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Rhett Eala turns his focus on RTW

FOR NOW — making an exception for just a few clients — fashion designer Rhett Eala is taking a break from made-to-order (“semi-retiring,” he called it) and focusing on his ready-to-wear (RTW) lines.

This is important, because on Dec. 6, Mr. Eala opened his third retail space, his biggest so far at 150 sqm. “I can’t fill this space up,” he recalled, thinking when Greenbelt first offered him the space. “So I asked my friends to join me. It becomes more interesting.”

Among these friends are designer Ivarluski Aseron, offering menswear leaning into the avant-garde; and models Jo Ann Bitagcol (See related story. — Ed.) with a clothing line, and Tweetie de Leon Gonzalez with a jewelry collection.

Asked how well the collaboration works, Mr. Eala said, “We’re very good friends.” Aside from that, each one offers something different for every customer. “I guess if you want something more artsy, you go to Ivar and Jo Ann… with Tweetie, she does a lot of colors, with semiprecious stones.”

As for Mr. Eala’s case, his clothes are infused with femininity, with cocktail dresses and tops in lace and brocade. His feminine styles have long been a staple of the event and pageant circuit, but the pandemic had put a damper on that. To make up for the lack of events where his clothes are worn, he went into creating fashionable face masks, and more casual clothing. “That was the thing. You don’t really go out,” he said of the pandemic times.

The world’s reopening has brought new insight to Mr. Eala, who noted that the shorts they made weren’t selling as fast as they did during the height of the lockdowns. “After we opened up, the shorts didn’t sell. They want more dresses,” he said.

“I don’t plan too far ahead. I take the pulse of what’s happening,” he explained.

This relates to his opening of a third physical store (the first two are in Rockwell and SM Aura): “Sales online have been declining because a lot of people have been going back to the stores. I think with clothes, they’re experiential, so people just want to try it — they want to feel the fabric and everything.”

Mr. Eala celebrated his 30th year in fashion in 2020, by his own estimates. After studies in Europe and a stint in New York, he returned to the Philippines in the 1990s, beginning a line with Rustan’s, after which he became a regular at dressing socialites, pageant queens, and actresses. Focusing on ready-to-wear, then, is in his blood.

“I’m really ready-to-wear. That’s where I started,” he said when he discussed semi-retiring from made-to-order pieces, so many of which have been on red carpets and the stage. “I don’t do my gowns anymore — I’m focusing on ready-to-wear now. I still do it for a few clients, but it’s not the focus of my business.”

There is more in the works — next year, he has a collaboration with local brand Kashieca, and plans to mount his own fashion show.

There is a big difference between designing ready-to-wear clothing and made-to-order pieces. The custom dresses are a collaboration between client and designer, he says, but, “When you do ready-to-wear, it’s really about what your vision is.”

What has he learned after 30 years in fashion? “Believe in yourself. Take risks. And learn how to manage your business.”

He added, “I realized during the pandemic that I can’t really rely on any other entity. I have to make opportunities for myself.” — Joseph L. Garcia

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