A slight shopping addiction and a chance meeting is what led me into the studio of Neil Felipp San Pedro. Prior to meeting the designer in his shredded paper-filled room at the 2023 MaArte Fair, then at his Camputhaw studio in Cebu (where we both hail from), all I knew about the designer was that I went to high school with his sisters and his bags are some of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
In the fashion world, the Neil Felipp brand is known for creating the most decadent and exquisite minaudières inspired by fantasy and mythology. His handheld, functional jewelry has made it into the hands of names like Doja Cat, Dolly De Leon, Astrid Leung (yes, the fictional character from the “Crazy Rich Asians” series), and more.
Neil Felipp San Pedro is the founder and current creative director of his eponymous brand who hails from a long line of metal artisans. He’s a third generation jeweler and part of the latest generation of the Suarez and Sons jewelers of Cebu. Creativity has always been in his blood, but he doesn’t limit himself to metalwork alone.
Prior to starting his brand, San Pedro was a student of industrial design (now called product design) at the University of the Philippines Cebu. He interned for fellow Cebuano and internationally renowned furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue.
“[Kenneth] is still my mentor and still one of my biggest critics, which I love him for. He was fundamental to how I made my brand global, because of how he built his own brand from scratch.”
Immediately after apprenticing for Cobonpue for three years, San Pedro started his own studio in 2010. The first bag he ever produced though—he admitted—was a little bit of a happy accident.
The birth of a myth come to life
“[The first bag I ever made was] the Siren minaudière. It was back when I was starting, and it was completely by accident. My mom was attending a formal event. I forget which one, but I do remember what she was wearing. It was a midnight blue off shoulder gown by Philip Rodriguez. She wore beautiful sapphire jewels and beautiful blue shoes, but she didn’t have a bag.”
Upon seeing her without a bag that could do his mom justice, he promised to make her one.
“[It was] easier said than done, because my mom is one of my biggest critics as well. Of course, because of how much she was exposed to matters of taste from my grandmother,” he admitted.
To make the perfect bag, he scoured his fondest memories with his mom, which was going to the beach on the island of Cebu. He quipped that every time he was at the beach, he always imagined himself as a mermaid.
“I reimagined [that memory] into a bag that we shared, which was The Siren. So it’s not only a homage to my mom, it’s also a homage to the island I call home.”
The soul is in the story
A single look at San Pedro’s designs will reveal how storytelling is a quintessential aspect in his process. Most—if not all—of his bags harken back to mythology or elements of classic storytelling. And to date, most of his creative inspiration still comes from the myths he’d read as a child.
“Growing up, I loved reading books. One of the first books I ever read was on Greek mythology. The story of the Trojan war, of how the gods are born, and kind of insane how they became. I just loved the surreal aspect of it,” he explained.
Neil explains that with every bag, materials and the form are secondary. To him, its most important element is the story it’s trying to tell.
“When I’m designing, it’s always [the] story. It’s always a story that’s the most fundamental for me. It’s beyond the form—it’s beyond the material itself. It’s also beyond functionality. It’s the story, I would say, [that] is the soul of every piece.”
If a bag could encapsulate that quality of storytelling, it would have to be his Medusa and Midas creation. The minaudière is made of hand-applied parchment with the signature brass hardware made to resemble snakes.
San Pedro’s prompt for this specific handheld tale was “What would happen if Medusa and Midas met and fell in love?”
For those who are a little foggy on your mythology, Medusa’s curse is that all who would look at her in her snake-haired glory would turn to stone, while Midas’s curse is that everything he touches turns to gold.
“Both cursed as they were, they decided on a deadly embrace. As Medusa turns to gold, while Midas turns to stone, their lips are forever in a kiss,” San Pedro continued, breaking the spell of the story at the end with a laugh.
The international connection
In 2015, San Pedro gained another admirer in fellow storyteller Kevin Kwan, the author of the “Crazy Rich Asians” series. For fans of the series, you might remember San Pedro from the series’s third novel, “Rich People Problems” where the designer and his creations were mentioned. But his designs landing on the pages of the novel—and then later, the big screen—is not as crazy as the story behind it.
When Kwan visited the Philippines in 2015 to promote the series’ second novel “China Rich Girlfriend,” it just so happened that one of San Pedro’s clients attended the event sporting his Suzy Wong minaudirère.
His client showed Kwan the bag, who was immediately impressed by its craftsmanship and asked who created it. The author ended up snapping a photo of the bag and posted it on his Instagram, where it went viral.
As to be expected, San Pedro’s phone was ringing off the hook with people sending messages about how Kevin Kwan noticed his work. After waking up to a mountain of messages and tags, he starts to slowly piece together what had happened in his sleep.
“I said, ‘I’ll be honest, who’s Kevin Kwan?” he laughed.
San Pedro then took to Instagram to thank Kwan for his kind words. The pair started talking about their respective crafts, to the point that Kwan asked San Pedro if he was willing to be part of his third book.
Then when the greenlight for the movie came, it was only natural for Kwan to ask if he could use San Pedro’s bags. And San Pedro, of course, obliged.
His Siren minaudière landed in the hands of Astrid Leung, which he revealed was a full-circle moment for him as a designer.
“It was so beautiful because the only person I really wanted [to wear the bag] was Astrid. She was actually the inspiration for the Phoenix [minaudière], because of how she presented herself and how she got out of that horrible marriage.”
Painting the town red
With a growing international client list, it’s only par for the course for other celebrities and stylists to take note. Last year, singer and rapper Doja Cat was spotted walking the red carpet of New York Fashion Week toting San Pedro’s signature red Suzy Wong minaudière.
