Model turned designer Jo Ann Bitagcol debuts her first runway show at Bench Fashion Week

Jo Ann Bitagcol Returns to the Runway, This Time As A Designer

Models backstage at Jo Ann Bitagcol’s runway show. Photo by Kim Angela Santos

Veteran model and Vogue Philippines September 2023 cover star Jo Ann Bitagcol debuts her first runway show at Bench Fashion Week as a designer.

The discovery of Jo Ann Bitagcol is long storied, from factory worker to model to Crying Ladies actress to photographer to designer to Vogue Philippines cover star. Whatever dimensions Bitagcol’s creative journey takes, it’s been one of mindful collaboration with friends.

It was no different over the weekend, when she returned to the runway at Bench Fashion Week–this time as a designer. It was the chaos of backstage that she’s long been familiar with, but it was the first time she found synergy in all that she had ever learned as a creative: “I got to combine and use all stages, all elements [from being a] model, photographer. The process always starts with good intentions and everything flows from there.”

Jo Ann Bitagcol with models backstage. Photo by Kim Angela Santos

⁠As a veteran of runways, imagining this show come to life was a new undertaking. Whereas before Bitagcol had been directed, at her Bench Fashion Week runway show, it was the other way around. From her own intentions flowed the models, the walk, the music, the clothes, the people.

The people being most important. Her years in the creative industry reflected in the friends that she was able to pull in for the show. “When I wasn’t sure with something, I would consult designer friends Ivar Aseron, Jojie Lloren, and Luis Espiritu. Direk Robby and his team at Saga created a great flow for the show, assisted me with piano base tracks, visuals,” Bitagcol rattles off. And she’s not one to rattle. Always restrained, careful, and considered–whether on the runway or sitting down for tea with friends–Bitagcol is giving her collaborators her due: Noel Manapat and the Bench team for all logistics and other concerns. Banj and Mike Claparols of Lakat for the male model’s footwear. Gino Gonzalez for the pieces she photographed for the fabric printing. And, of course, her mananahi’s (sewing team) hard work. “I was fully supported at all angles.”

Blue ensemble in Jo Ann Bitagcol’s runway collection. Photo by Kim Angela Santos
Jo Ann Bitagcol’s runway collection layers prints and different textures. Photo by Kim Angela Santos

With her first runway show as a designer, the multidisciplinary creative knew that she wanted to do a more evening-forward, dressed up take on her flowy pieces. It was another version on Bitagcol–not just the brand, but her own eye for silhouette and form. Known for personally preferring a unisex take on classics, the years of wearing clothes on her own body made her runway ethos simple: respect. “As with gender and age, I have respect for all body types. I want to make sure to create for everyone, so everyone can have a piece of our culture.”

Thus, the impetus for the show; simply, to expand the Bitagcol DNA. The designer took it one step at a time, again a reflection of her years in the industry: she drew inspiration from personal favorites from designers friends’ archives. She made a distinct effort to cast models of different skin tones and look. And, to complete the story of her runway, Bitagcol thought of Atin ku pung singsing to open the show, “to honor ancestors, heritage through my dialect, Kapampangan,” with an added piano base for some timelessness.

An orange ensemble in Jo Ann Bitagcol’s runway collection. Photo by Kim Angela Santos

The song, translated to English, is a self-reflective piece of Filipino folk music that meditates on what has been given by our collective ancestors. One’s true soul, the song ends, will become whole once this recognition for heritage and culture finds space to thrive–a true reflection of Bitagcol’s intentions for the show. Whether speaking about the brand or the woman, Bitagcol told the story of a creative in constant evolution, a woman in her flow.

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