x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

From the beach to Barneys

Tina Maristela-Ocampo, the designer behind the Philippines-based accessories brand Celestina, talks about her life in fashion.

Tina Maristela-Ocampo started her career in fashion as a model.
Tina Maristela-Ocampo started her career in fashion as a model.

Tina Maristela-Ocampo, the designer behind the Philippines-based accessories brand Celestina, talks about her life in fashion. When I was a child I would wake up every morning and run on the beach of my parents' ranch in the Aroroy, Masbate city, in the Philippines. I would collect anything that the sea had washed up: funny-looking drift wood to be used as spoons for my play house or tables for my Barbie's room, and shells to be used as plates or bowls in the tiny makeshift kitchen. Coral, sea horses and other shells with a special lustre went inside my coconut husk jewellery case, to be made into necklaces and bracelets for my brothers to buy for their girlfriends. When I felt the morning sun warming my skin, I would jump into the water, still wearing my pink pyjamas.

I went to the Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Manila. It was run by strict-looking, old, Spanish nuns who wore severely starched black and white gowns. At that time I liked to wear paisley, stripes and gingham prints. I quickly outgrew these tastes when I started working as a young model for a prestigious local designer. There I learnt about colour, texture, fabrics and patterns. My eyes became more discerning and started to see only beautiful things.

However, I didn't pursue my interest in fashion at college. The best schools were in Europe and New York, and the Philippines did not have a fashion school that could further my practical knowledge. I loved the freedom that being a working model gave me to earn money and travel at the same time, so I took a course in St Pauls. The reason I chose to study there? They had the best looking uniform in Manila: a tiny black-and-white checkered skirt with a sleek necktie over a white long-sleeved top.

The height of my career as a model was during the Eighties and I loved the ambivalence, the fussy nature and the excessiveness of the fashion at the time. But my eyes got tired of the jarring colours around me. I felt a need to cleanse and settle down. So, in the beginning of the 1990s, I started wearing Helmut Lang, Comme des Garçons and Anne Demeulemeester until I became loyal to minimalist black and white. This was when I learnt discipline and structure in design.

At the end of the 1980s, I found my perfect partner, Ricardo Ocampo. He's the force behind all the businesses we created together. We brought high-end American and European designer labels to the Philippines via a store in Greenbelt Makati called Mix. We also brought fashion to the corporate world, establishing The Blackshop which sells well-made tailored suits, which we eventually expanded as a uniform business to cater to multinational corporations.

We also opened 120 kiosks called i2i, selling sunglasses around the Philippines. My life then was so fulfilled I was ready to take a back seat and become a full-time mother. But I guess it wasn't the right time. Richard is my teacher, the source of all my business knowledge, my inspiration and the father of my four beautiful children. In 2004, while window shopping at Barneys one lazy afternoon, one question kept popping up in my mind: "If I were to design something that would be so cool for Barneys, what would it be?"

When I returned to Manila, I found my husband talking to a 60-year-old artisan who was working on a decorative box that he was developing for a business he wanted to start. I asked that the same mother-of-pearl box be made as an evening clutch for my personal use. I gestured with my hands the size and the shape, pointing at the centre, where the clasp would be, and then I told him to frame it in sterling silver. In three weeks, I saw the clutch fully made. At that very moment, I remembered the question I asked myself while at Barneys in New York.

In eight months, I made 24 clutches from shells, wood, carabao (water buffalo) bone, stingray skin, raw cut semi-precious stones. In the autumn of 2005, Celestina Maynila New York was on the busiest floor at Barneys, and by December of 2005, I was featured in American Vogue. In June 2008, three Celestina shell clutches landed on Vogue's last look page. Celestina bags are now in more than 90 stores around the world and each bag is proudly labelled: born in the Philippines.

The Philippines is a place where old artisans long to pass on their crafts to the next generation. It is where I found shells to play with as a child. It continues to inspire me - the people, the forest, the sea and the sun. It is easy to design when you are surrounded with these things. We have an abundance of creative artisans - weavers, silversmiths, jewellery-makers, embroiderers and shell casters to name a few. They are my teachers as they lecture me on age-old techniques, scold me when I try to tamper with their craft and eternally argue that a banig (a sleeping mat of woven dried anahaw leaves) could become a bag. To them, I seem like a little child who is restless with so many ideas. They remind me that, with focus, I can achieve perfect balance. In every accessory I make, whether a piece of jewellery, a fur cape, a headpiece or a croc bag, I always marry them with the elements I am surrounded with.