What it means to be a designer, according to minimalist designer Joey Samson
It’s not just about clothes
Sep 18, 2017
The tuxedo shirt is simple yet sophisticated. Usually a crisp white garment, it is the soul worn underneath an imposing suit. And if designer Joey Samson were to choose a single garment to work on, he’d always fall back on this one. “I don’t know,” the soft-spoken designer says. “I guess I’ve always had [a liking for it] within me.”
That same sort of mantra also shapes Samson’s collection for the upcoming Red Charity Gala. The collection he prepares is still true to his minimalist aesthetic, but Samson also plays with textures and prints to give the collection a different character. “It will run the gamut from the traditional to something a bit outré,” he describes, reading off his write-up for the show.
Titled “PilgrimAge,” the underlying narrative behind the collection was only realized after he went on a pilgrimage in Europe early this year. But the trip was not done for the mere purpose of culling inspiration for the collection. In fact, Samson does not view the journey as purely religious. “Pilgrimage, in general, is a course of life or something you do devotedly,” he describes. “This pilgrimage aspect, I’ve only come to realize much later that”—yet again—“it has always been within me.”
Samson has used that same statement in 2000 in describing his designs for the Young Fashion Designers Competition. Back then, he was still an apprentice to designer Danilo Franco and was placed under the mentorship of Cesar Gaupo for the competition. “Cesar said, ‘Does your boss know that your designs are like these?’” Samson recalls. He describes the designs he had made as futuristic—far from the classic gowns and dresses of his mentor. “‘I’m just happy to see that you have a different world outside of what you do for [Franco],’ Cesar told me. That was the first time I felt that it wasn’t a conscious effort to create something different. That [it was] just what came out of me.”
That same year, Samson went to Paris with other then up-and-coming designers. There, he spent his days taking in Paris with wide eyes, amazed by what his fellow young designers could create. “That experience sealed my [interest in fashion]. I became even more assured that I’m on the right track.”
But his love for clothes sprang even earlier—and closer to home—than that. For this shoot, Samson brings us to Cavite where he had spent most of his youth. Here, most towns remain true to their historical foundation: Heritage houses still stand, the town’s layout has been maintained, and the church remains a pivotal landmark. Decades ago, amid this bucolic setting, the younger Samson wasn’t quite as resolute as he would be in Paris.
The karosa for the Via Dolorosa, which is only used during Holy Week, is out for today’s shoot. The ever-curious Samson comes close to examine its ornate silver work. Model Krystal Espiritu climbs up the karosa wearing a toile dress from the PilgrimAge collection. In contrast to the intricacy of the carriage’s design, the dress has a simple silhouette. “My appreciation is really the barest,” Samson reveals. “I wanted to feel as if I were dressing up a saint.”
There is a slew of religious undertones in the collection, present from its conception up to this shoot, and maybe even to the fashion show itself. Samson credits his religious upbringing for this. “As a kid, I remember going to my aunt’s house and not wanting to stay there until 6 p.m. because then, we’d be compelled to pray the Angelus,” he remembers.
It was during those prepubescent years that he also developed a knack for design. “I loved to draw,” he says, adding that his architect father was a major influence. “I’d let [my parents] see me draw, but I never showed them the sketches I made of clothes.” He would often do that seemingly forbidden deed alone in his room or in his lola’s store. “Whenever someone would arrive, I’d cover my drawing with a book and pretend that I was just reading.”
Although his interest in design started at the age of eight, he never thought of it as viable career. While his female friends would often seek his opinion on their dresses in high school, Samson was dead set on becoming a doctor. “I’ve always wanted to be one ever since I was a kid.”
In college, his friends sought more than his opinion. They started asking the doctor-to-be to design clothes for them: a best friend who was getting married, a professor who had found his current uniform baduy, another best friend who had to go to an arts and science night, and so on. Despite his unwavering interest in science and medicine, Samson found himself drawn to fashion more and more.
