May 15, 2020

Where in the world is designer Lesley Mobo?

After an extravagant show in January for TernoCon 2020 where he paraded elaborate ternos inspired by Filipino women fleeing the war, Mobo took to the islands right when the pandemic hit the country.

[READ: Can terno be class-neutral?]

Since then, he’s been fishing, gardening, cooking with his mom and singing to his dogs among other things, as evidenced by his vibrant-hued Instagram feed. 

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“It’s like paradise here because this was the life we all knew before,” he said in an interview referring to his hometown in Panay Islands.

In his mother’s village, he used to have a small beading and embroidery workshop back when he was doing wholesale in Paris. Where he stays now, there is none of the equipment he has back in his atelier in London. 

But despite this, using a borrowed sewing machine and yards of printed cotton fabric meant to be table covers, Mobo constructed tropical-appropriate ternos with dramatic butterfly sleeves. Although these two are simpler in comparison to his signature intricately beaded dresses, they nonetheless fit in the context of an island environment.

Asked what his inspiration was in making the ternos, he said, “I think I’m just bored during lockdown.” Turns out even paradise can induce bouts of boredom.

“Walang magawa so I just decided to do something I love: sewing and draping. I was going to make a table cover but then I thought ‘Ang bilis naman matapos nun.’ So I decided to make patterns. I draped, [sewed], did hair and makeup and [did the shoot] para mas mahaba ang process. Sulit.”

Working in between his other leisurely pursuits, he was able to finish everything within the last two weeks since the sewing machine and the fabric came from the other side of the island.

“There’s nothing much to it naman talaga. It’s just something to kill time and because I miss doing things like shoots. I miss draping. I miss making dresses.”

“I just thought it’s nice to look at… Filipina beauty. Or maybe just question what is really considered beautiful.”


“What is really considered beautiful?”

These creations, as seen on his Instagram, were modeled by women living on the island who were of Ati and Badjao descent. But Mobo refuses to label them as models. 

“I don’t have models [in the traditional sense of the word],” he said. “They have interesting stories to tell.” The designer even joked, “I asked my mom to cast them.”

One of the women helps in the Mobo household to save money for school when it opens and the other just happens to live nearby. “I think they look good beyond the usual idea of a model that we have in mind.”

But more than just channeling his creativity, this activity is an interrogation of beauty for Mobo.

“Coming from an ethnic background, we don’t really look at them in that way. Atis, for example, are always seen as people who beg. I just thought it’s nice to look at… Filipina beauty. Or maybe just question what is really considered beautiful.

“And I think they are beautiful.”


On the value and perception of beauty

While Mobo’s followers were all praises on his terno project, to some of his kababarrio, it was “baduy.”

“I showed them images and they started laughing,” he recounted. “I think it’s because they don’t find things like this beautiful.” But he doesn’t blame them. In rural areas, where practicality is important, this is excess. “Who cares for art or fashion when people have nothing to eat nga naman?”

According to Mobo, it’s this kind of reception coupled with institutionalized machismo that effectively puts art and culture at the bottom of their list of things to care about because these things are deemed effeminate and relegated to the moneyed few.

He remembers having dinner with his high school friends one time when he put flowers on the table. All of them asked, “What’s that for? It’s so gay.”

To which he replied, “You’ll eat better if you have flowers on the table.” Everyone laughed at him. “It’s because macho culture is a general probinsyano culture.”

“It got so boring in the end kasi it defeated the idea of why I liked doing fashion in the first place. But that’s fashion, too. Its like prostitution.”


Working in a different context

For the trained eye or at least one that has been following Mobo’s career from his education in Central Saint Martins to his eventual shift to consulting for big brands and return to his eponymous label, these three floral ternos may seem alien next to his embellished creations. 

It was only a few months ago he wowed select audiences at the CCP during TernoCon 2020 with draped silk and lace imbued with so much symbolism and history. Though these recent creations boast far simpler lines and modest construction, they are nonetheless Lesley Mobo.

[READ: The terno is back from the baul. Now what?]

“I think I’m so malleable and that’s also part of my work as a designer,” he explained. “Because I worked for different brands and companies too, I have to adjust every time.”

Isolation has both been a productive time for creation and reflection for the Aklan-born designer. He recalls his time designing for commercial brands, where money was undoubtedly abundant but creativity is disproportionately lacking.

“It got so boring in the end kasi it defeated the idea of why I liked doing fashion in the first place. But that’s fashion, too. Its like prostitution.”



“Doing things like this is great,” he said, referring to his newfound pace and peace living on an island. Even in its simplest form, a Lesley Mobo dress carries with it a sensibility unique in its context of creation.

“I’m loving it because it‘s authentic and it’s part of me. It‘s who I am. So I might continue working/experimenting with this siguro.” 

As for “the terno stuff,” as Mobo calls it, “[I] will definitely experiment more.”

So yes, we can still expect more Mobo terno content that will transport us to an island fantasy while in quarantine.



Photos courtesy of Lesley Mobo

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Read more:

Can terno be class-neutral?

The terno is back from the baul. Now what?

The terno is not our national dress—but it could be

TAGS: beauty design fashion lesley mobo quarantine Terno ternocon 2020