When Karen Bolilia and Anna Canlas set out to revive a defunct shoe brand called Studio Josanna in their hometown of Manila, Philippines, they weren’t just trying to bring cool archival designs to the next generation of Filipinos — although they certainly did that. They were also paying homage to Marikina, the one-time shoe-making capital of the Philippines, where the original brand had been founded in the ’90s. Once home to over 5,000 shoe-making factories, that number had dwindled to about 150 factories by 2016, according Canlas.
What happened to cause such devastation of the industry? Typhoon Ondoy (known internationally as Typhoon Ketsana), which hit the city in 2009, was largely responsible for the damage. As a low point within the wider Metro Manila area, Marikina was largely submerged. Many factories were destroyed.
So it was with a kind of surreal horror that citizens watched the same scenario play out in Marikina again 11 years later.
Typhoon Ulysses (called Vamco internationally), made landfall on November 11, killing dozens and destroying the homes of many others. It also once again decimated much of the former shoe-making capital.
“There was one photo on CNN Philippines of rescue boats on a specific street in Marikina, and I quickly triangulated its distance from our workshop,” Bolilia tells Fashionista in an email. “It was very, very close. A walk away. While we were reassured by our master shoemaker later on in the day that he was very much ok and safe, all around Marikina and neighboring regions in our country there was incredible loss.”
Studio Josanna remains a fledgling brand with under 3,000 followers on Instagram and just a couple international stockists; the founders didn’t have millions of pesos to donate to relief efforts. Still, Bolilia and Canlas couldn’t watch the spiritual birthplace of their brand go underwater and just do nothing. So they organized a sample sale, offered shoes at 50% off and donated all the proceeds to a local non-profit called Pembarya, which is working on relief efforts.
They weren’t the only ones — and Ulysses wasn’t the only typhoon.
Bolilia and Canlas were joining a much larger movement of fashion figures rallying around typhoon relief as the Philippines has faced an onslaught of destructive storms in 2020, including Super Typhoon Rolly (known internationally as Goni), which crashed into the island of Catanduanes just weeks before Typhoon Ulysses. Whether they’d been known previously for social activism or not, a whole host of brands, influencers and celebrities stepped up to join these efforts.
Stylist and creative director Mano Gonzales organized indie labels to donate products to a raffle intended to raise money for relief, while local design darling Carl Jan Cruz created a raffle of his own to encourage giving. Street-style regular and entrepreneur Kim Cam Jones and her movie star husband Jericho Rosales collected donations of money and goods, then broadcast videos from inside a giant warehouse where they worked alongside other volunteers to bag rice and toothpaste.
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Meanwhile, across the ocean, Mari Jasmine, an Australian model and TV host who spent most of her career working in the Philippines before the Covid-19 pandemic sent her back to Sydney this year, was organizing a fundraiser for a Filipino non-profit called For the Future. The inequalities of the disaster, which Jasmine links to climate change, were particularly striking to her, and she hoped to use her platform to mobilize the international community around the needs of Filipinos.
“What is happening now in the Philippines is just another example of a global issue affecting the most vulnerable,” she writes, in an email. “Many have died, homes have been completely destroyed or swept away, pets have drowned, crops have been devastated. It isn’t fair that a developing country is bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.”
Though climate attribution science, which allows scientists to attribute the causes of any given disaster to climate change, is still an emergent field, Jasmine is right to think that climate change is exacerbating the Philippines’ exposure to natural disasters.
According to Dr. Samantha Montano, a “disasterologist” and emergency management specialist: “Researchers have found that since the early 1980s there has been an increase in hurricane intensity, frequency and duration. These trends are expected to continue as the climate continues to change.”
Which means that disasters like Typhoon Ulysses and Rolly are likely to become more common as climate change continues to get worse.
As far as Jasmine is concerned, this just further proof that the international community — especially people in places like the U.S., which has disproportionately contributed to global warming — have a responsibility to the Filipinos being impacted most by climate disasters.
Jan Vincent Gonzales, a Filipino-American PR professional and creative consultant, feels the same tension. In the wake of the recent typhoons, he assembled resource lists for anyone looking to support Filipino brands and their relief initiatives, while also encouraging people to just donate directly to non-profits on the ground. But he underscores that Americans need to do more than just donate money: They need to look at how American climate policies are contributing to the problem in the long run.
“When we [in the U.S.] were waiting on the results of the elections, people in the Philippines were doing the same because they know that our actions can directly affect them,” he says. “How can we create a more sustainable change that can go beyond just online help?”
This kind of long-term thinking is crucial for proper disaster response, according to Dr. Montano. Fundraisers happening now while the headlines and damage are still fresh make sense, but she warns that recovery from these kinds of events is likely to take far longer than it will take this news to fade from the media.
“In the case of significant typhoons and hurricanes, we’re almost always looking at multi-year recoveries,” she notes. “Most communities need financial support throughout the entire length of the recovery.”
For Canlas and Bolilia, operating a brand based in the still-flooded shoe capital of the Philippines, this may mean an uncertain future for their shoe-making partners. And their own lived experience of 2020 serves as chilling reminder of the way that climate change is a risk multiplier, making something like the Covid-19 pandemic even harder for under-resourced nations to respond appropriately to.
“Here in the Philippines, we’re still in the longest lockdown in the world,” Bolilia says. “Three severe typhoons made landfall in a single month. It is a climate emergency, intimately felt by a country who contributes very little in disrupting our planet’s health.”
Studio Josanna’s co-founders, as well as many of their peers in the Philippines, are doing what they can to help and support their fellow citizens, whether they’re shoemakers or not. Now the question remains about whether the international community will join them — both by offering immediate financial help, and by creating the kinds of climate policies that help secure a more stable climate future for everyone.