Jillian Joy Ubando is the Toronto based designer behind the Jillian Joy Hand Crafted brand.
She seeks to close the gap between real bodices and retail standard by creating custom made, one of a kind pieces tailored to each client’s specific measurements and personal styles. With a Bachelor of Design from Ryerson University, Jillian specializes in evening and bridal wear and creating classic and timeless silhouettes with modern twists. Her featured bridal collection Iglesia combines traditional cultural dress from the Philippines with current western trends.
The collection was released on the Mass Exodus runway as part of her graduating thesis project in April 2018.
MultiplicityTO: You started independently designing and creating in your senior year of high school. Did you ever have an interest in fashion design or textiles when you were a child?
Jillian Joy Ubando: I think it’s kind of weird because I didn’t really. I was always artistic. When I was in middle school I was always really good at drawing and painting, but I was not fashion-specific. I didn’t even start choosing my own clothes to wear and to buy until just before high school. I remember before that, my mom would always choose my clothes and she would leave an outfit out for me, and I didn’t really care. I was more of a tomboy when I was younger, so I wasn’t super girly and I didn’t really care about what I wore. I don’t remember specifically being interested in fashion or design until I started wanting to make my own clothes, and that was when I got into high school. It was during Athletic and Arts Banquets that I started to like dressing up, but that’s when I found out things didn’t really fit me properly because I’m really petite. I just started thinking that maybe I should try to make my own things.
MTO: Your featured collection, the Iglesia collection, combines traditional Filipino cultural wear with current modern bridal trends. Can you speak more on this collection and where you drew your inspiration from – whether it was from your household or your community?
JJU: To be completely honest, when we started planning for our fourth year collections, obviously sometimes it’s gonna be super expensive. Lingerie, for example, isn’t gonna be as expensive for the students compared to bridal. But everybody knew that usually if you do something culturally-related, it stands out and you’re more likely to get sponsored. That’s where I started from, and where I had the idea that maybe money-wise it would be smart to do something that’s culturally related.
But, it was also the same year that we were planning to go on a missions trip to the Philippines. I also began researching Filipino culture. I’m not fluent in Tagalog myself, my parents speak a different dialect so I don’t know either Tagalog or our dialect fluently. My parents never really watched those Filipino channels when we were younger, so I wasn’t really aware of the celebrities as much as I am now. Now, I’ve been following Filipino fashion designers. It’s what has prompted me to really dig deeper into my roots, where I came from, the history, the culture - that’s basically where my inspiration started.
MTO: What about the title “Iglesia”?
I wanted it to be something that spoke to what I believed in. As a Christian, I wanted it to relate to that too. Current fashion trends and Christianity in general don’t really mix together, but because it’s something that I strongly believe in, I really wanted to make sure that I was able to incorporate it somehow into my collection. So “Iglesia” actually means church in Tagalog. That’s one way that I thought I would be able to incorporate what I believe in.
I was also looking at the history of the church in general. So I drew a lot of inspiration from the technical details and construction, the architecture of old churches for example. I had a lot of structured materials, as opposed to super delicate or floral laces. I chose to use more linear stuff to reflect the actual church – whether it was in the modern construction of it now, or the previous methods of construction.
The Iglesia Collection
Photo by Fritz Acuna
MTO: You mentioned these two worlds of fashion design and the church colliding, but also being weaved together intentionally in your work. Can you speak to how your church and community received you going into fashion? Especially your decision to create a collection that was so culturally based?
JJU: A lot of people, once they actually heard it, were really happy about. In Toronto there’s basically no Filipino fashion designers. Even growing up, whether you be Filipino or not, a lot of people don’t even know what Filipino cultural dress looks like. You see and know a Chinese Qipao, or an Indian Saree. When I was just doing the initial research into it – we would have to speak to professors and others of the program. I would mention that I wanted do something inspired by Filipino cultural wear. And they would say, “Oh, what does that even look like?” So I think just due to the lack of it, a lot of people were excited to see it.
MTO: Further regarding the collection, each dress has its own specific name. “For safe keeping,” “recollection,” “pure” - what inspired you to take this approach and give each dress a name?
JJU: I really wanted to incorporate an informed cultural theme into the collection, and I feel like language is a big part of culture. I don’t even know a lot of Tagalog words myself, and when I mentioned it to my parents, I remember them saying, “Oh, our language isn’t that pretty. You shouldn’t use it because it’s gonna sound so ugly.” I remember thinking, “No! how can you say that?” To me, Tagalog made sense. It’s a Filipino-inspired collection, why not use Filipino words? I just thought that it would also be a way to help me learn. My parents didn’t know, I didn’t know - it would be a good way for everyone to learn. For everything to be tied together and really mean something was important.
MTO: How do you mediate between traditional and modern, and did you find this a difficult harmony to reach when creating?
JJU: Yes, it was a little bit difficult because modern styles are very revealing. Even when I was doing research regarding trends in the bridal industry, I remember a headline saying “The Naked Wedding Dress Is In.” My mentor in Toronto used to be a dressmaker in the Philippines, and when she was teaching me the pattern making, she kept telling me that the terno, or the Filipiniana, was a style that embodied elegance. It was the whole point of the terno. I found it hard to make it elegant, but also modern without it being too revealing. One technique that I used – it’s a fashion technique as well – is that if you reveal in one place, then you cover in the another place. So I have some dresses that they do have a plunging neckline, which is a more modern trend, but at the same time that dress will be a ball gown so you’re not seeing any more skin anywhere else. So I tried to make the two match, but it definitely was difficult. I have 20+ sketches of initial designs, and I scratched so many just because I didn’t want to take away from what the terno was supposed to actually be.
