Out of Print

Smile Like You Mean It

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Sunki

The founders of Sunki on their low-impact fashion label and why the revolution will be sustainable.

What do we talk about when we talk about sustainability? The fashion world has had a reckoning with the word and more specifically the fast fashion industry's role in negatively impacting the climate crisis. One study as reported by Business Insider found that “85% of all textiles go to the dump each year.”

The impact is not up for debate. To deny it is to be complicit. While true systemic change is in the hands of conglomerates and our policy makers, there is still something that can be done within our own communities.

Enter: Sunki.

Founded by Gaby Abrahan, Isabella Argosino, Micah Tadena, and Candice Yu, Sunki is a low-impact fashion label birthed from their need to address the climate crisis as consumers. 

“I’d been thinking of starting a clothing brand for more than three years now,” says Isabella—or Argo as her friends call her. “Back then, I just wanted to make clothes I liked but couldn’t find locally. But so much has changed since then—my goals, how I approach consumption, and the general role of brands in today’s climate.” She had mentioned it to her friends but when she brought the idea to Gaby, Micah, and Candice, “it just clicked,” she says.

With Sunki, the four hope to address the climate impact of not just retail fashion but consumers as well. The brand launched early this year during the pandemic and has highlighted their commitment to being clear and open in how they produce their clothes. It’s less of a hard-sell to the consumer and more of a mission statement. To wear a Sunki romper or a jumpsuit is to wear and support its rallying cry against the environmental effects of fast fashion. To the cynic it may seem counterintuitive to consume something to lessen waste but the hope is that by supporting low-impact brands such as theirs, there will be less foot traffic in fast fashion stores. It’s a daunting task but if anyone can get it done, it’s women.

The four talk more about the origins of Sunki and the greater conversation of sustainability.

The following was conducted over email and has been edited for publication.

Out of Print: What were you all doing before you got together to do Sunki? Isabella Argosino (Argo), head of branding, marketing, and overall PR strategy:I’d been thinking of starting a clothing brand for more than three years now. Back then, I just wanted to make clothes I liked but couldn’t find locally. But so much has changed since then—my goals, how I approach consumption, and the general role of brands in today’s climate. Anyway, I always knew that it had to be more than just another shop. But this was an overwhelming feat that I couldn’t execute on my own and so it took forever for me to take the first step. Eventually, I started talking about my ideas with other friends, and when I mentioned it to Micah, Gaby, and Candice, it just clicked. We’ve been friends for more than a decade, so it was great to have that foundation of trust and natural rapport. Plus, we’re able to bring our specific skills to the table; each member of the team is valuable. Before Sunki, I was working in marketing, brand strategy, and copywriting. I still do all those things now, and I also have a day job as a content strategist for a PR firm.

Gaby Abrahan, head of content marketing: I was a fresh graduate and a junior copywriter at an advertising agency. While learning the ropes of the industry, I got to develop a new relationship with brands and just knew I wanted to apply everything into something that I was passionate about. I think it was at a sleepover that Argo first mentioned her idea.

Micah Tadena, head of finance, logistics, and fulfillment operations: I wrapped up my first feature film and was itching to do something new in an industry I didn’t know anything about. I got in touch with Argo and Gaby since I knew they had a biz idea they’d been wanting to execute.

Candice Yu, head of design, product development, production, and merchandise control: Before Sunki, I worked as a freelance fashion designer, creative designer for a local fashion brand, and also did work as a merchandiser for another fashion brand. Since my college days, I’ve been longing to have my own brand and, for a time, it almost seemed like a pipe dream. When I was approached by Argo, Micah, and Gaby to join Sunki, things just naturally fell into place. 

Before Sunki, what were your experiences with fashion (fast, luxury, etc.) and how did you come to terms with its reality or bad practices?
Argo: Growing up, I’d always enjoyed dressing up. I’ll be the first to admit that I was one of those people who’d flock to Zara and H&M for the sales, until I became educated about the reality of the fashion industry. Around this time, I was already working in marketing and strategy for a while, and many of the brands I’d collaborated with were in fashion. So having been immersed in the local market, I noticed that there were so many compromises and inconsistencies. Slow fashion brands that are stylish but inaccessible. Cool brands that are stylish but have harmful practices. Ethical brands that are well-made but just look like every other shop out there. And worst of all, trendy brands that claim to be sustainable but are actually not. This realization came at a time when more people were becoming aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions and the fact that a shirt is never just a shirt. That really set the direction for the brand we wanted to build.

