Martha Rodrigues is a designer with roots grounded resolutely in her home country. Her stylish luxury bag brand, Vesti, features the traditional woven fabrics of indigenous Mindanao tribes. Not only does she create stunning and colourful minauderies, but each one also holds a unique story – filled with the tribal heritage of some of the Philippine’s most under-represented communities.
In recent years, floods and landslides and the recent civil rebellions have painted the Philippines’ southern region in a negative light. Brands like Vesti however, are dedicated to showing the true spirit of Mindanao – through the bold and beautiful colours of the Yakan weaves that define her collections. We catch up with Martha and chat about her beginnings, her inspiration, and how she is bringing Filipino culture onto the world stage.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background, what inspired you to start Vesti?
As a designer, I never really had a formal design course. In college, my mother imposed that I take up fashion so it was decided early on. This led me to be workin with prestigious luxury fashion brands such as Natori in New York, Gucci in London, and Adora and Rustan’s in the Philippines. I guess to be in fashion was my destiny, but I did not know I would be building a brand, designing pieces that eventually showed who I am, both my weaknesses as my strengths. I began traveling back and forth in Mindanao and stumbled upon an abandoned weaving house where I saw these beautiful fabrics. I bought them and started making bags out of these fabrics. People started noticing my designs and that really was the start of Vesti.
Vesti is really about who I am. It’s about where I come from, my insecurities, to the things that me proud. It’s embracing what is thriving and turning that into something beautiful. Our aspirations from the weavers to the skilled artisans, our love for design and fashion from sketches to final products, our obsession in making sure every detail is as carefully thought of, and of course, all the hard work we put into our bags — these are all Vesti.
How does your Filipino heritage inspire your pieces?
Definitely through all these bold, colourful, interesting handwoven fabrics woven which are passed on by our Mindanao ancestors. These beautiful pieces all have stories to share. My aspirations and dreams, marry with the patterns and colours; and it t feels that the these dreams are also shared by the weavers, the artisans, and also the customers.
How did you go about building a relationship with the indigenous tribes of Mindanao?
It is always important to get to know them. I traveled to different far-flung areas, going up mountains, and learning about them. When I heard their stories, it resonated with me because I spoke the same dialect. I grew up in the same island so it was easier to communicate. After buying fabrics directly from them, I make sure to go back to them and sharing the feature or articles that show the bags with their fabrics. They seek validation to their craft especially to an international stage.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the symbolic nature of the fabrics in your collections?
Most of the patterns are inspired by Mother Nature. What you see from our Vesti Men collection is the diamond dragon pattern that the Filipino Yakan tribes believe to bring good fortune. We love to showcase the tribes and their unique cultures through our pieces.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as an entrepreneur so far?
Implementing the right strategies and business model for the brand. Wearing different hats and adjusting to the trends in the digital age. It is also a great challenge to get the right people for the team. I’ve been a one-woman team for four years, and expanding the brand and letting the right people handle it can sometimes be overwhelming.
What has it been like working with the Philippine Embassy here in London to launch Vesti in the UK?
It’s been a dream come true. I’ve always thought of showcasing our collections here after finishing my Master’s so I’m very blessed and happy to be able to be given this opportunity.
What’s next for you and Vesti? Any exciting new projects down the pipeline?
Definitely expanding to having a Kids Collection very soon!