“[Sculptural Sensuality] questions and challenges our deep-seated cultural feelings of still imposing restraints on how women dress in our country” — Jessan Macatangay
Jessan Macatangay, the London-based Filipino fashion designer who grew up in Batangas, explores women’s sensuality through clothing as a response to the conservative culture in the Philippines. He showcased his collection entitled Sculptural Sensuality at the recently concluded London Fashion Week.
The Central Saint Martins graduate student, whose collections have appeared in Vogue and The New York Times reveals, “I grew up in Batangas seeing the women around me dressed in a certain way, which is always modest and a bit conservative, because of us being religious. In the province, even until now, if you wear a skirt that is too short, people will have a strong reaction towards you. If you show your cleavage, some people will still raise their eyebrows.”
His bold yet sensual 8-piece collection, which beautifully highlights the female form, is merged in “the principles of sensuality and softness with restrictive, harsh and contrasting materials; almost subconsciously creating a metaphor for the Filipino woman.” Representing a woman unashamed of her body and unbothered by others’ opinions, Jessan wanted to portray “women who want to feel sensual and sexy, and [are] unafraid to show skin” with his collection.
In an exclusive interview, we get to know the fashion designer and his recent collection.
Wonder: How would you describe your design style, especially for those who’ve recently been introduced to your work? What are parts of your Filipino roots and identity displayed in your collections?
Jessan Macatangay: It’s feminine, very sensual yet avant-garde. The project started with the idea of the judgment Filipino women gets in the way they dress especially if they show a lot of skin. In a way, [Sculptural Sensuality] questions and challenges our deep-seated cultural feelings of still imposing restraints on how women dress in our country. So, beginning from Filipino inspiration, this collection imagines the freedom that results when these cultural restrictions are lifted.
W: Tell us more about your collection, Sculptural Sensuality, which debuted at London Fashion Week. Where were you drawing your inspiration from?
J: This project, Sculptural Sensuality, is about exploring sensuality using restrictive formed objects. I started my research with the idea of Filipino women’s discomfort on showing skin. In our country, where 85% of the population is Roman Catholic—even in 2022, even though it has improved—we are still very modest, especially in the province. Religion and culture somehow still impose restraints on women, especially on how they dress.
I grew up in Batangas seeing the women around me dressed in a certain way, which is always modest and a bit conservative, because of us being religious. In the province, even until now, if you wear a skirt that is too short, people will have a strong reaction towards you. If you show your cleavage, some people will still raise their eyebrows.
Our country is surrounded by water and even when you wear a swimsuit at the beach, some women still have this fear of being judged by other people for showing skin. Even local personalities who constantly post bikini photos and show lots of skin are being judged and bashed, [forced] to cover up, sometimes by other women. I even grew up seeing women putting t-shirts on over their bikinis while swimming just to cover up. In local Catholic churches in the south, there are rules that when you get married, the bride’s neckline should not be low, which means that there needs to be a fabric covering your whole shoulder and chest.
So, my project started with this fear and discomfort of showing skin. My research began with looking at 90s swimwear advertisements—the clothing that shows and bares skin. From this, I became intrigued by the history of swimwear design for men and women, and started looking at much earlier styles that date back to the 1910s—cut-outs prevailing.
I was also intrigued and inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s sculpture Layers of Underwear, where soft fabrics are stretched and imposed onto hardware. I merged the principles of sensuality and softness with restrictive, harsh and contrasting materials; almost subconsciously creating a metaphor for the Filipino woman. The hardwire used to create structured forms symbolizing the restrictiveness of the Catholic church. Three dimensional layers provide depth while the imposed feminine form gives birth to unexpected tensions, textures and shapes. Sculptural forms sprout from contrasting layers of crepe jersey stretched by wired frames, existing to mimic a swimsuit’s outline, acting as a surrealist manipulation and extension of the body. Most of the frames are shaped into a woman’s body to highlight its shape. One of my favorite aspects of the collection are the skirts [that] I called “knicker skirts,” which are literally a panty and skirt at the same time. The whole collection is made out of jersey. I experimented on quite a few samples. I found these luxurious-looking cotton jerseys and decided to use them together with the usual jersey fabrics.
This collection is about making society realize that a woman is more than her body. Clothes exist to accentuate the feminine figure and showcase it in its most lustrous light. I really want these pieces for women who adore sensuality without fearing sexuality; and for the women who long to relax on a beach [in] her swimsuit, legs and arms sun-kissed and basking in light. She does not want to cover up with a t-shirt on the beach. She wants to be free, free of restrictions and imposed judgements.
W: Your collection pieces are still very geometric and avant-garde, but seem to gravitate towards something more simplistic. Were you trying to deviate from your previous work?
Jessan Macatangay: Yes, a little. My goal was to explore and develop my previous work to a level where it is still creative but still [something] a real woman would wear. One of the things I wanted to focus on when I decided to pursue [my] Masters is to somehow mature as a designer. During my bachelor’s, we were encouraged to be creative and innovative. So, during that course, I tried to experiment with all the things I love. It was really fun, and I absolutely loved it! The result of my bachelor’s collection was these sculptural pieces that combine art and fashion. I was really happy with them. But at the same time, my last project is show pieces, and I ultimately want to create clothes that women would want to wear.
With the Masters collection, I decided to take a more minimal, constrained approach that honors the female form. I wanted to focus on the woman that I want my work to represent: women who want to feel sensual and sexy, and [are] unafraid to show skin. I want the whole collection to be about her. To both acknowledge her past cultural limitations yet give her the feeling of freedom and empowerment to express herself as she wants. Clothes that accentuate the feminine figure and showcase it in its most lustrous light. For this woman to be in control of her fashion sense, free from the worry [of] what others might be thinking. No one else should have a say but her.
W: Women’s Month is upon us, and your pieces beautifully capture and mold a woman’s body! Was this pursuit intentional?
J: It wasn’t, but the theme I explored with the collection is very relevant. My collection is about making society realize that a woman is more than her body. I was motivated by the cultural judgment women in our country feel, which imposes conservative values on their fashion choices and frowns about showing skin. I want to highlight [in] my work that they are in charge of what they wear, not the judgment of others.
W: Any up-and-coming creatives that caught your eye recently you care to collaborate with in the future?
J: There are so many talented creatives I would love to work with in the future honestly especially in Philippine fashion. One of them is Filipina photographer Regine David. Her work is raw and beautiful, and I love that her works focus on emotions, that feeling you get when you see an image.
With Sculptural Sensuality, Jessan Macatangay highlights the female form, a response to society’s limiting standards and norms. As this month comes to a close, we continue to look to creatives who champion women.
Photography Han Yang
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver