'WHAT I LIKE most about my bags is when people say that they never hide them because they are such beautiful pieces. I was a fashion model for 10 years - six years in the Philippines, where I was born, three years in Singapore and some time in Hong Kong. But because of my height I never made it internationally. I was young and happy just to visit different places. That was enough for me. During that time I developed an eye for colour, texture and patterns. When I stopped modelling I was bored. My two children were studying in Connecticut and I would wait for them so we could go to New York City on weekends. Then I had an idea: I'd make something that will benefit myself, my finances and the stores I love (I'm a big fan of Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan).
So I walked around Bergdorf and Barneys and noticed they didn't carry many evening bags, and those they stocked were all embellished and flashy. I decided to go in the opposite direction and make bags women could use for their makeup at a formal dinner or dance. Bags that didn't look like they were screaming for attention.
At the time my husband was getting into the furniture business and there was this one box that came from a carpenter in the south of the Philippines. I met the artisan and asked him if he could make the box as a bag. I sketched it for him, and asked him to put a hinge on it. He said: 'But this is a box, not a bag, it cannot be a bag.' Eventually he came back with a bag.
The only person I know and trust in fashion is my good friend Joyce Ma. When I told her I wanted to design handbags she was surprised because I'd never done it before. When she saw the collection she said 'these are beautiful but I wish you luck because it's hard to penetrate the US market'. But she encouraged me to try because people would love the bags.
Every June we go on a family vacation, often to our flat in New York. A friend of mine knows Virginia Smith, the fashion editor at USA Vogue. She said that maybe she could feature one of my designs in the magazine. They liked my work but wanted to know where in the US they were being sold. When I said nowhere they asked: 'Where do you want to see your bags sold?' and I asked: 'Where should I sell them?' They said Barneys. So Virginia called Barneys and arranged an appointment for the following day and they bought my entire line. When I told Joyce that Barneys had chosen me as new bag designer she said my stars must have been perfectly aligned.
I had a few other artists working on bags for me by then. There were three from the mountains and two from the beach. I was happy I didn't have to go to China and have my bags mass produced. I work with beautiful artisans and they give me a lot of inspiration. I told them to take the pattern of the mat they slept on and incorporate the design into a bag but instead of dried leaves use sterling silver. I use a lot of shells and these beautiful pieces come from different places in the Philippines and I'm happy because when I look for new material I get to know my country and people. Every shell, and bag, is different.
I didn't want to limit myself to just bags so I ventured into jewellery design. I also added eyewear and fans - the intricate Spanish ones with the handle in mother of pearl. But with all these products I try to base them on shells and wood, the materials I began with. I want to maintain a certain image so that when the recession ends people are not going to look for me to do a secondary line. I came up with wood because it's inexpensive. I did some carvings on wood to make it look hand made. Then I can make the same designs in sterling silver and gold. A Saudi princess wanted one of my bags made in 24-carat gold. I said it would be heavy but she didn't care. If a bag can become expensive it can also be inexpensive. When times are good I can go from sterling silver to gold and when we have to be more cautious I use brass and copper. But everything has to be beautiful. I want people to display my bags, not hide them.
*Celestina bags are available at Lane Crawford