Micah: My relationship with fashion was just as a consumer. I knew which sustainable brands I loved (I won’t name them now because they’ve been cancelled, haha) and I knew I felt a bit of shame when I’d buy fast fashion. 

Candice: Growing up as an artist, I’ve always approached fashion with the sensibilities of one. The thought of applying my art on human figures or shapes always entranced me but I was also torn by other disciplines like interior or architectural design. Personally, I found fashion design to be the most difficult path of all my choices and yet something in me was so sure about it. Despite that, I decided to take up fashion design in college. Soon, my relationship with fashion became a constant balancing act between indulging in my dreams and realizing that the industry could be more responsible in countless ways. Eventually, I started working in retail and thought that I would stay just long enough so that I could save up and start a label of my own, but that wasn’t the case. I just ended up feeling that I was condoning the bad practices I was avoiding. So I quit working for fast fashion to try to make sense of my purpose in the industry. I joined Sunki and I’m hoping to learn and change so much more in the following years (and I still want to make my own artisan label!).

Gaby: As a kid, I mostly got my older sister’s hand-me-downs and while I hated it at first, it did force going through people’s closets and old clothes into a habit. The limitations just challenged me to be creative. I would wear my dad’s neckties as headbands, my lolo’s dress shirts as dresses, and my tita’s cloth fabric belt into an arm tie. But of course, high school came around and wearing your mom’s chunky moccasins from the ‘80s wasn’t cool. I caved and went to every new store and was on the directory of my favorites for new releases. I outgrew it when I realized that I didn’t even like most of the stuff I bought. It was so wasteful, even just as a consumer. After that, Candice bought me a thrifted shirt and I’ve been throwing my 50-peso bills at bargain bins ever since.

Isabela Argosino - head of branding, marketing, and overall PR strategy.

“I think if you’re delving into the world of sustainability as a brand, being able to engage the cynics is part and parcel of that.”

“Sustainable” has become such a popular term that it can sometimes become a parody of itself. What does sustainable mean to you and what do you think are the dangers of overusing the term?
Micah: At its core, it means creating a circular production chain where you give back as much as you take. To be honest, right now, it’s not completely feasible in fashion because there aren’t any technologies available to make new clothes/threads out of old clothes/threads. Even the god-tier fiber companies like Tencel don’t spin raw material (threads) from waste (discarded clothes). That’s why we use “low-impact” more than sustainable because it’s fairly easy to exercise best practices in hiring and sourcing raw materials, but not yet possible to create a completely closed loop production chain in fashion.

It’s all about educating inside and outside the brand organization. The danger here is that consumers might think “sustainable” is a fixed metric but we’re constantly re-evaluating what it means to be sustainable. For example, discussions on waste and inhumane labor conditions were always big in fashion, but size and price inclusivity are slowly entering metrics for sustainability, too. It’s constantly evolving according to what’s happening in the world, and what research and new technologies are available. So it’s dangerous when we prime consumers to think that it’s a fixed buzzword that can be stamped on a product just because something is locally produced or made from biodegradable fibers.

Argo: I think Micah broke down the technical definition of sustainability pretty well. But on a simpler and more personal level, sustainability for us means causing the least possible harm to the environment and to people. We’re not a perfect brand, and we’re very open about the steps we still need to take to improve our operations. Even now, we’re extremely wary about calling ourselves “sustainable,” which is why we do prefer the term “low-impact.” Overusing the term has definitely relegated it into a buzzword, especially with rampant greenwashing. But consumers nowadays are smart and they know when you’re just trying to sell them another item they don’t need. That’s why we took our sweet time preparing, launching, and pouring out our entire soul into Sunki. We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned for someone to raise their eyebrow and call us “another linen brand.” But I think if you’re delving into the world of sustainability as a brand, being able to engage the cynics is part and parcel of that.

Gaby: Personally, my favorite thing about sustainability is how it had always been practiced by POC long before it even became a formal term. We repair things, bring jars to the sari-sari store and bayongs to the market. We reuse plastic containers that are supposedly disposable, but Filipino moms have been washing them to use again for years. Plastics and excessive consumption were introduced by western culture. Yet, sustainability only became dangerous when its whitewashed version turned into a fad pretending to be a movement, losing much of its meaning. We see a lot of brands overusing “sustainability” now as a term, so we really want to let our actions at Sunki do the talking.

Candice: Sustainability has always been about maintaining a cycle of ends justifying their means. The harm comes when people assume that it’s this movement that’s needed only when it’s convenient. In our case, we constantly adjust our processes to what’s relevant and needed to ensure the least harm on all aspects of our supply chain and marketing. As Micah said, sustainability isn’t a fixed metric so there’s always that aspect of relearning and discovering new ways we can include more people and solutions to the narrative of normalising sustainability.

There’s the ongoing conversation of sustainable fashion being too expensive. Your brand is vocal about being a more affordable option. What do you think needs to be done so that affordability is more of the norm?
Argo: I think one of the biggest misconceptions of slow or sustainable fashion is that it has to be more expensive to curb impulsive spending and cover the additional manufacturing costs. Yes, producing sustainable clothes is far more costly and they will inevitably have to be priced higher. But how are we supposed to encourage mindful consumption on a large scale if sustainability is this premium, coveted thing that only a select few can afford? We really make it a point to price our items as fairly as possible. We’re open about how we calculate our pricing (as you’ll see on our website and social media), and I think transparency is where it starts. That way, consumers know exactly where their money goes and brands can be held accountable for their price tags and practices.

Micah: People will inevitably choose the more affordable option. We’re implementing the same model that fast fashion brands used to overtake luxury legacy brands in the 2010s. And we think we have an upper hand over fast fashion brands because at their scale, shifting to affordable and sustainable practices requires years. To illustrate, we ticked off Zara and H&M’s five-year sustainability goals in our first collection just because we’re much, much smaller.

Candice: Most sustainable garments have justifications to their price tags but we can never truly be sure when such facts and processes are naturally confidential to consumers. Sustainable fashion then tends to give off an aura of exclusivity to consumers, but it becomes more of a luxury than a necessity. If there’s no demand for sustainable garments, fewer manufacturers can and will keep up with the necessary work for unjustified compensations. If we’re aiming for an end goal of normalising affordable sustainability, we have to help change consumer mindsets through awareness. We make it a point to be open about our processes and costs simply because we trust consumers with such information. We know people are yearning for more sustainable options right now and for the future so the least we can do is to educate them and make them feel like they are part of our journey—because they are.

How would you describe Sunki’s style? And how do your own personalities come across?
Argo: I always find this question hard to answer because I don’t think there could ever be one single way to define our brand’s look. We’re inspired by so many things—from David Hockney paintings and Rosie the Riveter, to Hillary Clinton’s signature red power suit, and childhood dress-up days in our dads’ button-downs. As a team, we actually have very different styles, and you can see it right away when you meet us in person. I’d be the one in a printed suit and beat-up Chuck 70s, Micah would be the person wearing an elegant dinner party-ready cami and flats, and Candice or Gaby would probably be wearing some Victorian-era vintage top with a lacy collar you could spot from a mile away. For Sunki, I guess we try to make fundamental pieces that dance (not walk!) the line between fashion, function, and Friday night margaritas. Sunki is timeless but doesn’t shy away from being bold. Internally, we always joke that one of our non-negotiable metrics for our clothes is that they should look cute but feel comfortable enough for riding on an Angkas through EDSA.

Micah Tadena - head of finance, logistics, and fulfillment operations.

Who or what are your influences for Sunki? Or maybe a better question would be, what don’t you want Sunki to become associated with?
Gaby: Our very first brand deck was just a collection of photos of all the women that we love and look up to, such as Leandra Medine, Emily Weiss, AOC, and our own friends, mothers, and sisters. Before we became “Sunki,” we had gone through countless names—many of which we can’t even remember anymore. We also made several lists of what we are and what we aren’t, but even those have changed over time. However, what has always been at the top of our “what we are not” list is “exclusive, inaccessible, and boring.” To us, this isn’t just a grocery list but a compass that we follow with every decision we make.

