(SPOT.ph) While new shopping centers are still popping up left and right all over the Metro, and old ones are undergoing constant renovation or opening new stores in every wing, there’s now something nostalgic about going to the mall. The way we spend time outside our homes is changing—it’s becoming common again for people to opt for mom-and-pop corner street restaurants or artisanal markets. Shopping often takes place either online or in more niche, independent shops. The shift is inevitable, and with the market becoming more competitive and saturated than ever, older shops have had to either meet the expectation or else shut down. It's rare that a shop is able to really withstand the test of time, but with the right components—whether it be knowing their customers well, their ability to adjust to the market, or just the consistency and development of their products—it's definitely possible. One such brand (which ticks off all three on the list) is local leatherware brand FINO.
FINO began as a stall at a Christmas bazaar in the early '90s. Owner Rose Ann Bautista shares how her husband (“still my boyfriend at the time,” she says with a laugh), was in medical school and needed some personal items like a briefcase and an agenda. From there, they tapped the first maker (a leather furniture maker to be exact) in order to produce their first line of products to be sold at a bazaar. “We wanted to do things for ourselves and we appreciated developing things that we don’t find locally,” she shares. They were eventually tapped by bigger companies to make more products. Their very first line in stores included a total of five products: A folio, a wallet, a checkbook holder, a pen case, and an agenda. It’s hard to believe the brand, which is now associated with colorful women’s bags, once leaned towards more masculine, utilitarian designs.
Call It Serendipity
Bautista says the birth of FINO was something almost serendipitous, as it coincided with the rise of malls in the Metro. SM Megamall had opened in November of 1991, with Shangri-La Plaza following shortly after in January of 1992, and FINO in February of that same year under Coalition Zoo (a store selling all local brands, located in Shangri-La Plaza). “One of the main formulas would be the timing,” she says. “It’s not as if we super planned it out.” In the time since, it has become something of an institution in Manila mall culture. And as the malls have grown and spread, so has the brand.
The first standalone FINO store was located in Glorietta 3, a wing of the mall dedicated to brands meant to attract a younger crowd—"the new concept stores," as Bautista calls them. Their initial target market was young professionals—“the yuppies,” she says, “because that’s who we were.” She shares that she remembers many of the other brands that also came about in FINO’s early days (also born to meet the demands of the new malls), noting that many of them have since closed down—either unable to keep up with a demanding market or else the young professionals running them would eventually move on to other ventures and careers.
Keeping It Personal
With 27 years under its belt, FINO is no stranger to change. “One by one, the malls sprouted and as time went by, we also had to shift from executive line to ladies’ line,” Bautista shares. She jokes that she “literally had to arm-twist [her] husband” to convince him, but she knew it was the right move, sensing the shift in the market, and the increasing number of working women who needed leatherware. She attributes their continuous ability to grow with the market and with their customers to their team, calling it a “community of mutual respect.”
“One by one, the malls sprouted and as time went by, we also had to shift from executive line to ladies’ line,” Bautista shares.
This is just one aspect of how FINO has always been a brand that’s operated in a very personal way, with Bautista still having a hand in production and design, though the size and pace of the brand does require a certain level of commercialization. “It’s very connected to us,” she says, from the time when her husband first needed leather supplies to later on drawing inspiration from the things they watch and read or the fashion they see in their family travels. “Luckily, sometimes it just matches whatever people are bringing out,” she says, noting that they don’t always opt to follow big trends or imitate other fashion brands, but that intuition goes into being able to know what needs to come next. She shares that they’re also able to furnish leather for their home. “Obviously we love leather,” she says, and it’s that love that comes through in their craft.
Looking Back and Ahead
Sitting on a couch (leather, of course) in FINO’s Podium branch on a Tuesday afternoon, Bautista looks perfectly at home—probably because the store has a homey feel to it with the large couch, a coffee table in the center, an old-fashioned wardrobe, and bookshelves all around. This particular branch, she shares, is referred to as “the library,” complete with real old-school almanacs lining the shelves. Though many of the brand's shops around the Metro feature more modern interiors, the brand is slowly hoping to return to its roots and use a more “old English” design for their stores (as they did with the first few branches), with each branch representing different parts of a home.