MTO: Off of that, did you find it difficult to follow what was popular versus what you wanted to do? Did you feel pressured to create clothing that is “in” or “popular”?
JJU: I definitely had to take that into consideration, especially as a school project. As a requirement, you have to justify that your collection is marketable in today’s society. So even if I wanted it to look one certain way, I would have to alter it for the project, or be able to justify it. So I did have to make compromises and make sure that I still liked what I was making. There were so many things that I just had to merge into one.
I’ve been following Filipino fashion designers. It’s what has prompted me to really dig deeper into my roots, where I came from, the history, the culture - that’s basically where my inspiration started.
MTO: We think of the term multiplicity as living, being or working in more than one form. In our publication, we aim to challenge the idea of boundaries. What really attracted us to your work was the merging of traditional Filipino and modern with something as personal as bridal wear. How do you relate to the concept of multiplicity within your own identity?
JJU: I feel like for me, saying that I’m a Filipino fashion designer in Canada, is in itself relates to multiplicity. I can’t just say I’m a Canadian fashion designer. That’s not it - I’m not just Canada and at the same time I’m not just Filipino because I wasn’t born there, I was born and I grew up here. In terms of boundaries and challenges, I feel like with my own identity, it’s been hard identifying as a fashion designer who is both Filipino and Canadian because they both have different connotations to them. In Canada, people think it’s cool and “artsy” being a fashion designer. But in the Philippines, there’s this saying, “tumatahit ka na lang” which means “to sew your own clothes” in Tagalog. The fact is that they’re saying “na lang”, or “you’re just a sewer”/“you’re just sewing”.
In the Philippines, there are big fashion designers but the designers there are known for never making their own gowns. If you’re a designer, you don’t sew yourself. So sometimes I’m hesitant to tell my family back in the Philippines that I’m a fashion designer...because I’m a fashion designer but I’m making all the dresses myself. It’s been kind of hard to balance both because I won’t mind telling everybody here. I think that’s just one of the challenges I’m trying to work through… one of the things I’m trying to prove.
MTO: You’re aiming to change the stigma?
JJU: Yeah, exactly.
The Mahal terno top
Part of The Iglesia Collection
Photo by Gloria Liang
MTO: What lead you to focus on bridal wear?
JJU: Before this collection, aside from school, I was more of an evening wear designer. One of the reasons I moved to bridal is because I think there’s more detail in it and I have more room to explore, especially as a custom-made designer. I really build the design off of the woman herself - her personality. Another inspiration was to reflect the sanctity of marriage and what it actually means. With bridal wear, I feel like it helps me reflect what I believe in in general.
MTO: How do you feel about persons that are not Filipino, not Filipino-descent, wearing gowns from the Iglesia collection?
JJU: The terno is a cultural form of dress, but at the same time it’s not only for Filipinos to wear, or it’s not offensive if somebody else decides to wear it. I know there are other cultural forms of dress where it reflects a religion or belief, but specifically for ternos, it embodies elegance.
MTO: This is characteristic of it?
JJU: When people say Filipiniana, that’s what they think of – the terno or the butterfly-sleeved dresses or gowns. The terno was also worn by first ladies, not just in the Philippines but also outside of the country. When other country’s politicians came to visit the Philippines, they would gift the ladies with ternos or Filipinianas.
Jillian holds up
The HABLIN gown - "For Safekeeping"
Part of The Iglesia Collection
MTO: What has the transition from student to business owner been like?
JJU: After my last year in University and the Iglesia Collection, I was broke – as in broke. I wanted to be realistic. Even though making custom-made gowns is what I want to do as my main career, I couldn’t just do that straight out of school because I don’t have a big enough client base. So I had to go straight from school to start working full time. I’m also really involved in my church. So finding time to focus on my business at the same time has been difficult. But the thing is I have so many ideas and I’ll jot them down, I’ll sketch them, but once I actually come home from work I just would rather sleep. It’s just been hard to keep doing what I want to do while remaining realistic.
MTO: Do you draw inspiration from any specific figures or pieces, past or present?
JJU: When I was in university, before this collection [Iglesia collection], I really took inspiration from the techniques designers used as opposed to their silhouettes. For example, when I was in university there was one project which was dress recreation. There was this one designer, Madame Grès back in the 1950’s, and she had this really distinct technique of mini-pleating dresses. Literally the whole dress would be small pleats all around, and I would try to recreate that or somehow make it my own. When I look at Filipino fashion designers, I feel like the main difference - for gowns specifically - is that they’re SUPER dramatic; their trains are fifteen feet long, they have beads on every square centimetre of the dress. So that’s one thing where I took inspiration from and helped me grow as a designer. It helped me to challenge myself and remember to keep learning. There’s so many techniques out there.
MTO: What are you working on right now?
JJU: I’ve been working on a new mini collection called The Wild Rose Collection. It’s a collection of bridal separates that look like they’re one dress. There’s gonna be a bunch of different pieces that you can mix and match together. I find that, especially with custom-made, a lot of my clients will come in for their initial consultation and bring me a bunch of pictures and they’ll say, “I like this top, but I want this skirt.” So that’s where I got the idea to focus on bridal separates - to give people an idea of mix and matching and how many different combinations you can actually have. I still plan on incorporating Terno sleeves into the collection but also as separates, which is kind of a trend right now in the Philippines where the sleeve itself is removable. Even though I’m marketing it specifically to Toronto and the clients I’m able to reach here, I don’t want to forget about my culture, my history and everything that I’ve already learned.