Argo: Simply put, we want Sunki to feel like that stranger you immediately click with at the club bathroom after you compliment each other’s outfits.

What have been the limitations you’ve seen as a brand/business in your first couple of months?
Argo: Like I mentioned, this brand has been years in the making and we were finally ready to launch this year until the pandemic happened. Suddenly it felt like we were back to square one. We had initially thought of riding out the pandemic before putting the brand out there. But with no end in sight, we had no choice but to just bite the bullet and launch anyway. Of course, it was hard because how could we, as a brand, advertise our products as this “must-have” when people are losing jobs and struggling to survive? There has been a lot of talk about what is or isn’t essential, and fashion isn’t exactly high up on that list right now. At the same time, the pandemic also validated the need for responsible brands. Obviously, COVID is far more than a health issue; it magnified all the cracks in the current system. This rut we’re all in is the direct result of brands, corporations, and people exploiting other people for decades. Right now, we’re just working on making sure we’re ready for that post-pandemic renaissance when everyone realizes the impact of making mindful decisions. A linen top obviously can’t save the world, but a cute, responsibly made top is a small step towards building a world where our consumer choices don’t take a giant dump on the world.

Micah: The pandemic is a major black swan and I won’t even expound on that anymore. If we go back to a couple of months before the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to raise the money for production. We made several formal pitches to family, extended family, random titas and titos, friends, friends of friends.

Argo: Raising enough capital was definitely one of the biggest hurdles we faced. We did not want to cut any corners and go for the cheaper, more convenient option—whether it came to labor, our fabrics, or even the graphic designers we worked with. On the investor side, we were very meticulous with choosing who to tap for funding. It was important for us to work with like-minded people, which is why most of our investors now are our own friends—they’re environmentalists, creatives, and just normal people who share the same vision as us.

You’ve partnered up with or sought out organizations to ensure your commitment to sustainability. Could you talk about how that began and how it affects your business?
Micah: For the production side, we really took our time with finding the right partners. It started with fabric. When we had a supplier who could provide us Oeko-Tex certified fabric (which means it’s certified free of harmful substances), it didn’t make sense to half-ass the rest and get raw paper or plastic packaging so we just ended up building an internal metric for when to partner with an organization. That internal metric is living wage, working conditions, and proper sourcing. We literally ask our suppliers all of this, haha. We even have photos of our suppliers’ factories. It also helps to be in a community that values sustainability so one supplier tends to lead you to another.

It affects our business because it has delayed our timelines and it’s not cheap to produce. There are so many retail options online where you can easily get a dress for 300 pesos, and that’s just half of our fabric spend for some of our pieces. But yeah, we didn’t want to half-ass it so we chose the pricier but “okay, I can sleep well at night with this” option.

Argo: I also want to add that our commitment to working with like-minded groups hasn’t always been easy. We’ve noticed that the sustainability industry is relatively new and plenty of companies are still ironing out the kinks in their operations. But at the end of the day, the question we really ask ourselves before we decide to collaborate with anyone is “are they a good person?” It sounds cheesy, but it makes a world of difference when we work with someone whose heart is in the right place. Once we stabilize our business, we also want to seek out environmental and minority-focused organizations whom we can partner with and pledge a portion of our profits to. We’re not an NGO, but it’s inevitable for us to give back and help empower others the same way we’ve received all this overwhelming support. 

Is it okay if I ask how sales have been? The philosophy is so clear and is at the core of your brand but how has the reception to it translated into sales?
Micah: Sales are consistent (surprisingly) but slow (unsurprisingly). The pandemic and general lack of purchasing power is what’s affecting our sales more than our model. We’re certain we can pay our investors and have another collection next year but it’s really difficult to assess how the philosophy converts to sales with such a short time horizon.

