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Words by Katrina Swee | Photography by Renzo Navarro and Margarita Herbosa 

Photograph by Renzo Navarro

Floating around wrapped in a blanket in his recently closed studio, Filipino fashion designer Carl Jan Cruz peeked into his archives, contemplating what he’d be doing for the rest of the day.

These slow days indoors have now been replaced with an overwhelming feeling as Carl Jan Cruz and his team end the fourth month of isolation unexpectedly with big and bold moves. Featured in international magazines Vogue, INPRINT, and i-D and found in renowned stockists such as Maryam Nassir Zadeh and 100% Silk Shop, the brand has marked five years of business to add to the multitudinous accomplishments, growing local popularity and exposure abroad, ultimately, transforming the landscape of contemporary Filipino fashion.


Even recognized brands have now hit a rough patch as the coronavirus pandemic continues. The journey has not been kind to many and with the fashion industry struggling to survive, we dove deep in conversation with CJ, about his time in the studio, his views on consumerism and fashion, the making of Pambahay, and what the future holds for him and his team.

Photograph by Renzo Navarro

Prior to the downturn of this year, the designer had numerous plans in store for the brand. Turning five for Carl Jan Cruz meant pursuing greater things.

“We originally thought of the template of how a brand grows and scales. With growth, traveling internationally was definitely in sight for the team and the brand. We were planning to do a month-long residency in New York, have more presence with other pre-existing stockists, and create friendships with new ones. The department, internally, was going to go through changes as well. We were creating internship programs on a long-term scale that would lead to employment as we needed for what we were trying to do. We have never been about big steps. However, we were sure of all our small moves. We were micro-strategic.”

All the prepared proposals were put on hold. The space continued to be contained, but the atelier had to take initiative before the tide worsened.

“Slowing down started from our end as internal prioritizations of people who work for us and those we collaborate with became recurring thoughts. That was top of mind—how am I going to protect and ultimately sustain my people and my brand?”

CJ was focused on the brand's backbone, which became the main reason for the team to not aggressively work on sales and do follow-ups. This softened the blow of the inevitable that they could not properly operate by mid-March. Everything changed. By May’s end, the tough decision was made to close the showroom permanently and figure out how to proceed, but the former tenants found themselves in limbo.

Photograph by Margarita Herbosa

Behind closed doors, CJ spent much of his time in reflection. Day-to-day activities, which were once mundane, took on a new meaning. The designer particularly talked about how his senses became very much attuned with his feelings toward the relationship between the body and clothes.

“These last few months have made me think about what clothes were becoming and the meaning of it for me as a person practicing design professionally but also as a person who is enthusiastic about clothes and wearing them. I have been finding purpose in what I wear at home. I still respect and find joy in garments that I used to wear but when I would wear my usuals to feel good, it didn’t feel normal. It’s so funny talking about it like it’s a distant memory. As I wore them from time to time, I realized how I was shifting and responding to that.”

He continued to elaborate how throughout his days inside, moving from working at his desk to making a meal in between for himself would change the way he wore and thought about his outfits. The sartorial idea of clothes became secondary as sensibility and comfort became priorities. Despite CJ’s previous work centering on structure and technicality, his mind slowly gravitated to clothing as being functional. These realizations and heightened senses were the results of staying indoors. With limited visuals, he was transfixed with even the smallest actions such as eating fruit, a growing obsession for CJ. The natural pigment it left on his fingers and how the colors related to the shade of skin were details he documented regularly because they gave him this feeling of lightness, similar to the alteration of clothes he began to wear.

Photograph by Margarita Herbosa

These trivial moments during his time alone led CJ to ponder further on the subject of lightness. A fabric that was developed as far back as his time studying at London College of Fashion became the only piece he unconsciously drifted toward and wore in the studio during quarantine.

“I was never really in the mood to wear denims or other textiles while working. Looking through our archives, I ended up choosing a particular fabric because I was stressed about sweating too much and needed to wear something comfortable when going outdoors to indoors. Whenever I wore garments made of that fabric, I felt like I didn’t even put them on, like I came into the studio wearing them. I would go home and completely forget that I was in a different set of clothes at the beginning of the day. It worked its way and made sense to me. That’s when I started connecting the dots.”

The unexpected, archived textile led CJ to discussions with his team, and with his “what-if” nature, the Pambahay collection was born.

“I thought, if I was isolated and wearing my own line, I would wear it this way perhaps. It was kind of selfish to begin with because it was for a self-serving purpose. However, I didn’t want to put something out there that I didn’t trust myself. I think that was really how it started. It’s funny how this very simple and practical answer was what started conversations again with my team and friends and how we shared this consciousness of appreciation and reckoning from being inside.”

CJ translated the idea of essential into the collection while dealing with staying a niche, contemporary Filipino brand. Practicality was a key factor in the making of Pambahay because of the shift in consumerism. What once was an array of “wants” quickly changed to what a consumer needs during these uncertain times.

Photograph by Renzo Navarro

The whole design process was affected. There was only a discussion about ideal lengths and coverage to prevent touching, but conversations about manufacturing and marketing were cut, pushing to the front of the line the shoot for the website, done with a very limited team. Talks about styling, mood, or artistic direction were excluded while keeping distance from each other became a priority.


Furthermore, the collection was practical and technical to the point where the team was initially unsure what consumers would do with the supplementary textiles developed. Accompanying the fine jersey pique were CJ’s vilogs and parihavas, which began with the notion of having softer surfaces at home. However, after launching Pambahay, Carl Jan Cruz received countless Instagram tags from their clients flaunting the products in original and imaginative ways. 


Despite the seeming directness of his newest collection, from the idea and design to the website, the alterations CJ and his team experienced the past couple of months were immense. The standstill of plans, the uneasiness from trying to stay afloat, and the slow days of contemplation and finding stimulation indoors were unexpectedly part of the growth they needed. Nevertheless, CJ and his team pushed forward with radical acceptance, trusted one another, and forged a collection together using this mindset.

Photograph by Margarita Herbosa

“We weren’t going to wait for the industry to tell us when it would be okay to be a part of it again. I guess it was an aggressive move when we decided to walk down the path of going directly with how we felt. I felt our choice to discontinue participating in seasons came out of honesty. We currently can’t travel so I’ve taken the fact that we are in Manila into my arms and embraced the whole purpose of what it means to be here with our community and hopefully, started a conversation. All of this has really shifted our perspective. However, I think it is comforting that, at the end of the day, we still feel very much like ourselves. I think that’s an important message—that you can completely change your purpose and direction but you can still be yourself. I remember the very first day we went on lockdown and I said that I really didn’t care what Carl Jan Cruz would be at the end of it all, as long as my team and I had each other, as long as we were doing something. The way we responded to it in the past four months has really altered a lot of things for us. Embracing this small idea has opened an avenue for us to hope again.”

While still processing the current climate and continuous change on the daily, CJ has illuminated us greatly with how under drastic hardships, staying true to oneself can lead to a silver lining.

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