Anyone who’s ever stepped inside a FINO store would know that it is deliberate with its use of physical space—bags strategically situated all around the room, ready to be touched and perused and held; something of a rarity now compared to other fashion brands that either exclusively sell online or are oversaturated with products in-store, leaving customers unable to appreciate every little thing on display. Bautista shares that while she understands the convenience of online shopping, she still prefers being able to see and experience the products she’s buying and would like for their customers to be able to experience the products as well to know if they really like it.
While their original demographic of young professionals has grown up and many of them may soon “graduate from shopping,” she feels fortunate that they’ve passed their love for the brand down to their children. “We’re lucky that our customers are very loyal and trickled down even to their children.”
She shares that her long-term goal is still to be able to expand the brand to a global market, though she admits that she knows it would be a fairly difficult task. With every step FINO has taken in its nearly three decades of operation, they’ve never opted to rush nor to do anything half-heartedly. When the need to create an online presence first presented itself, they didn’t want to do it until they knew they could do it up to their own standards. “It’s a learning curve for us,” she says, but one they welcome and are willing to take on.
“We’re lucky that our customers are very loyal and trickled down even to their children.”
With every goal she has ahead of her and every plan that needs to be executed for the brand, she says, “you just need to know who you are.”
Bringing Culture Into It
Many of FINO's collections are made in collaboration with local artists—Bautista shares that they like to patronize and promote Philippine culture and heritage. She shows the Sipa (P18,550/large; P17,550/small) and Puso (P15,550/large; P12,550/small) bags made in collaboration with artist Luis Espiritu. As their names suggest, the bags’ silhouettes were inspired by a sipa, from the traditional Philippine sport, and a puso, (rice wrapped in a triangular shape with coconut leaves). Bautista believes that Filipinos have a commitment to rise up to challenges and prove they’re capable, and this is something she hopes to showcase. “When we do things, we want to make sure that it’s uplifting who we are,” she says.
She also shows the Artisan Lady Bag (P15,550), with handles inspired by the texture of the outer wrapping of a suman, noting that they can draw inspiration anywhere and especially love doing so from local everyday objects. Texture, in particular, has become a signature, with a variety of textures always on display—everything from croc to python. They offer a variety of leather unseen in many leatherware brands around the country. Bautista shares that leather is sourced from all over the world, especially as some styles and textures can only be sourced in certain places.
Another gem in the store is the colorful Vinta Collection, inspired by the “first mode of transportation here in the Philippines” and made in collaboration with fashion designer T.C. Alvarez. Bautista describes the collection as “very playful,” with Alvarez in particular wanting to show off the color blocking. “We wanted to show the artisan features of how we can do things,” she says, therefore always putting thought into “every corner [and] every detail.”
Bautista believes that Filipinos have a commitment to rise up to challenges and prove they’re capable, and this is something she hopes to showcase. “When we do things, we want to make sure that it’s uplifting who we are,” she says.
FINO has always stuck to the classics as far as design, though they continuously update their classics. While they also experiment and collaborate, they like to dig up from their archives and recreate old pieces. They follow a certain philosophy of never putting the same thing on the shelf twice. Instead, they’ll reinvent it, give it new details, change the material, make it better. “There’s always those connections” to the past, Bautista says.
She shares that oftentimes, it can be a challenge for them to actually make the artists’ vision, but they enjoy being able to figure it out and bring it to life. “We enjoy the artistry,” she says—quite a feat considering their pieces are all still handmade. One such piece they struggled with was the Rio Bucket Bag (P16,950/large; P12,950/small), which was based on an original bag of theirs, but one they wanted to to revamp in order to make it detachable, thus making it almost like owning two bags in one. But thankfully, they managed to pull it off.
The Power of Instinct
When asked if a FINO bag has a signature look to it, Bautista says, with a chuckle and a shrug, “I think our customers know.” Even with almost three decades in the business, and having expanded as much as it has, the brand remains personal and intuitive—combine that with their passion, craftsmanship, and artistry, and it’s no surprise that it has withstood the test of time so gracefully.
Photos by Toto Labrador.
See a list of FINO branches.