Medicine was a career track never imposed upon him, yet Samson was afraid of what his parents would say about his growing desire to leave it. When he finally told his parents, they were reluctant at first, simply thinking that their son was just in a slump. And perhaps Samson was sulking in self-doubt and questioning his change of heart. “I could not brush off my interest in science,” he emphasizes. He recalls sitting in classes he never enrolled in just to rekindle his interest in medicine. The situation went on for a month until his parents allowed him to enroll at Slim’s Fashion and Arts School. “I told myself, ‘If I change my mind within a year, I’m going back to medical school,’” Samson says.
He must have found bliss because he never turned back.
When Samson presents his creations, he always unravels a narrative—a mystery at that—through highlighting and basking in the tedious design process. When he celebrated his 10th anniversary, Samson made a 22-piece collection with seven looks showcasing the step-by-step process of a suit’s creation.
For this shoot, the designs he showcases are all toile pieces. It’s as if the shoot were set at a ritual, done at a pilgrimage site before the actual fashion show. “The toile is the foundation of a beautiful wearable garment,” Samson says. “Working on clothes, I sometimes feel like they all look the same. I find the need for a different perspective and to start from the basic: what and how garments are before they become actual clothes.”
“The simpler the garment, the harder it is to finish. If you aren’t able to do it right from the beginning, you won’t get anywhere.”
The process of creation is important for Samson and no stage of it must be compromised. Perhaps this is what he acquired from his seven-year apprenticeship under Franco. “He immersed me in the actual work, including [cutting and sewing], which every starting designer must learn,” he says.
Samson considers this technical know-how as a major validation for every designer. “I guess you can only call yourself one when your training as a creative is already based on a more technical aspect.” He admits that he only became comfortable with the term only much later. “The simpler the garment, the harder it is to finish. If you aren’t able to do it right from the beginning, you won’t get anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you lose money or fabrics when it doesn’t feel right in the beginning.”
In PilgrimAge, Samson integrates old clothes into new ones. “It’s going to be a mishmash of remnants from old garments, as if they were relics from a long journey,” he describes—like fitting fragments of Samson’s pilgrimage not just for this collection but as a designer.
Samson watches Espiritu on the karosa as rays of morning sun hit the dress she is wearing. In jest, he says that this particular scene reminds him of Elsa in Himala. Earlier that day, he tells us to watch Karnal. “I can’t bring myself to finish it these days, but it’s beautiful,” he says. He doesn’t provide any summary, but he says Phillip Salvador has a good wardrobe (high-waist trousers and white tank tops) in the film.
Samson can talk about old films in great length. Apart from art, cinema is where he culls inspiration. Louie Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, for instance, inspired a collection he presented at Men’s Fashion Week. However, his bygone days are his more significant muse.
“Growing up, I’d always see my parents dress well. We always frequented my tatay’s tailor and nanay’s costurera. We would always wear matching clothes. We still have our baptismal clothes, my mother’s wedding dress is still in good condition because we air it out once in a while, and we still have my tatay’s suits and barongs. The love for clothes and to be able to make [them], I’ve always had those in me. They all came from my family.”
He attributes his love for the tuxedo shirt to them. From a wedding dress patterned after the garment to countless reinventions of it, the tuxedo shirt has always been a recurring piece in almost every collection he designs. In PilgrimAge, he resurrects the garment yet again. However, he doesn’t reveal what he plans to do with it this time. Doesn’t he run out of ideas? “With design, the possibilities are endless,” Samson says.
The designer has a special kinship with his past. In his write-up for the gala, he refers to PilgrimAge as “a journey to nostalgia.” The word has traces of forlornness and regret attached to its meaning, and it also connotes loss. However, whatever is in the past is not always lost. And maybe more than nostalgia, Samson’s distinct personality and aesthetics spring from a recollection of a storied past, like the way we view and tackle history.
MAKEUP APPLE FARAON OF MAC COSMETICS
HAIR RUDOLF DAVALOS
MODEL KRYSTAL ESPIRITU
SHOES CHARLES AND KEITH
This story originally appeared in Southern Living, September 2017.