Argo: Like Micah said, sales are steady but we can’t shake the feeling that it could probably be doing much better if we weren’t in a pandemic. This is something we already anticipated since the lockdown, which is why we initially wanted to wait it out, and it’s also why we strive not to be so pushy with advertising our products. But the reception and engagement has been more than we could ever ask for. We’ve literally had countless people from around the world message us just to say how much we’ve inspired them, and how happy they are that there are finally more local brands who are striving to set a new standard for business. This is what keeps us going

I love the story you told on your site. When so many new brands are, for a lack of a better term, “too cool for school” and yours is very relatable and open, how do you balance being a brand and being human?
Argo: All our PR and marketing is done in-house by Gaby and I. We’re not here to make sustainability “cool” or “premium.” It’s literally a life-or-death situation for the planet. I think our brand voice comes off as more human simply because we aren’t trying to speak or act like anyone else but ourselves. We make the same dad jokes and use the same lingo in person, and we try our best to walk our talk. But like I said, we’re not a perfect brand and we’re not perfect people either. None of us claim to be supreme eco-warriors who strictly eat farm-to-table, haven’t touched a plastic spoon in five years, or don’t have smartphones because they’re made by some Silicon Valley behemoth. Of course, the end goal is to live the most low-impact lifestyle possible, but it’s important for us not to alienate the ones who do care for the planet but aren’t always able to make the most ideal choices (ourselves included). Again, it all boils down to honesty and being true to ourselves. And like I said, consumers are smart and they can see right through you if you’re just trying to piggyback-ride on a cause or advocacy like it’s some trend.

You mention at the end of your story that you hope to be the first certified sustainable brand in the Philippines. Why is that important and what are the opportunities that can help you grow as a certified sustainable brand?
Argo: There are a lot of grey areas in the lexicon of sustainable fashion. Terms that appear in brand blurbs could mean pretty much anything, but a sustainability certification means that a brand has gone through rigorous screenings and verifications to ensure that the company is actually doing its part in setting the standard for environmental, social, ethical, and safety issues. It’s a way to hold us more accountable for our actions and avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing. It’s not necessarily important for us to be ”‘the first certified sustainable brand in the Philippines,” but I do think it’s important to be open about our long-term goals so that other brands can be influenced and realize that these are the standards they should be striving to uphold, too.

Like most brands that share the same issue, do you have plans on expanding outside of the Manila Bubble?
Micah: Yes we do! We’re pretty proud that we’ve been receiving more provincial orders recently. As we scale (this is our favorite buzzword for all our dreams), we’d love to cover provincial shipping in our cost to make it more frictionless. Breaking out to the international market is a major goal for us in the next couple of years but yeah, baby steps.

In your opinion can capitalism and sustainability really get along?
Micah: Sustainability is the future of capitalism. The climate crisis is not a trend we’re indulging in. It’s a fact that we’re responding to. There are plenty of studies that already point out how the present resources we have (and this is true across industries including food, construction, manufacturing, tech, etc.) aren’t enough for the projected population in the next decade or so. Capitalism is what calls on us to discover new technologies, new workflows, and new business models that create better (and yes, more sustainable) options for the market.

Second, we really believe that capitalism in itself is changing. The future is only going to be more equitable, more transparent, and more diverse. And we (as a people) are getting more aware, more empathetic, and more intelligent. I really believe that capitalism is pointing towards a future that is less profit-oriented but more growth-oriented. This is just a summary of this, hahaha.

I love this answer! So much is required for this to happen though and not just in fashion but in all aspects of society. What are some immediate ways you feel can be done to take steps forward?
Micah: Wow, this was a really tricky follow-up to answer but I think, in the end, it’s about driving up competitive advantage and engaging people.

We still have to play the game with the same rulebook traditional capitalists use. We are competing for buyers and that means constantly searching for better options for sourcing and operations. I think a lot of businesses feel this way and that’s why year by year there’s more paper-based packaging in small and large businesses in every industry.

Legacy companies and VCs are putting big money in eco-friendly tech in fashion and that’s a major step forward because discoveries there eventually reach smaller players like us. Chanel, for example, acquired a company developing eco-friendly silk last year. We make it a point to have these innovations on our radar so we can hopefully respond quickly.

