Words by Andre Lawes Menchavez
Bago is a rising Filipinx American luxury clothing brand that exemplifies not only the potential of Filipinx Americans today, but who we already are and what we have always been.
Its founder, Brandon Comer, grew up like many Asian American immigrants. He lacked knowledge of his cultural histories as a child growing up in a household forced to assimilate for the pursuit of the American dream. Bago—which roughly translates to something new, fresh, changing, or modern—is a way for Comer to address this generational, shared community lapse in history.
Comer grew up in a tight-knit family, with 18 cousins. His lola, or grandmother, Linda raised seven children on her own with few resources; this love, passed down from generations despite the struggles of being a large immigrant family in the United States, is a major tenet of what Bago is today as a fashion brand. As Comer puts it, Bago is a love letter to Philippine history and people, honoring the dying cultural practice of weaving in the archipelago by creating pieces that introduce it to our modern generation.
The creation of Bago came after Comer pursued being a Navy nuclear engineer, getting his EMBA at UCLA and then receiving his master’s in industrial design at the Creative School. He then went into brand strategy, assisting startups in early 2021. As Asian hate crimes rose, it made Comer reflect deeply about creating a business of his own, for his people.
“I started researching and came upon a rich textile history we had in the Philippines. I was just blown away and amazed that these were hand-woven textiles that nobody knows about.”
“I think that’s when I got curious and I started researching about the Philippines,” Comer says. “I think a lot of us Filipino Americans don’t know much about our culture. So I started researching and came upon a rich textile history we had in the Philippines. I was just blown away and amazed that these were hand-woven textiles that nobody knows about.”
Today, the brand incorporates these ethically sourced, Indigenous-made fabrics into streetwear. “It’s metaphorically a way for us to return to our heritage,” Comer says, with his family lineage rooted in the islands of Olongapo and the Laguna Province. “But at the same time, doing it in a way that’s honoring, discovering and celebrating it. Like, how can we uplift the heritage but also create something new and push our culture forward in a way?”
The brand released their first product, the Heritage Tee, in the fall of 2021—which successfully sold out completely. It’s an oversized shirt that features Binakol textile indigenous to the Ilokanos and Itneg communities of the Ilocos and the Cordillera region of the Philippines. It was the brand’s first step toward revitalizing the culture through blending fashion, art, and historical knowledge.
“It was really important to us that we also ethically sourced it,” Comer says. Bago took their time in creating connections with partners abroad, such as their current Filipina women-owned partner, Anthill Fabrics, which employs Indigenous weaving communities all across the various islands of the Philippines. Bago’s partnership with them has proven to be more than superficial, as the brand has even chosen to donate 100% of sales for a week toward instant relief for the weavers whose homes were destroyed during the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that hit Northern Philippines this summer.
The textiles aren’t the only thing honoring Filipinx heritage—each tee was printed with a pattern that has historical ties to pre-Spanish colonization, before the 1400s. Binakol, which roughly translates to “to do a sphere,” is a traditional weaving pattern that utilizes a collection of straight lines organized to create the optical illusion of spheres. These textiles meant more to Indigenous Philippine peoples than simply aesthetics—it also represented safety.
“Binakol is traditionally a ceremonial cloth used for protection, as the optical illusion of the pattern is said to create a dizzying effect that drives away evil spirits,” Comer says. “This pattern we use specifically is called kusikus, which represents the circular whirlpool vortices in the ocean.”
The tee’s custom-dyed off-white color is also meant to be reminiscent of buko, or coconut, a cultural delicacy that elicits strong memories of the archipelago. Comer says he could never forget the sight of opening a fresh buko on a hot Philippine day and the distinct yellow tint that confirmed the buko was just right to consume.
“Each Bago collection acts as a vignette, telling the story of how we grow up, referencing something culturally significant to us, or inspired by something we've discovered about our history that we want to share to our broader community,” Comer says. “Many years into the future, I imagine someone coming across things and objects that were designed by Bago. With enough of them in hand, like a time capsule, they'll be able piece together the story of our journey.”
Maybe, just maybe, this Heritage Tee can be a living cultural artifact that evokes the same protection for our people that our tireless, talented ancestors aimed for when they first weaved this generations ago.
“Each Bago collection acts as a vignette, telling the story of how we grow up, referencing something culturally significant to us, or inspired by something we've discovered about our history that we want to share to our broader community.”
The shirt sold for $109, a higher amount than fast fashion brand prices, but buyers should note that they’d be paying for authenticity—and resistance, even. Supporting Bago means uplifting community brands that combat mass production and its threat toward cultural weaving practices, in the Philippines and beyond.
“The trend of rattan, which are furniture made with a natural weaving technique, are things we see at West Elm that are mass manufactured now,” Comer says. “That’s a big part of the problem. People are used to these bigger companies creating these things that are readily available and cheaper and easier to obtain. That’s what we’re up against.”
Another threat is the co-opting of these cultural practices by white creators and publications without any reference or education about the source. Vogue Runway recently was under fire for amplifying a white creator who was utilizing the cultural weaving practice of Filipino Basahan designs. The white creator did issue an apology to the community, but only after the public expressed outrage that her Basahan-like designs were priced at $200.
Recently, major fast fashion brand H&M was also under heavy criticism for plagiarizing the fashion line of a queer Asian American knitwear designer named Chet Lo. “As a small brand and queer POC independent designer, I have worked incredibly hard to produce something that was based off my heritage,” the designer said to his Instagram followers in a series of stories. “These fast fashion companies consistently replicate works of smaller and more creative designers, but at the end of the day, authenticity, originality and creativity can never be replaced.”
A similar situation occurred for Bago, where another white-owned studio was producing clothing in very similar patterns to Bago’s distinct textile designs. “Instinctively we wanted to protect our culture, especially when I was first getting into this work,” Comer reflects. “There was anger and, honestly, fear of losing what we’re even trying to start. I think I impulsively reacted to it.”
But to Comer, instances of co-opting culture just revealed to him the importance of why BIPOC brands like Bago must continue to exist and persist. “What’s more important to me is that this highlights that the call to action is there,” Comer says. “If we’re not going to reclaim or celebrate our own heritage, and bring it into the spotlight, who's gonna do it? For me, I don’t need to personally bash that person, or publication, but rather it just shows me that that’s where Bago fits: We’re gonna tell our stories in our way, ourselves.”
“If we’re not going to reclaim or celebrate our own heritage, and bring it into the spotlight, who's gonna do it?”
Bago’s journey has only just begun. Comer has continued to plan pop up events in cities beyond Los Angeles to expand Bago’s reach nationwide. A new line of clothing is also currently in the works.
“To me it’s not a shirt, it’s a wearable piece of art,” Comer says, emphasizing Bago’s commitment to creating new products. “I just imagine you walking down the street in LA [wearing the shirt] and someone’s gonna stop you, cause it has a big [woven] rectangle on your back. They’ll be like, ‘What is that man?’ And you’ll say, ‘Oh, this was hand woven in the Philippines, touch it! It dates all the way back to the 1400s.’ That’s what it's all about: starting the conversation.”
Published on October 27, 2022
Words by Andre Lawes Menchavez
Andre Lawes Menchavez (he/him) is a Filipinx, Indigenous and queer community organizer who uses journalism as a tool of activism, constantly seeking to lift up marginalized communities through his work. He received his BA in Law, Societies and Justice at the University of Washington and is about to graduate with his Master’s in Specialized Journalism—with a focus in Race and Social Justice Reporting—from the University of Southern California.