The Inside Story Behind Christian Louboutin's Manila-Inspired Bags

The Manilacaba tote bag features the work of Filipino artisans from non-profit organization GREAT Women.

Christian Louboutin was the last person I'd expected to meet in my place of work, the showroom of GREAT Women Brand.

But one unassuming morning, the renowned international French designer known all over the world for his eponymous luxury leather goods brand was at our showroom caressing the many fabrics and textiles on stock in the showroom.


I had hoped to meet the luxury shoe designer during his low-key visit to Manila last November. Unbeknownst to many, Christian was in Manila for a photo shoot spotlighting the Manilacaba, his latest bag design which is part of a limited edition collection of tote bags he calls “Treasured Totes.” 

His quiet yet charming presence in the showroom took me completely by surprise because after weeks of planning schedules, I had conceded defeat that our paths would not cross. Yet, there he was that morning…

The creation of the Manilacaba began when our group, GREAT Women Brand, received a phone call from Marites Tantoco-Enriquez. She said she wanted to help her friend Christian as he wanted to work with Filipino artisan weavers—and they needed to be women. His past two socially conscious collections of Treasured Totes featured the works of communities from Mexico and Africa. When he discovered the richness and diversity of our country’s heritage designs and culture, he naturally chose the Philippines.

His goal was to source fabric, materials, and other components indigenous to Philippine history and culture. From this, a beautiful partnership bloomed. He brought GREAT Women on board and we, in turn, were his link to the small local communities, the tribes, and the weavers. After all, how would a world famous French international designer of a giant fashion house in Paris reach the many micro-community weavers in the hinterlands, mountains, and small barangays to communicate the requirements for his design vision?

This is exactly what GREAT Women is all about. The acronym GREAT stands for Gender Responsive Economic Actions for the Transformation of Women. It may seem quite the mouthful but in a nutshell, the development programs are all about helping women artisans gain market access by creating unique products that show off our beautiful Filipino cultural values. Thus, the women are able to uplift their lives because of their economic empowerment. In addition, we at GREAT Women are perfectly positioned as enabling consolidators and resource contacts.

GREAT Women was the link to showcase to Christian and to the world the abundance of the beautiful elements of design and textiles that the Philippines is immensely proud of.

Before Christian’s visit, Yannick Flageul, Louboutin’s assistant designer, had flown in from Paris to personally check sources himself. It was very timely because GREAT Women was a part of the ASEAN Trade Showcase, which we were running as part of the 50th Year Anniversary of ASEAN. It was ongoing at the Philippine International Convention Center.

Many of the women weavers responsible for the textiles of Louboutin’s Manilacaba were present. During this event, the textiles from the Visayas, Mindanao, and Luzon islands were well represented. The hablon textile from Iloilo was laid out alongside the colorful playful colors of the plaid patadyongs. The Yakan and T’boli people’s weaves and fabric from Southern Mindanao, the binakol from Ilocos, and even some macabebe and black lip shells from Cebu – they were all there.

We accompanied Yannick to introduce him to some artisans. His role was to present to Louboutin a first grouping of suggested ideas from which Christian would then design the final pieces.

Like a child in a candy store, Yannick excitedly examined and stroked every piece he came across. It was a joy to watch him enthuse over each and every item and exclaim over the details of what he saw. “Christian would love this!” or “I wish I could bring this all home to show Christian!”, he declared over and over again. He held fabrics against other fabrics, mixing and matching, and trying every possible merger of design.

Over one of our many conversations, Yannick displayed a gentle spirit as he spoke of his beginnings in the fashion industry as a bridal couturier and even as a jewelry designer. I was delighted by his account of his professional development as well as his obvious admiration and respect for his boss, Christian Louboutin. Yannick said, “Working for Christian is like being in a family and not so much a hard-core business. He is a simple and straightforward man who really cares for everyone in his company.”

Because Yannick had no airs, I almost forgot the world he belonged to: a world of luxury glamor in the heart of the global fashion industry. When he mentioned the “VIP list of Christian Louboutin,” I nodded politely. I remember he leaned forward and emphasized, “Royalty from different countries are on the list.”

As a Filipino, it makes me so proud to see the finished designs of the Manilacaba. But behind these bags is also the story of how our group GREAT Women struggled to fulfill the orders, especially when the community groups did not understand schedules, timing, and even design instructions. How does one reason with a community of craftswomen who stop work for a whole week in spite of deadlines because of a town fiesta?

The logistical challenges were also very intense. Because of the volume of orders, we endeavored to consolidate weavers from across many provinces in the 7,100 island-archipelago. For our GREAT Women team, it was not just a business transaction. It was pride of country plus our unique chance to showcase our culture and the exquisite craftsmanship of our extremely skilled women weavers. And in the end, we did it!

The Manilacaba, the finished product, is a limited edition tote that comes in two designs, each one as unique and elegant as the other. Seeing our Filipino designs and styles expertly woven and embroidered on a bag coveted by the pinnacle of the world’s luxury market is a wonderful testament to Christian’s collaboration with GREAT Women. It is obvious that Christian and his Louboutin team went to great lengths to express the vibrant culture and traditions of the Philippines, with the unique Louboutin design stamp proudly on the totes. Through this partnership, the works of women artisans at the bottom of the economic pyramid are lifted to the global stage. The Manilacaba is a wonderful celebration of the craftsmanship of the Filipino weavers, the rich history of our country and Christian’s incredible vision of producing stylish yet socially relevant pieces for the world.

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Ana J. Gloria
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