Paloma Urquijio Zobel
Words by Nina Unlay | Photography by Gio Panlilio
They said the first thing I might notice about 29-year-old fashion and design expert Paloma Zobel would be what she was wearing (it was a denim shirt and rainbow sandals). But when she ran up to greet us in her family’s farm in Calatagan, Batangas, the first thing I noticed was the trail of dogs behind her. Later, when she walked us through her family’s land, she took a detour up a small hill and then through a group of baby goats that followed behind her, meep-ing and maa-ing, like she could be their mother.
The next thing I noticed was how beautiful the place she lived in was; one of her favorite spots, she says, is right by the dock, with her seven (seven!) adopted dogs around her. Ordinarily in Palawan managing the local artisan village, Kalye Artisano, Paloma spent the breadth of her year on this farm. Her body started sleeping when the sun went down and waking when it came back up.
Paloma is the kind of person who believes that you can sync with nature, with the magic of beautiful places; it makes sense for a creator of beautiful things. Her fashion label, PIOPIO, brought the world’s attention to the weavers of Ilocos and their traditional Filipino textiles. She’s infused traditional designs with her own pops of vision and color. (“When I first told my favorite weaver that I wanted him to create a rainbow textile, he looked at me like I was crazy! But he loved it eventually.”)
Earlier in the year, the rest of her family scattered throughout the world to their own corners (“they peace-d out,” she said), but Paloma stayed rooted to this place, slowly finding peace in words like “home” and “purpose.”
Let’s start with the obvious: Why are you here? Your family has gone all over. You could fly back to wherever you want, or be in Manila. Why did you choose to stay in Calatagan?
This place is where my mom spent a lot of her childhood, so did her father, so this will always be a special kind of family retreat for us. We always say my mom has built a sort of paradise here and we’re really appreciative of that. This has always been, I think, where my family comes together to feel safe.
It’s like your family’s home.
What about for you though? Is this home for you?
Um, that’s a good question, honestly. I think, from all the moving around, this has been the home that we’ve had the longest. Even in Manila, we’re [always] moving around.
Earlier we were talking about how you’ve kind of had a nomadic lifestyle. You’ve lived in lots of cities and places all over the world…
I have, yeah. But I've… the past two years, I've really had this kind of tugging sensation that I need to find a base; I need to find an anchor and I need to settle down. It was very exciting to move around all these different places when I was younger, but the Philippines always called me home. People ask me, “Do you feel more Spanish or Filipino?” and I always said, even from a young age, when I would land in the Philippines, I would just get this huge [feeling of] excitement, like: I’m home. I never had the thought, during lockdown, of “I’m going to leave” or “I want to get out of here.”
What is it about this place, you think?
Calatagan? There’s a strange energy here. I know that sounds kind of crazy but when you come off the road and see those huge trees, there’s like… just this peace. I think it's where everybody is on a different level, energy-wise.
Earlier we were talking about PIOPIO and how you had kind of a breakthrough… Is it fair to call it a breakthrough?
It could be. It was time to pause and reflect… to see what was working and what wasn’t. Circumstances would have had it that certain businesses had to be closed down. So, I [had time to] reflect on PIOPIO again, but I kind of had this…rebirth and reappreciation for what I had created four years ago. At times, I was like, okay...maybe it’s time to concentrate on my other projects. I felt like I had done my part, my small part, in making weaves and textiles relevant again to the younger generation. But having all this time allowed me to see that the weavers still needed help, these communities still needed help. A hundred percent, PIOPIO had given me purpose throughout this whole pandemic. It’s what was really giving me reason to wake up in the morning.
Earlier you used the word “anchor.” It sounds like PIOPIO was kind of like your anchor through the whole thing.
For sure. I think I would go crazy without having a purpose. PIOPIO has always anchored me, has always given me that purpose… I’m sorry to keep using that word, but it’s really… I think it’s really important. When people lose their way, it’s because they’ve lost their purpose. For a very long time, PIOPIO has been mine. My purpose has been to help these artisanal communities, which has kind of grown from weaving to many other kinds of crafts and other artistic communities. It, again, showed up in a moment that would have been, well, very dark for a lot of people. PIOPIO came back and showed me that it was my anchor, that it was my purpose… and it should be. And I was doing what I should be doing. Right?
Do you remember the moment that you had that…
You know what it was, it was a feeling. Going to bed one night and looking back on the days that I had before and feeling really fulfilled. I think it was very confusing for a lot of people, the first month, two months… and when it catches up with you, it’s like: the world is changing, where do I fit in?
It was really isolating, especially in those early months, when we were all on our own. And your space is literally quite isolated from everyone else. It feels like this was also your way of staying connected with the world.
I think that’s really nicely said. It was also, like I was telling you before, I was losing touch with what PIOPIO was before the pandemic. I think we grew quickly, and we were doing way too many things. The main mission of PIOPIO, which was to help these communities, was something that I was putting second, rather than first. What this pandemic helped me do is reconnect with all these communities, talk to them, really ask: how can we help you?
