“What happens when everything you know no longer makes sense?”
This is the question that artist Ana La O’ asks her audience through her new collection of fabric art materialized through delicate silk cotton voile and silk twill scarves done in reactive dyes. It resonates with the collective quarantine feelings of the moment when, in an instant, all plans were slashed. But for the Manila-based artist, her turbulent inspirations started even before COVID-19 hit the fan.
“I started this collection during late summer of 2019,” she says referring to “Emotional Labor,” a collection of limited-edition scarves and reconstructed statement shirts. “I was working through the grief I was feeling from moving to Manila from New York. I missed my friends and family in the U.S. and was confused about what to do here because my old job in fabric development didn’t exist.
“I had to start over in almost every area of my life and I was struggling to think creatively.”
“I didn’t know exactly what I was going to make but committing to a feeling for the collection allowed me to move forward with painting trials.”
Some context: La O’ had spent the better part of her academic and professional careers abroad since graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2007. After this, she worked at a Los Angeles-based law firm until 2011 when she quit and returned to Manila to work for designer Vivien Ramsay at Eairth.
Her stint with Ramsay as print designer for womenswear and menswear proved to be pivotal in her creative path. “Working at Eairth introduced me to screen printing and natural color systems, experiences that heightened my sensitivity for grounded colors and introduced me to unstable, reactive color systems, which always struck me as beautiful and brave.”
Working for more than a year under Ramsay, in a way, sparked her interest in fabric painting using reactive dyes, which she describes as a way to express “openness to chance.”
Although if you ask her, it might have had an earlier awakening within her through her love of paintings and clothes. “Paintings on fabric happened,” she explains, “because fabric color systems became the technical toolset I know best and I’m also interested in functional objects.”
After Eairth, she went to study textile design at Central Saint Martins (CSM) University of the Arts London where, for her graduation collection, she used natural dyes like talisay leaves and raw coconut to color fabrics—A result of her own experimentation with the ephemerality of naturally-occurring dyes, something she called “design by reaction rather than control.”
Since graduating from CSM in 2016, La O’ has worked for and alongside other creatives and brands including London-based artist Nicole Coson and Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen’s The Row in New York.
Her time at The Row lasted eight months, ending in February 2018. She then went back to Manila. Life pre-fashion for her resumed: working remotely with a good friend and former colleague’s law firm while figuring out what creative work she could do here. “I ended up setting up my own studio because there weren’t any facilities that could support the work I wanted to produce.”
“I’m always recording external words and phrases that validate my thoughts”
Her studio is what has consumed her so far in quarantine. Even during her downtime—if you can call it that—in between creating her art, she tells us, she is constantly thinking about everything it takes to structure and maintain it. That includes research, looking for local talents to tap and materials to source and develop, and releasing new work within the current limitations. “And exercising to clear my brain,” she adds.
“For me, this collection is a long time coming. It took time to set up the studio space and construct specialized equipment, refine the technical processes, understand my limitations and marinate my stories and visual language,” La O’ says. “I was thinking a lot about how to make my work feel closer to the conversations I have with friends. I wanted to make sure that I shared something that might resonate with people and would sustain my own interest in working independently.”
Other than the sublime scarves with equally fascinating names (Super Tender, Money Power Respect, Soon It Will Be Spring Again), La O’ included three one-of-a-kind statement T-shirts sourced from thrift shops and reconstructed with silk embroidery and silk satin patches—a collaborative output with designer and fellow Vivien Ramsay alum Carl Jan Cruz.
In this interview, we caught up with Ana La O’ days after the release of “Emotional Labor” to discuss creative inspirations and process, her quarantine routine and her clairvoyant relationship with secondhand statement T-shirts.
Hi Ana! Congrats on the new collection! Where are you right now and how is your quarantine so far?
I’m in Manila. My quarantine wavers between anxious, inspired and grateful to be alive and healthy.
