Winning bronze at TernoCon 2020 proved to be a challenge for Dinnes Obusan, but after living a multitude of lives before becoming a designer, his lived experience gives him more inspiration to innovate our traditional garb.
Dinnes Obusan has lived many lives before becoming the award-winning terno designer he is today. Hailing from the province of Tinambac, Camarines Sur, he’s persevered through every kind of adversity; from growing up without his parents, working odd jobs, and balancing fashion school while joining and, thereafter winning bronze, at TernoCon 2020.
Now the 39-year old designer has opened up his own terno business. Part of what makes Obusan so popular among clients and in-the-know designers are due to his wellspring of experiences, making him a natural at finding new ways to reinvent terno. Take, for example, his graduating collection for Slim’s Fashion and Arts School, where he envisioned a Chinese garter-inspired terno and would drape neoprene pipings to form a garment, alluding to the game’s elastic garter. “In elementary school, I always hung out with the girls. And we’d always play Chinese garter,” Obusan tells Vogue Philippines.
Even before formally training in Slim’s, both terno and the heritage attached to it have always been personal for Obusan. When asked about where he draws inspiration for his pieces he cites his own lola. A seamstress herself, she would eventually raise Obusan and his siblings after losing their parents: “We were raised by our lolo and lola when I was five years old, when my dad died. Afterward, right after giving birth to my youngest sibling, my mom left us.”
Family and friends of Obusan could already tell he had a natural inclination for both the arts and the human form. At home, the young Obusan would fiddle with his lola’s manual-powered sewing machine where he would acquaint himself with the work of his lola. “She’d mostly make school uniforms for young students and teachers,” Obusan shares.
In his childhood home, he fondly remembers a framed picture of his lola on her graduation from sewing school: “Whenever I’d see that picture, I’d tell myself, ‘One day I’ll learn how to make terno like that.'” He adds, “When someone asks who my inspiration is to be a designer, I always say my lola. It all started with her because I grew up seeing her sewing terno.”
In his twenties, he worked as a parish secretary to his local church. While primarily doing administrative tasks, he would be fascinated by the church’s day-to-day happenings, from flower arrangements for holy week to wedding ceremonies. “The church was beautiful and there were always so many flowers. It always pleased me and I developed an interest for it,” Obusan says, as he recalls watching the florist create arrangements of flowers like chrysanthemums and anthuriums. Eventually, the parish priests took notice of his interest and appointed him to make the flower arrangements and, sometimes, he’d do bridal makeup as well: “I’d always talk to the brides and ask them ‘Is your makeup artist here?’ If they say no, I’d ask, ‘Do you want me to fix how you look?’”
By 2015, after more than a decade working in the church, he would make a big move from Camarines Sur to Manila for greener pastures. But without having earned a bachelor’s degree, his first few months living in the city and finding a job would prove difficult. “I couldn’t find work. And it’s not like I’m fit enough to be in certain jobs, like a porter,” he shares, laughing.
One day, Obusan would receive a call from a priest who was familiar with his creative potential from his days working at the local parish. “First he asked me if I had a job already. I told him I couldn’t find any, so he asked ‘Do you want to study again?’” Obusan recalls. The parish priest would later connect him to Judy Estrada, a benefactor who heard of Obusan’s dream to become a fashion designer.
Estrada would later enroll him into Slim’s, where his design acumen would widen and he’d rethink his approach to clothes. “I learned everything there. Everything about the fashion industry, I learned at Slim’s because I didn’t have any idea about all of this before it.”
Obusan’s graduating year at Slim’s was a challenge in itself as he would decide to enter TernoCon, a terno-centric competition, on top of schoolwork. “While I was making my final projects for classes like draping and tailoring, I was also making my pieces for TernoCon. That’s why I was so thin at the time,” he muses.
“I really prayed that I’d win because, to be honest, the prize would really, really help. That’s why I really prayed, even at least to place third,” he says. In the competition, he would be mentored by both Lesley Mobo and veteran designer Inno Sotto.
Obusan takes pride in the ways he reimagined terno for his winning collection inspired by fingerprint motifs and optical illusions. “I loved the movement of the looks. One more thing is the fact that the zipper was concealed. That was suggested by Sir Inno,” he shares, expounding on how Sotto would challenge his approach to rethinking the details of terno. “I was able to do it, but at first I was like ‘Ah! How do I do this? How do I make the zippers shaped like an ‘S’? […] It was really hard to plan it out but I didn’t feel the fatigue ’cause I really enjoy what I do.”
Obusan would later win bronze at TernoCon and, not long after, he would find his Instagram DMs flooded with inquiries for his famed pieces. “TernoCon’s been a big help,” Obusan says, telling me of his growing client base hailing not just from the Philippines but also from the United States and Australia. Since then, he’s successfully put up a sari-sari store for his own lola and an online terno business of his own.
What’s the emerging designer hoping for next? “I want to dress Thalia!” Obusan declares, bursting into laughter. Thalia is, of course, the famed telenovela actress in the ’90s whom he’s idolized since he was a child. Obusan then pauses and adds another dream: “In five to 10 years, I want to have my own atelier with an actual store and a display.” With his unwavering tenacity and creative vision for terno, it seems the emerging designer is well on his way to achieving his dreams, and more.
This interview has been translated and condensed for clarity.