Designer Profile

A Creative Middle Age: RAFGLANG and Mich Dulce Mark Their Runway Return at Bench Fashion Week

Photo by Andrea Ang

When you are no longer the fresh grad and not quite the maestro holding the diploma, creative spaces for those in between can feel limited–but Bench Fashion Week achieves exactly that, welcoming both Patrick Galang of RAFGLANG and Mich Dulce back to the runway after a long hiatus.

7 years is a long time. 15 is even longer.

Bench Fashion Week happens twice a year, without fail. The industry–fashion designers, photographers, fashion stylists, hair and makeup artists, influencers, models, endorsers, friends–flock to Bench Tower for a weekend of fashion and hospitality by Ben Chan. Now on it’s 6th year (do pandemic ages apply to industry events?), Bench Fashion Week began in 2017 rolling out local fashion brands such as Kashieca and Human, international shopping mainstays such as American Eagle Outfitters and Urban Revivo, and Filipino designers from different cities all on the same runway.

Bench Fashion Week doesn’t even do just one Filipino designer, a token add-on. Instead, Suyen Corporation head honcho Ben Chan and creative director slash lead stylist Noel Manapat take a very personal approach to choosing who shows in a season. Their weave of designers goes in different directions, with seasoned names Ivarluski Aseron, Dennis Lustico, JC Buendia, Rhett Eala; contemporary designers Vania Romoff, Sassa Jimenez, Bagasao Studios; whimsical, cult labels Jaggy Glarino, Randolf Clothing, Proudrace; even runway debutantes Antonina, Bon Hansen, CHED Studios.

This season, book-ending designers Renz Reyes, Chris Nick, and Lulu Tan-Gan, there were two returns to the runway: one by Patrick Galang, who has returned to the fashion industry altogether; and Mich Dulce, who has not touched a runway with her own head to toe looks in 15 years.

Mich Dulce at Bench Fashion Week. Photo by Alexis Wang

Patrick Galang stepped off the scene a few years back, after back to back stints as fashion editor at two glossies. I parted ways with him at the second one, then his 20-something former editorial assistant. I hadn’t seen him in seven years. Heard from him, I had–nods from industry friends, confirming that he was fine, and finding his way back into fashion.

In early 2023, he finally did. Patrick Galang returned to the local fashion scene as a brand: RAFGLANG. He had a few resources, he had a few friends–and that seemed to be all he needed. The rest of it would be fueled by that. His talent: shooting his own collection, with a mobile phone, in a light-filled studio in Escolta, producing, styling, creative directing, steaming, sewing. His friends: the model Valerie de los Santos, who posed for his collection bare-faced and walked the very Bench show in discussion; the designers Martin Bautista and Jerome Lorico, who I witnessed backstage crouching down, sewing a model into a dress for Galang while Bautista shone the light of his iPhone so the other two could thread a needle. 

RAFGLANG was as rich in creative joy and community as the palette of his collection. Hard and soft tailoring pushed and pulled at each other. The defining moment was, of course, Valerie de los Santos, in a grown up ‘00s club kid look (who still had a penchant to disco every now and then) via an almost sheer printed dress cut high and low in all the spots you could imagine, topped off with a tiny leather bra and a leather shrug.

RAFGLANG at Bench Fashion Week. Photo by Alexis Wang

In the many seasons I’ve been to Bench Fashion Week, I can’t remember a time when I sent in a follow-up question to the brand. The Bench team–and all of its sister, brother, mother, father, cousin brands–have perfected the flow of things, providing photographs, information, quotes, and croissants (yes, I said it; the croissants and iced tea from PAUL are part of the Bench Fashion Week experience) like clockwork. But I sent in a couple of questions anyway, not knowing Ben Chan himself would be the one answering. Very badly put, but there was just one specific thing I wanted to know: why did you give these designers a chance to return?

“Patrick Galang has always been on our radar with his works as both designer and stylist. We have worked with his contemporaries Martin Bautista and Jerome Lorico as highlighted designers of Bench Fashion Week in the past,” Ben Chan shared, completely on the nose about the designer friendship triumvirate. “It was just very fitting that we provide this platform for his return from his hiatus to fashion. He has skills in both hard tailoring and soft draping, and [we] need his strong aesthetic in the local design scene.”

RAFGLANG at Bench Fashion Week. Photo by Alexis Wang
RAFGLANG at Bench Fashion Week. Photo by Alexis Wang

Some may write it off as PR, but I looked at it with renewed eyes–or older, 30-something eyes. The creative industry prefers the youth and venerates the old. Opportunities often skew either way: features and platforms for emerging designers; galas and red carpets for the veterans. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, we need more of it. We need less red tape, we need laws that provide for creative futures, we need financial support to develop a national design identity. We need more opportunities for students to get their work out there, to build their names, to experience the industry; for designers with a few years on their belt to have a stable business that nourishes them creatively; for seasoned designers with fiercely dedicated clientele to bring their vision to contemporary spaces. 

But when you are no longer the fresh grad and not quite the maestro holding the diploma, creative spaces for those in between can feel limited. And it was only now that I could see, when I looked around, that people were either a decade younger or older than me. Where did everyone go? Did the dream die?

I asked Ben Chan the same of Mich Dulce. This was Mich Dulce the milliner, Mich Dulce the coquettish creative tornado in a corset, whose hands have worked at Chanel sister company Maison Michel to provide all of the headwear of the iconic house. Dulce, lead singer of The Male Gaze and Us-2 Evil-0; Dulce, former local reality TV contestant; Dulce, founder of feminist collective Grrl Gang Manila. 

Mich Dulce at Bench Fashion Week. Photo by Alexis Wang

Ben Chan also ticked off Dulce’s design history with Bench: Dulce had presented before at Bench Underwear Show, Dulce had done a denim show with Ernest Santiago and Randy Ortiz, Dulce had a hat and apparel collaboration with Bench as a milliner and designer. “It was also fitting that she combined some elements such as basic tank tops and Bench denim with her works on piña, cotton, and latex,” Chan shares.

Does a person like that ever stop being creative? No. Not Dulce, definitely. She hadn’t left fashion—she had just been in a different realm of it. Of her return, Dulce could not hold a period: “Runway is so different—for me a show is an opportunity for storytelling, for really bringing people into my world. You can’t really do that with pictures–they don’t draw you in like a show does.

Mich Dulce at Bench Fashion Week. Photo by Alexis Wang
Mich Dulce at Bench Fashion Week. Photo by Alexis Wang

“I’m so obsessive with music—I spent hours trying to find the perfect music for the perfect mood, then I had decided on Delia Derbyshire and Anthony Newley’s “Moogies Boogies” for the first song and it helped me style the show and other pieces. Then some Aphex Twin, and Deerhoof. I really wanted to use my friend Soko’s song as the last song. Music sets the tone and I always do it in the start and it comes at the same time as clothes and I play it while I make.

“I also don’t sketch–I work in 3D, I drape shapes and play with fabric. So it’s different to make 16 pieces. I never know what a full look will really look until we start styling.” She stops only perhaps because her show is done too: “Hats and clothes clothes mean I have to do double the work.”

RAFGLANG at Bench Fashion Week. Photo by Alexis Wang

A few days after both their shows, I asked Dulce and Galang the same question. Why and why now?

“Two years ago, I was in a situation where I was fighting for my life,” Galang shared. Patrick had always been forthcoming, sincere, his heart on his sleeve. “It was at that moment when I realized that life is short, and I have to do something good out of the life that was given to me.”

The dream doesn’t die. It may leave. Or you may set your sights elsewhere. But the call to a creative life will always be answered, even if it takes 7 or 15 years to.

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