When I asked him how his bag landed in the hands of the artist, he joked, “Oh you know, we were just hanging by the bar,” and laughed. For San Pedro, it was another one of those stars aligning moments.
“It was just luck that I worked with her, I think,” he pondered.
Doja Cat’s stylists Brett Alan Nelson and LJ Perez (a fellow Filipino) reached out to San Pedro via email. “I thought it was a joke,” he admitted, citing that he also thought it was a scam. After doing some due diligence, the stylists’ information checked out. They were the real deal.
They asked for a few bags to be sent over for Doja Cat’s New York Fashion Week look, and the next thing he knew, his designs were painting the carpets red.
In a seeming repeat of events, San Pedro went viral overnight (again) with people messaging him in his sleep about Doja Cat’s red carpet appearance with his Suzy Wong minaudière in hand.
And in perfect parallelism, his response to the congratulatory messages was, “Who’s Doja Cat? Is she friends with Ariana Grande?”
We both shared a laugh as he shook his head, complaining that he sounded “so old”—his words, not mine.
But he continues by saying that none of this fanfare would have been possible without the people who picked his designs for the star.
“Little by little, we’re working with more international stylists. And we’re very grateful to them for having us,” he concluded.
Musings on muses
Of the many celebrities and personalities he’s worked with over the 13 years since his studio started, a few stand out to him. One of his current favorites is Jasmine Curtis-Smith.
“Her energy is just so genuinely beautiful. She’s a beautiful girl, no doubt about it. But I love her love for the Philippines,” he gushed.
“[I love] her love for the Filipino, how she styles herself, and the energy she brings to her audience,” he explained.
When asked who he wanted to work with in the future, his first answer came as quickly as I asked.
“Oh my god! Beyonce! That’s an easy one,” he laughed.
“Who else? I don’t know, but Billy Porter would be one,” he added.
“I would love to work with Billy Porter. He’s so forward thinking about his style and I love what he’s doing with the LGBT community and HIV awareness.”
Stars aside, icons—and some that are very much close to home—also serve as his eternal muses.
“If I were given a chance to have Princess Diana and Audrey Hepburn even just hold my bag, it would be timeless forever. They were also some of my pegs [while I was designing].”
For his foremost muse, though, that person comes in the form of his grandmother.
“My grandmother, we call her ‘Nanay,’ is probably one of the most stylish women I’ve ever met. When it comes to style, she always says it has to be timeless.”
As for designers, the names that came up were Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
“[Gabrielle Chanel] was an amazing fashion rebel because of how she wanted to change how everyone viewed women. During her time, the fashion world was very male dominated—so let’s just say she was Barbie!” he laughed.
Uplifting fellow artisans
With the heights the Neil Felipp brand has achieved so far, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for San Pedro to take all the credit. But to him, credit goes to where it’s due, which means sharing the achievements with the artisans that work with him to craft the handheld masterpieces.
The importance of their work had been instilled in him from a young age by his grandfather, the founder of Suarez and Sons jewelers. He had started the business back in the ’80s, which means San Pedro’s childhood was forged among the artisans he works with now.
“The plateros and the makers were actually my playmates. We’d play chess together all the time,” he said.
When the time came for him to build his own brand, he sought the help of the craftspeople that he grew up with.
“At the time, I just wanted to work with the artisans. And I really fell in love with them. They’re more than just artisans, they’re really my family. So I wanted to continue what they were doing, but with a more contemporary take,” he said.
Aside from metal, shell has also become an important part of his craft. Since working with shells wasn’t his expertise, he decided to reach out to the local shell community in Cebu and work with them for his Siren minaudière. This ended up becoming a merging of two communities.
“We work with the local community of shell makers, because Cebu is known as the center of shell trade in the Philippines. So I wanted to combine these two things, which was then created into the Siren minaudière. Those are two communities in one.”
His studio has also served as a home and community for fellow artists and designers from outside of Cebu. The Neil Felipp boutique carries a line of barongs by contemporary Filipiñana designer Kelvin Morales. Other artists and brands such as Filip + Inna, Balay ni Atong, Natalya Lagdameo, Adante Leyesa, and Edited Limited have also hosted pop-up shows in Cebu with his help.
From the international attention to helping other artists, San Pedro mostly declines the laurels, though.
“Everything I do is for the Philippines and Cebu. It’s what I always say. It’s more than just me as the brand. It’s to be a platform for the craft.”
The fabulous warmth of Neil Felipp San Pedro
At his core, though, San Pedro is a daydreamer who weaves intricate stories together through his craft resulting in some of the most beautiful pieces of functional jewelry you will ever see. He isn’t one to shirk from the attention, but share the rewards with the people who made it happen.
The passion he feels for his craft is palpable in everything he does—from the tales and materials woven to every piece, to the way he interacted with his clients at his recently concluded (and very successful) Rockwell pop-up boutique.
His energetic yet easy going nature demands attention, but does not beg for it. It’s something that his audience—including myself—gives willingly. I once jokingly told him that I’m grateful that he’s a designer, or else I’d be out of a job as a writer. He laughed and told me we all tell stories in different ways.
For someone in his orbit, it’s easy to get lost in all the beauty of his creations, but for San Pedro, the focus remains.
“[My bags are really just] a complement to the woman wearing it. Women are so beautiful—inside and out—so I really wanted to design for you guys, and not the other way around,” he explained.
“[Women] are the masterpiece. You are the art.”