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Rafé Totengco, award-winning accessories designer leads a busy and exciting life. He launched Rafé New York in 1997 and has grown it into a world-renowned handbag brand, carried by an international array of boutiques and department stores, not to mention a bevy of young, fashionable stars. His success landed him the position of Creative Director of Handbags for The Jones Group Inc. A master of both elegant structured form and wild bohemian chicness, Rafé’s work combines a vision that is always fresh and eclectically inspired. I recently had the opportunity to ask Rafé a bit about his career and inspiration. See our interview and samples of his beautiful designs below.
Portrait of Rafé Totengco.
You have a wonderful background, can you please tell me a little about how you became interested in fashion and your early education.
I first became aware of fashion at a very young age. Growing up in the Philippines, we went to church every Sunday and you had to don your Sunday's best outfit. My Mom gave me a box of fabrics and asked me to go to our local tailor. I decided I would turn this into an art project since I was already drawing. I had never designed clothing or even thought of it. A week later my sketches became reality. That was my “aha” moment. I¹ve been hooked on fashion ever since. I opened up my own atelier while I was still in college which was such a great introductory experience. Several years later I wanted to learn more technical aspects of fashion design so I moved to New York to study at F.I.T. Then one thing led to another and voila, the rest is history.
Rafé New York.
You have been nominated for and won many awards for your designs, what are some of the major events of building your name in the fashion industry?
Early on I had the support of several fashion editors who put my bags in their magazines. That kind of publicity was invaluable because they caught the attention of buyers and before I knew it I was in business. Then becoming a member of the CFDA in 1998, being named Best Accessories Designer from the Accessories Council in 2001 and receiving the Independent Handbag Awards 2013 Iconoclast Award for Lifetime Achievement in Handbag Design have all been important milestones in my career. In terms of set-backs, the recession was particularly challenging because nobody was prepared and it changed the way people bought fashion. I had to take a short break from it all and re-launched my brand 2 years ago. It¹s been a steady build up since then and it's exciting. All our customers are coming back and we are experiencing really strong selling with the new designs. I have found the industry to be incredibly supportive over the years and I¹ve met the best people that I can count as my friends to this day.
Rafé's travel photos on Instagram. (@RafeNewYork)
You share the most incredible images online of your travels, can you tell us a little about your travels and some of your greatest sources of inspiration.
Travel is my biggest source of inspiration. I travel constantly and I take copious amounts of photos both with my iPhone and with my Leica. Eventually several images will make their way into influencing the mood and aesthetics of a collection. I love it when that happens.
Rafé's travel photos on Instagram. (@RafeNewYork)
Can you walk us through your own design process in creating a new bag, start to finish.
It always begins with the inspiration and then a lot of sketching. I have a little Muji sketchbook that I draw in daily. Then it's finding the right material. Sometimes the material will dictate what kind of bag it will be. There's no set formula. The sketch gets turned into a technical sketch where more details and instructions are outlined for the factory to follow. Three or four weeks later I see the first prototype. The first proto is typically never correct so it goes through a second set of corrections before we receive the final showroom sample.
Rafé Totengco, Fashion Rendering, Celia Zigzag.
Rafé Tangier Celia Zigzag.
What does a typical day in the life of Rafe consist of, balancing the creative and business side of your brand, as well as social and personal life?
I'm fortunate in the fact that I love what I do so work is pleasure. One day I could be flying to Paris for the week to attend a trend show or flying to China to inspect samples. Most days are back to back meetings with the team and designing the collection. The lines are definitely blurred between social, personal and work life because they overlap with each other but I don't think that's atypical for any designer with their own label. What exciting new projects and partnerships are you currently working on? We're launching scarves this season which makes me so happy. I love prints and scarves were a natural brand extension for me to explore.They're also a great way to add color and texture to any wardrobe.
Sneak peak at Rafé New York scarves, coming soon!