To mark her 10th year as a fashion designer, Cheetah Rivera reflects on the people and the journey that allowed her to soar.
It’s not difficult to believe that Cheetah Rivera’s studio used to be a home. It still looks and feels like one. Pale salmon walls welcome you into the warmly-lit trove, with a plush couch to the left, a rack of clothes to the right, a stack of books on every surface, and trinkets atop each pile. By the front door, a bowl of rolled-up affirmations that Cheetah urges us to pick from. Joseph, the day’s photographer, unfurls his piece of paper to reveal a message: “Your only limit is you.” He tucks the proverb in his wallet.
The two-storey, three-bedroom abode (rumored to be the residence of late child actress Julie Vega, according to the landlord) was, but a dream for Cheetah; the designer’s first apartment was a single narrow room she rented for only P3,500 a month, consisting of only a bed, sewing machine, and pattern table. “Siguro ’yun ’yung start of it all. Looking at where I am now, nakaka-touch siya.”
Where she is now, exactly, is on her 10th year as a fashion designer. She used to label herself as an avant-gardist, with one of her most prominent collections being from the fall-winter 2015 showcase at the Manila Fashion Festival. The designer sought to create an assemblage that was imagined for cooler weather while simultaneously appropriate for the country’s tropical climate. She drew inspiration from the migration of birds in winter; reinventing neoprene, a popular fabric at the time, she embroidered it with birds in flight, all gliding upward.
Down the line, she became drawn to serpentine silhouettes that highlight the body, making the Cheetah Rivera muse both a dainty darling and femme fatale. “Her clothes are always feminine. There is always a hint of softness somewhere,” describes Jojie Lloren of her designs. The veteran designer founded the non-traditional fashion school Fashion+Arts+Business Creatives, and served as Cheetah’s mentor on the third season of Project Runway where she finished as runner-up.
“Somehow,” Cheetah says contemplatively, “ being a trans made me understand the woman’s body more.” This understanding is evident to Martin Bautista, a fellow designer and one of Cheetah’s closest friends. “As a designer, she’s very good with mixing technicalities and rules with being free and letting go with being creative,” he tells Vogue Philippines. “I love how she’s able to translate fantasy and dreams into what women would need in their wardrobe.”
Loving Her Own
“Cheetah is a visionary, very creative, truly an artist at heart,” says designer Jaz Cerezo, who considers Cheetah a sister. This is why it’s no surprise that Cheetah’s first decade in the business is also marked by another feat—becoming a Ternocon 3 finalist. The terno-making convention and contest was an artistic pursuit for the designer, who, approaching her 10th year, felt stuck in her career. When she entered Ternocon, she did so like a wide-eyed young designer, ready to absorb new techniques and reignite her creativity.
Prior to the contest, she wasn’t proud to be a Filipino designer. In fact, she considered uprooting her life in Manila and moving to Canada multiple times to become a fashion illustrator. To Cheetah, being a Philippine-based designer was a matter of fact instead of a source of pride. But when she became exposed to who she describes as “the masters” of Philippine fashion, like her mentor Dennis Lustico, she was proud to discover the talent that distinguished us as a people. “After joining Ternocon,” she reflects, “mas minahal ko yung bagay na atin.”
Propelled by a newfound appreciation for local design heritage, she traveled up north in July of last year to immerse herself in Abra, Vigan, and Ilocos Norte to learn weaving and natural dyeing techniques. “What I learned, being an artist in the field of fashion, is para rin pala kaming doktor na never ending learning dapat,” she says. As a primary witness to the skills of northern locals, Cheetah hopes that the market learns to value their handiwork, much like clientele in the late 1900s whose patronage allowed seamstresses to flourish in their craft. Taking these learnings from the week-long excursion equipped her with more respect for local artisans, as well as novel ways to infuse culture into her new collections.
With Cheetah’s all-women team, it feels like family. During meal times, they gather around a large foldable table in the atelier’s living room to dine. Since some of the seamstresses are single mothers, they’re welcome to bring their children to the studio where the other ladies can watch over the kids when no one is available. Their work dynamic is similarly democratic: for their upcoming resort collection, Cheetah designed 45 looks and asked everyone, even junior-level team members, to vote for their top 20 for release to the market.
“I wasn’t really a great businesswoman. I’m just really an artist,” she declares. The designer managed her namesake business on her own for the longest time, before formally integrating her best friend Ria Rivera into the team as brand director. Coming on board last year, Ria led the studio’s rebranding efforts which are culminating in an entry into e-commerce, among many exciting ventures. In the coming year, they hope to release a 20-look resort collection, a 45-piece spring collection, a retrospective collection (which entails 10 reinterpreted looks, one for each year that the label has been in operation), and a website.
The ambition underscored by these undertakings is not lost on the team. More importantly, it excites them. “Ang daming nagmamahal sa amin,” Cheetah says, musing on the journey that led them to what she now feels is their zenith. “Kailangan talaga natin ng mga taong mag-aangat sa atin, at iaangat mo rin sila.”
This article was originally published on Vogue Philippines, June 2023 Issue