,” Ilusorio relates. “It was a very exciting time. Magaling ang mga Pinoy; we have the best sensibilities of both East and West, and that is our advantage over other Asian countries.”

The first few shows of Manila FAME were held at the huge halls of the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC).
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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Back then, buyers trekked to the halls in their suits. Buses moved nonstop between Philippine Plaza Hotel and the Hyatt, ferrying international guests to and from the trade venues. “The shows were very big, and there were so many buyers, the sales kept on going up,” Ilusorio recalls. “All of the venues we [could] be in, nandoon kami—PPTC [Philippine Trade Training Center], PICC [Philippine International Convention Center], even the Golden Shell Pavilion with all its little halls.” 

Milan of Asia

The Gerald Tyler Special Setting in 1990. Manila FAME regularly brought in foreign design consultants to collaborate with the local manufacturers.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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One of the highlights of Manila FAME was when Gabor reeled in the late Araceli Pinto-Mansor as Executive Director of CITEM in the 1990s. “You know why [Gabor] and [Pinto-Mansor] were so successful? It’s because they complemented each other and they worked together very well,” Ilusorio muses, adding that style arbiter Pinto-Mansor was key in giving FAME the designer vibe it is known for until today.  

Furniture and product designer Al Caronan was part of the original group of Movement 8, which executive director Araceli Pinto-Mansor created to bring Filipino design to an international level.
PHOTO Courtesy of Noni Agulto
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Kenneth Cobonpue became internationally renowned for his product and furniture design.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM

By the late '90s, Pinto-Mansor formed Movement 8, which became a turning point for Manila FAME. Movement 8 was a collective of Filipino designers, including Ann Pamintuan, Carlo Cordaro, Tes Pasola, Al Caronan, and a young Kenneth Cobonpue, and curated by Budji Layug. The designers were chosen for their sophisticated pieces and ground-breaking material manipulations that caused a sensation when they exhibited abroad. 

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With Movement 8, Pinto-Mansor raised the bar for Filipino product design, and she called the Philippines “the Milan of Asia.” Ilusorio shares, “The original Movement 8 was so good…you really got the cream of the crop, and they were forward-thinking. Their innovation was brilliant, and they changed the look of Philippine design. We became more international.” 

In the 1980s to the '90s, the Gifts, Toys, Houseware, and Fashion Accessories were in a category separate from the furniture category.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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A furniture exhibit at the fifth edition of Manila FAME in the 1980s. “The furniture exhibits were the most exciting part of the fair,” says Ilusorio. “Everyone looked forward to it.”
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
A Cebu manufacturer’s exhibit in the 1989 FAME. “There was one problem back then—exhibitors didn’t want to sell locally, kasi feeling nila kokopyahin sila. They didn’t want anybody to take photos. But now, everyone takes photos, posts on Instagram. Tapos na!”
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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But after a few years, Ilusorio admits that there was a downside to this direction. “Before that, any exhibitor who wanted to join, basta mag-pass ka ng application, okay na. But after Movement 8, it became too selective. Eli [Pinto-Mansor] would say: ‘I want a small show with the best exhibitors [rather] than a big show na halo-halo!’ I think some of the other exhibitors started to feel excluded, and then FAME kept on becoming smaller.” 

The issue eventually resolved itself when Pinto-Mansor retired and Movement 8 broke up. Yet the after-effects were positive. Taking cue from the Movement, other exhibitors began raising their design standards, and manufacturers even collaborated with the designers on improving their products. 

A Fresh Eye for FAME 

These days, there is an air of inclusivity and a renewed energy in the FAME shows. The overall design sense in high, but not necessarily highbrow, and the vibe is young. 

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Former editor in chief Pauline Suaco-Juan stepped in as executive director of CITEM last 2018.
PHOTO BY Courtesy of CITEM

At the helm for a new generation of exhibitors, buyers, and visitors is CITEM’s current Executive Director Pauline Suaco-Juan, who was appointed in August 2018, just a couple of months shy of the 68th edition of FAME. Suaco-Juan, who was editor-in-chief of Preview for 15 years, shares that her being a media person and an “outsider” of sorts was an advantage when she got into CITEM.