“Emotional Labor” is inspired by “loss, revision and possibility of migration,” a deeper personal experience of yours. Since moving back to Manila and rethinking your creative and personal life, how are you coping and retaining a sense of normalcy?
Through therapy, reading, journaling and drawing/painting whatever felt good, I regained the energy to start working on a collection.
The conversations, thoughts, gestures and colors I recorded during this recovery period informed the mood and visual language of “Emotional Labor.” I didn’t know exactly what I was going to make but committing to a feeling for the collection allowed me to move forward with painting trials.
“I wanted to do it because I felt lost and needed to understand how my creative language has evolved.”
Can you tell us about your creative process for this collection?
This collection was about materializing my feelings and sensations of this time. I started with many small, quick acrylic studies on paper and then focused on developing the color stories that felt most honest. I usually paint with curated playlists that help me tap into this headspace.
I tested several recipes to find the best expressions of these colors in reactive dyes. These recipes were then further deconstructed to enable the visceral qualities you see in the final paintings: gestural brushstrokes, disruptive wrinkle recordings and translucent colors that break apart and build up again in layers.
The T-shirts came later as a respite from the complex fabric development process, and a funny expression of my emotional concept.
I was also lucky to have Carl Jan Cruz as a 3D consultant and often, creative therapist throughout the process and his expert atelier did all the amazing handsewn finishes of the collection.
We love the name of each piece in this collection! There’s Super Tender, which in hindsight, feels like a description of the work and then there’s Money Power and Respect. How did you come up with these labels?
Super Tender came from a fire station in Brooklyn, but it described the rawness I was feeling and connection I was craving. Money Power Respect is a reference to the Lox, DMX, Lil’ Kim song, which became a battle cry for me at the time. I’m always recording external words and phrases that validate my thoughts.
After your graduation collection made the rounds in Manila-based publications, did you feel a pressure to return with a new collection?
I wouldn’t call this collection a return because I had nothing to return to. These are the first pieces I’ve ever produced and offered under my name. I wanted to do it because I felt lost and needed to understand how my creative language has evolved. I also just thought it would be a good way to introduce myself to new people here. I was born in Manila, but I didn’t grow up here, so doing this work has allowed me to connect with other people and feel more grounded.
“We all need visual expressions of who we are or who we want to be.”
For this collection, all pieces are limited edition with prices comparable to an artwork. Would you consider these as wearable art? How would you like for its future owners to use it? Do you see it framed and hanging on the wall or worn like everyday clothes?
The paintings are recorded on clothing fabrics—silk cotton voile and silk twill. So they can be used as scarves or shawls, but I can also envision someone displaying them as artwork in their home—and I’m starting to dream about a flat pack or collapsible hanging system for this. I’m really interested in seeing how people would interpret the objects for themselves.
The T-shirts are an interesting part of the collection because they are vintage but made new and delicate with silk patches. Plus, your relationship with statement T-shirts is funny. You say you look into them for answers. Can you elaborate on that?
I was kind of having an identity crisis during this time and sourcing these shirts felt like a sweet and funny therapy session to me. CJ [Cruz] and I would go to Makati Cinema Square and other vintage spots in Cubao and pick out shirts that felt biographical. He would ask “Is this you?” It felt parallel to the way that people look for answers about their identities or futures in astrology or crystals.
The phrase “looking for answers in graphic T-shirts” sounded like the most dramatic way to describe this kind of consumption for emotional or personal validation. I’m not knocking this kind of consumption–I do it all the time, but it can be pretty funny. We all need visual expressions of who we are or who we want to be. I’m glad you saw the humor.
Prior to this collection, your most recent creative output is a collaboration with creative movement studio Nude Floor on drawing abstract figures. What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
My next collection of paintings and a deep dive into more accessible product development.
When this pandemic is over—who knows when?—what things that you missed will you do?
Travel and dinner and dance parties with friends.
Ana La O’s “Emotional Labor” collection is available on her website
All photos by Koji Arboleda courtesy of Ana La O’
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Writer: CHRISTIAN SAN JOSE