Second, every business is an attempt to generate and communicate value. Our value is placed in addressing social problems so we really spend time and resources in contributing to the social climate. Having difficult conversations is such a small but effective strategy. This is true for us as Sunki for our communications with our community, but even as individuals we exercise this with each other and our friends and family. It really trickles down to major decisions like where people choose to spend their money, where people choose to work, what brands people will recommend to their friends, which personalities to celebrate, the list goes on.

Candice Yu - head of design, product development, production, and merchandise control.

Would you agree that a call for sustainability is also a call for inclusivity? And what do brands need to do to push for both?
Argo: Sustainability has to be inclusive. As long as there are people who cannot access these slow fashion brands, whether due to their size or economic capabilities, then there will always be a demand for fast fashion because it’s what’s available to them. Admittedly, we’re not there yet when it comes to being completely size-inclusive. We have yet to hack the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ size chart, but our pieces do run from XS to XL. What we didn’t know early on was that producing for plus sizes isn’t actually that simple. Each pattern is meticulously graded according to size and proportion, and it merits extra costs. You can’t just extend a piece of fabric by a few inches and call it a day; you still need to consider a person’s unique figure and curves. As a result, many plus-sized clothes just end up looking unflattering.

Micah: All our causes are extremely intersectional. Although to be honest, we didn’t push for inclusivity only because we believe sustainability = inclusivity. We just really don’t agree with making clothes for one kind of person. The four of us are really different from each other and on top of that, we have tons of friends with different sizes, backgrounds, identities and it didn’t feel right to create something that would leave them out of the conversation. I guess it would really help if brands reached out of their own immediate circles to see what clothes and products are really needed by the people.

Argo: If you think there isn’t a demand for these clothes, you’re talking to the wrong crowd.

Normalising low-impact and sustainable fashion relies on the participation of the consumer—perhaps even more so than the brand. What in your opinion would be the best way for consumers to see sustainable fashion as something of a long-term relationship rather than just a trend?
Gaby: The goal is really to imbibe consciousness in their whole lifestyle as a consumer, not just in fashion, making all their choices intentional. For sustainability to be achieved, it must be a habit that cuts across all areas in people's lives until it becomes something that just comes naturally.

Micah: It requires a whole paradigm shift that requires people to give a shit beyond fashion. So much of our strategy focuses on education and awareness.

Candice: Ideally, it’s really about helping consumers in realising how sustainability affects every aspect of one’s living and not just their fashion choices. In our little (and personal) ways, researching, making more mindful choices, and gradually adjusting our lifestyles seem like the best ways to purposefully shift into normalising sustainable practices.

Argo: Sustainable fashion and sustainability in general becomes less of a trend when you realize how much it intersects with the rest of our lives. Ethical consumption is NOT the be-all and end-all solution to all our societal woes. In fact, many people will argue that ethical consumption is just “hippie capitalism,” on the same level as plastic straw activism. To some extent, we agree. It shouldn’t end at a tote bag or a linen shirt, and that really is why so much of our strategy focuses on education and awareness. Ethical consumption is just one piece of the puzzle, and it can also be a gateway to getting to know other issues, such as labor rights, plastic bans, and energy regulation. Change needs to be systemic and intersectional.

Gaby Arabahn - head of content marketing.

“For sustainability to be achieved, it must be a habit that cuts across all areas in people's lives until it becomes something that just comes naturally.” 

While the problems are real and the urgency to solve them becomes clearer by the day, there is joy in creating a solution together. What has been the best part of building Sunki?
Micah: It’s always great to see other people find value in something you created.

Candice: I love the freedom of sharing my thoughts with people who understand and are able to build up on each other’s strengths. Creating Sunki with such people has helped in baring all the best of ourselves with people who share our ideals and want to help in moving towards the same goals.

Gaby: I love that I get to work on something with my best friends that serves a bigger purpose than just making cute things and selling cute things. More than just a brand, we’re a platform and a (growing) community.

Argo: The best part is having hope reignited that amid all this doom and gloom, there are people out there who actually do care about the world. I have so much faith in Millennials and Generation Z, and it has been amazing having them onboard the same journey. ︎

Jonty Cruz is a writer and former magazine editor.