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The Design Commune is a merchandise development program curated by Filipino creatives from various industries. “There’s always a way to do Modern Pinoy…but Vince Uy and Nix Alanon put in more color, juxtaposed more materials, and moved away from a lifestyle setting,” says Suaco-Juan.
PHOTO BY Courtesy of CITEM
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“I think what we did differently is that we looked beyond the community of Manila FAME because I was from the press, and we have a different network, and so I brought that in,” she explains. For the April 2019 edition of FAME, she introduced creative director Vince Uy, stylist Andrei Chang, and other young creatives who weren’t part of the usual trade show lineup to collaborate in the Design Commune, a merchandise development program and space. 

Filipino Design at the Forefront

Minimalist, museum-style booths that highlighted the products and materials like that of Masaeco Paper are a hallmark of the new Manila FAME shows.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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There is also the obvious shift of attitude when it comes to design—instead of aiming to become “international,” showcasing Filipino culture and pride now takes precedence. Suaco-Juan claims that this isn’t just a passing trend, but rather, something that was already brewing years ago. This is why they chose the theme of “Heritage Reimagined” for both FAME editions this year. 

The Artisans Village was recently added to FAME to highlight a specific region’s distinctive products, from fashion and textiles to handicrafts and food.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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FAME has become a venue for traditional weavers from different regions to collaborate with noted designers, brands, and manufacturers. 
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM

“There is this moment right now where people are rediscovering pride in the Filipino artisan, and it’s a new generation. It’s the kids nowadays who say: ‘I want to wear a terno.’ Pero matagal na ito. Even when we still had the magazine [Preview], Amarie and Filip+Inna  were already there, artelano 11 was there, Team Manila had already pioneered making Pinoy cool. Now you go to any bazaar, everything is Pinoy,” Suaco-Juan explains. 

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“I think it’s tied to nostalgia, so this is an opportune time to tap into Heritage Reimagined. Because the former Manila FAME community was always so intent on figuring out ‘What else can we do?’ that they didn’t realize you can actually mine your history, and make it fresh again for a new generation of buyers and visitors who have not been here in the 1980s.” 

What Is Old Is New Again

The second and third generation of manufacturers at Manila FAME are highlighted in the 70th edition. From left: Jennifer Lo of Larone Crafts, Janice Chua of Cyprea, Leslie Bituin of JB Woodcraft, Suaco-Juan, and Meyte Chan of Shell Arts.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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Another recurring theme is the redesign of archival pieces, whether by design consultants or through the fresh eyes of the exhibitors themselves. The second or third generation of children of the manufacturers—some of whom have been exhibiting since the very first year of FAME—are celebrated in its 70th edition. 

High-end Philippine fashion brands chosen by CITEM such as Aranaz, Filip+Inna, Beatriz, Zacarias 1925, and others participated at the Premiere Classe Trade Show in Paris this September.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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Suaco-Juan describes a conversation she had with Meyte Chan, the creative director of Shell Arts, and granddaughter of the owner. “She realized she was sitting on a treasure trove of products, of design history, in their archive of items from the '70s, says Suaco-Juan “And her grandmother was saying: ‘You know, I never thought of reviving this.’ Design houses all over the world are mining their archives. Why can’t we do that with ours?” 

One new component of FAME is the E-tailers Section, which features curated fashion and décor brands that sell on Instagram and other digital platforms. “We realized that those who want to become brands can start in that section, where they could meet their customers, get feedback from real buyers, and benchmark with one another,” says Suaco-Juan.
PHOTO Courtesy of CITEM
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One of FAME’s former E-tailers who have gone global is HaloHalo, makers of décor and accessories made out of woven recycled plastic. They recently joined the Design Philippines exhibit at Maison et Objet in Paris.
PHOTO BY Courtesy of CITEM

Suaco-Juan goes on to reveal that a majority of the FAME buyers are domestic now. The construction boom is still in full swing, and a new generation of shoppers have taken the “Buy Local” tagline to heart. Some manufacturers mentioned that since the China factories killed their export arm, they concentrated on the local market, and ended up with better sales.

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It is interesting to note that while Manila FAME began by thinking and designing global to attract international buyers, they have now returned to their roots by thinking and designing Filipino. It’s like a coming home of sorts for this long-running, ever-evolving fair—reworked and reinvigorated for a generation that’s open to anything.  

The 70th edition of Manila FAME runs from October 17 to 19 at World Trade Center, Pasay Extension corner Sen. Gil Puyat Avenue, Pasay City. For more information, visit their website.

Images courtesy of CITEM and Noni Agulto

Rachelle Medina is a licensed interior designer, heritage enthusiast, and the former editor-in-chief of Real Living. She spends her free time exploring museums and decaying old buildings. Follow Rachelle on Instagram @goldosmom.

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