I feel like that question became so important during the pandemic. And in a lot of ways, you’re a problem solver, right? Your work in entrepreneurship, it's creative, it's design… What were the big problems you wanted to solve?
Like I said, having purpose was what got me through the days and I wanted the weavers to feel the same. I wanted them to keep creating, I wanted to make sure they had something to occupy their day. So I created PIOPIO Tindahan [on Instagram] and made other opportunities [for them] to sell their products.
Kind of trying to give them a semblance of normalcy as much as possible…
Like a magical energy?
It is. It is. I know that’s crazy to say but I think…you know what it is, it’s [that] people are much more in tune with themselves and nature when they’re here and you can tell that [through the] conversations we have over the dinner table. It feels much more kind of real, much more present than if we were anywhere else.
I don’t think that’s crazy. I think the place you stay in naturally affects the things going on inside you.
I always say that, but then people always say, you know, you can’t be affected too much by your surroundings or your life will be miserable. Like if you get a job somewhere and you’re not happy in that place, you can’t let it affect you. But to me, naturally, I am extremely affected by my surroundings, which is also why working in Palawan [for Kalye Artisano] was so attractive to me. I like to be outdoors and surrounded by nature. I also realize that not everybody has the luxury to kind of, you know, do this. And I completely understand that but I also think I’m just not wired to be in a fast-paced city anymore, to be honest.
Because you get really affected by your surroundings?
I get affected by people’s energy. Also, their emotions and anxiety. A lot of people say I’m very quick [to suck in] other people’s energies because I like to [be] empathetic, but it also bogs me down. I think that being in a city causes me a lot of anxiety, to be honest. And so, after living here for eight months and being able to just pause and reflect and not have to do so many things, I was much better. Like mentally, physically. I was making better decisions.
They needed normalcy, if not, it was too crazy. The fact that we were still sending orders, I think, kind of gave them hope. Like, you know what, this isn’t the end. I remember sending that first order to Zita, who is one of our embroiderers in Abra, she was ecstatic. She was like, I can get my girls working again! This is great! We thought we would never get orders again.
You also said, in terms of family, you’ve been spending more time than you actually had before.
All of us [siblings] had been sent to different boarding schools at a really young age, so we would only spend a maximum of a week or two weeks a year together. [This time] my brother’s wife was pregnant, so to kind of see her whole pregnancy, until the end, was kind of amazing, too, and to keep them company, it was really great.
And then you’ll see each other for Christmas?
We will see each other for Christmas, yes. We’re all coming back here. We get to finally meet my brother’s son, which will be great. But yeah, we’ll reunite here after this whole…this whole kind of crazy time.
You recently went back to Manila, right? Going back and forth, after being here for so long…What was that like?
I made a lot of promises with myself while I was here, [including] that I wouldn’t go back to my old ways when I went back to Manila. That I would kind of plan out my days, that I would manage my time properly, that I wouldn’t cause myself too much anxiety. But unfortunately, I went back to Manila, [right] into the swing of things and completely went back to my old ways. Now I’m trying to take a step back.
It’s hard. Not everybody has the luxury to say they want to live in the province, in Batangas, or wherever. But I feel like the world is changing and I think that now, we kind of need to make a decision on how we want to live out the rest of our lives. I think it's going to take a long time to change, and to really become the person I want and live the life I want to live, but I’m taking the steps towards that, for sure.
In what places do you feel most like yourself?
Here, for sure. And Palawan because it’s also nature and because I don't have a million other [things] coming at me. Again, I’m a very anxious person, so to be able to do things at my own pace and manage my day and be surrounded by [nature], a natural tranquilizer, is amazing.
Let’s talk about some of your other anchors. Aside from PIOPIO, what do you think has kind of helped you stay grounded, despite all the weirdness with time and place this year?
Relationships, I think. Friends. The pandemic took a lot of social pressures off everyone… it’s something that I was struggling with before—a lot of social anxieties, having to go to events that [I wasn’t] really comfortable with, talking to people, [putting] a front on and [having] meaningless conversations…I think the pandemic filtered what relationships I wanted to work on. And that really anchored me.
Do you have a particular favorite spot here?
I love the little dock by the lake. There are little hammocks, too. But also, just outside my room, there’s a little terrace or veranda where all the dogs come and sit with me and…just to watch the pond from there, it’s just amazing.
Yeah, you seem very relaxed when you’re around your dogs.
Dogs are the best. I mean, these dogs are a constant reminder of just how a second in your life can change everything. They’re all adopted, they’re all rescue dogs, and they just give so much love. Like we always say we don’t deserve dogs, right? They’re just too good. They never ask anything in return. They just want to be loved and fed…I hope we’ve been able to give them a better home here.
Is there anything else you want to make your home more complete?
I just hope that it stays this way and that we still use this spot as our reunion spot for all generations to come. My mom really did a good job building a paradise here for us. That’s it.