Isabel Sicat and Aiala Valdovino, founders and designers of the rising sport resort brand Toqa, have just emerged from the lake. Under the shade of talisay trees, they scour through bags of clothes, looking for their next outfits. They’ve been trying different looks on top of their silver swimsuits. Sicat puts on a pair of black trousers with a somewhat reptilian shine, while Valdovino takes a blue ensemble. Valdovino is not satisfied with her look. She looks around until she sees the Toqa jumpsuit they asked me to wear before the boat ride to Taal Volcano.
She wants to wear it for the next layout. I give Valdovino a quizzical look. I am confused. Do they expect me to strip to my underwear right here, right now? At least, I have to get on the boat. Valdovino gives me a pair of trousers and points to the nearby sari-sari store, where curious onlookers have flocked watching our team as if we are some crew from a local TV station. I nervously approach the small crowd. When I hear an affirmative answer in a distinct Batangueño accent, I get in, take off the jumpsuit, and put on the trousers with haste.
So, this is Toqa? The question is, at first, directed to the pants. They’re plain and not as garish as the ones I’ve seen on their website. A quick adjustment of the garter and buckle on the waistband transforms the loose-fitting to waist-hugging. Then, it has evolved into a meditation on the Toqa girls’ creative process.
When making clothes, Valdovino likes to work as she thinks. Sicat, on the other hand, likes to think about an idea before putting her hands to work. The same goes for moving to a new place. “I’m the type of person who moves to a place I’ve never been to before,” Valdovino says. “I do research,” Sicat quips. But at the shoot today, both girls exhibit a flair for creative spontaneity. At one moment, we’re just hiking. Then the next, Sicat is already climbing a rock formation to join some black goats. Or maybe Valdovino is crouching down to get her face closer to the natural steam of the volcano that hasn’t been active since 1977.
This is the tenacious, bold, and youthful spirit of Toqa.
“Our clothes live through experience. They don’t exist just on a rack; they exist in some sort of context”
It was in February of this year when Sicat and Valdovino, both Rhode Island School of Design alumni, presented their first collection at the inaugural Manila Biennale in Intramuros, but the brand’s idiosyncratic proposition of island wear has captured the attention of both local and international media. “In the young fashion scene of Manila, Philippines, emerging brand Toqa very much holds the baton, following the footsteps of peers like Carl Jan Cruz,” reads an article from fashion magazine Dansk.
Toqa is unapologetic in its sexiness. Its tendency to reveal skin springs from the indefatigable confidence of both the clothes and the wearer. The intrinsic allure of a Toqa garment, whether the slinky Tang-dyed (yes, the powdered juice drink!) swimsuit or the loose-fitting Hades mesh top, is founded in the sultry climate of its natural habitats: the Philippines and Hawaii.
“Hawaii is very resort and Manila is more sporty,” Valdovino says. Before their first presentation, Toqa posted a retaso outfit on a cyclist—their first model. The swimsuit for this season also borrows the form of a bodysuit because there’s no beach in Manila.
“The first collection was…” Sicat begins. “Sprawling,” Valdovino finishes the sentence. With 35 looks presented for the first collection, Sicat says, “[It] was really an exuberant discovery of the sport resort aesthetic. It was sort of loud—not that [the new capsule collection] isn’t, but this is more focused.”
Shortly after the first show, they took retreat in Tagaytay. “I think there’s something like a magical energy here that reminds me of Hawaii,” Valdovino says. Since then, they’ve been visiting the nearby province when they need respite from the city, especially during the production of their capsule collection. Hence, “it’s only fitting, I think, to do a shoot at the very beginning of that physical exploration,” Sicat says.
The capsule collection still reflects on the island of Luzon during the monsoon season. When they created the first collection, the dancefloor was a significant venue for inspiration. “But now, we spent more time in more places of structure, like air-conditioned meeting rooms. Because the location and the context have changed, the clothes matured, too,” Sicat says.
“Fashion is a fun way to engage a lot of people in something stimulating and exciting, but it can also be a medium for critical discourse.”
Their maturation is evident in their propensity to concentrate on textile manipulation and more familiar silhouettes, like that of uniforms, this time. Even so, Toqa still exudes a frolicsome attitude with an instinct for utility. The fabrics remain light, inconspicuous pockets abound, and the ubiquitous garter-buckle tandem eliminates the need for belts.
In this tropical milieu, Toqa does not just create island-appropriate attire. The sport resort brand’s awareness and purpose are much larger than that. “Our clothes live through experience. They don’t exist just on a rack; they exist in some sort of context,” Sicat says.
In June, the designers and some of the up-and-coming queer artists of Manila, all in Toqa, celebrated love and community at this year’s Pride March in Marikina. “We’re inherently social creatures, so everything we do has this element of interaction and sociability. We just use clothing as a means to move through the world,” Sicat says.
Sicat and Valdovino employ deadstock fabrics found in Manila. This, at first, is an economic decision, but it’s also a creative one. “We really get bored very quickly with things, so having a finite amount forces us to innovate on a regular basis,” Sicat says. “We like the whole metaphor of creating what’s literally deemed deadstock into something beautiful,” Valdovino adds.
On top of all that, it’s a sustainable choice. Sustainability—a buzzword that has been thrown a lot in the fashion industry to the point of saturation—is integral to Toqa’s identity. There’s just hideous amount of waste from the seemingly glamorous industry. Hailing from the tropics, where, as Valdovino says, “we feel the effects of global warming immediately than the rest of the world.” Toqa is a platform of discourse for that and other issues they feel strongly for.
“Fashion is political. It’s inherently political,” Sicat says. “Fashion is a fun way to engage a lot of people in something stimulating and exciting, but it can also be a medium for critical discourse. I think that there is totally a way to parlay our interest and our audience into actually enacting actionable change beyond just the clothes themselves. In that way, our views are beyond just refreshing the rack every season and really affecting change in a medium that feels comfortable and new not just to us but to other people [as well].”
Toqa pursues a roving structure. Sicat and Valdovino are seizing every opportunity in Manila now (from performing in front of the camera to making uniforms for restaurants like Sidechick), but they will also survey the possibilities in Valdovino’s home base in Hawaii soon. Unlike the exhausting system of brands from the West, Toqa desires to follow an annual season—like a TV series to some degree—on different islands.
So, when should we expect the next full collection? I ask. We are all drenched in sweat, glowing under the sun. “The next full one will…” Sicat begins. “Well, who knows though?” Valdovino interrupts. “Opportunities present themselves in many shapes and forms.” These women are in no rush, and they’d like to fall into place organically. “Ideas are most vulnerable in their infancy. Even if you have a good idea, you need time for it to mature and be able to grow on its own,” Sicat adds.
So for now, Sicat and Valdovino, whose spirits are constantly huge and light, will continue dancing, basking under the sun, and doing everything fun in the name of Toqa. Soon, they’ll arrive at their next destination.
HAIR AND MAKEUP PAM ROBES for STILA, NARS, and LAURA MERCIER
This story originally appeared in Northern Living Discourse Issue
Writer: OLIVER EMOCLING
PHOTOGRAPHY BORGY ANGELES