Designer Profile

Rafé New York Takes Us To A Dazzling Reimagining Of Studio 54

Photographed by Selwyn Tungol

Rafe Totengco on his Fall/Winter 2023 campaign and the sweet homecoming of Filipino creatives that went on behind the scenes

In setting out to design any collection, Rafe Totengco prefers to work off a feeling.

With his brand Rafé New York, the designer has carved out a niche in the clutches and evening bags sect of fashion. He attributes its global acclaim to one sentiment: anyone can carry a Rafé bag. Over an illustrious two-decade-long career, he notes a sizeable shift in the landscape that mirrors this attitude, with trends that transcend any one type of person—so long as it fits their tastes.

“With social media, we’ve become a very small world. Everyone sees everything instantaneously, and they also see what other people are wearing,” he says. “Ultimately, that’s also what I love about handbags: it’s a very democratic piece of fashion. You can be young, you can be old. It’s not size-specific, it’s not age-specific.” 

For his Fall/Winter 2023 collection, Totengco doesn’t design with a particular muse in mind but a mood; he paints a picture of a radiant hour in a bar in Bushwick, tapping into the sparkling glamour and the freeing sense of style of eras past. 

The designer expands, “I’m hoping that with one of these bags from the next season, [wearers] get a sense of confidence, independence, and strength, and a kind of boldness [that says] ‘I want to stand out from the crowd. I don’t want to be like everybody else. I’m going to walk in and turn heads. Yes, I’m going to own the space.’”

Rafé New York
Photographed by Selwyn Tungol
Rafé New York
Photographed by Selwyn Tungol

Inspired by Studio 54 and Helmut Newton’s photographs of the Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking suit, Totengco wanted to shoot in a location that captured the vibrancy of New York City at night. It seemed nearly impossible to find within the city’s cluster of crowded streets and the time demanded of shooting a full-blown campaign; that was, until his team found the perfect spot: a Brooklyn bar with the makings of what could have been a stylish speakeasy from the 1920s. 

“The bar provided us with so many vignettes that I was super happy with because it kind of gave you the feeling that ‘She’s inside…somewhere,’” he muses. “You don’t necessarily see her friends, but it doesn’t matter. It’s almost like she’s there [just arriving]. There’s this anticipation of, like, ‘Something fun is about to happen.’ And you can just imagine the rest.” 

Styled in Marcel waves and ‘70s-reminiscent jumpsuits, Rafé’s garçonne lounges over black leather booths, carrying miniaudières of malleable rhinestone mesh and sequins that spill over her fingertips.

“We have [them in] magenta, gold, and silver—you know, classic rhinestone colors, [and they’re] all individually done by hand in India,” he says of the collection. “They’re fun evening bags, party bags. When you see them, they evoke that sense of frivolity and ‘Ooh, look at this sparkly thing!’ I always believe a little sparkle never hurt anybody.”

Two Degrees of Separation

For his campaign, Totengco worked with New York City-based Filipino creatives whom he shares he met through serendipitous encounters. In New York City, it seems, most Filipinos are distanced by only “two degrees of separation.”

He met photographer Selwyn Tungol after he had taken a picture of one of his bags during a Fashion Week years ago and the multi-disciplinary creative Lorenz Namalata at the recent opening of the Silverlens Galleries in Manhattan. Following what the designer calls a “trail of connectivity,” he finds that the bar Namalata scouted for him was Filipino-owned, too. 

Rafe Totengco
Courtesy of Rafe New York

“It was just funny. We had a whole crew of other people who were assisting who all came from Manila, all based here now, and it just became this thing. All of a sudden, we were talking in Tagalog in a bar in Bushwick, and we were like, oh my God, wait, where are we? What are we doing?” he laughs. “It’s also, in a way, representative of New York now. It really is a melting pot, and I love that—that a new generation of creatives is coming up.”

For Totengco, a predominantly Filipino crew was a refreshing departure from where he first started in the industry. He says, “It was kind of this moment of solidarity where it was like, ‘Well, I didn’t have this before.’ Without even realizing it, it’s happening, and, really, it’s a nice feeling. You feel at home. You feel like you’re a part of something.”

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