Rajo Laurel is a Manila-based fashion designer. As the first-born son of a prominent political family, Rajo was under enormous pressure to enter politics. Instead he pursued his dream of becoming a couturier. Laurel started his fashion line in 1993 with one seamstress. By 1995 Laurel’s couture business was making $11,000 annually in sales.
Since then it has expanded from couture to include retail and employee uniforms for casinos, resorts and hotels. The Rajo Laurel Group of Companies brought in $1.7 million in revenue in 2014. His clients include the country’s presidents, celebrities and movie stars.
Seven years ago Laurel partnered with Rags2Riches, which employs artisans in poor communities throughout the Philippines. Women weave bags, accessories and clothing made of discarded fabric for Laurel’s collections. Laurel’s collaboration with Rags2Riches made $22,000 in its first year; sales are estimated to be $350,000 in 2015.
How did you start your career?
My father was adamant that I become a businessman or lawyer. He would say, “Please be anything but a seamstress or designer,” because he didn’t think the work would be profitable. But I was hard-headed and bullish. You know, I only had 20,000 pesos to my name. I withdrew it all and bought one sewing machine. I hired my grandmother’s seamstress and started designing clothes in my friend’s basement. I didn’t have air-conditioning or even a fan. There was one sewing machine, a seamstress and me. Then it became six seamstresses in a span of six months. Eventually, I had 25, and then I couldn’t handle things anymore. I was marketing and purchasing. I was the accountant, designer, recruiter and quality control manager. Five years later, I asked my sister to join me. I’m very lucky, because my family gave up their dreams to help me pursue mine.
Do you think of yourself as a designer, or as a businessman and entrepreneur?
My business is dressing people, but I like to think about it philosophically. Actually, I’m in the business of empowering people, and making people feel good about themselves. I like to define myself as a creative spirit. I am driven by desire.
Did you know at a young age that you wanted to go into fashion?
At the age of 11 I knew I wanted to become a designer. I was a very rambunctious child full of energy. I had an epiphany quite early in my life. I was part of “The King and I,” a local production. I was six at the time, and mesmerized by the power of costumes. With clothes, you literally could be a normal person and become a king, just like that. I was very lucky, because my grandmother founded a repertory theatre in the Philippines. I also remember vividly how she instructed her seamstresses to make tea towels, maids’ uniforms and day dresses. One day, I said “Lola, no, no, you should design it this way.” That was my very first business transaction, and she paid me 10 pesos.
How important was your grandmother’s support to your success?
My grandmother Lola Betty supported me through thick and thin. She was my number one client until her last day. At one point, when I had no customers, she made sure my employees had dresses to make for her. She essentially molded me, and taught me about style and elegance. I was drawn to her from a very early age. I have memories of her dressing up and preparing for dinner parties in her room, putting on her pearls and perfume. She wasn’t lavish or extravagant, but she was very, very well dressed. She was born in 1929. She grew up in the 1950s when you dressed up for a luncheon or you needed appropriate dresses for tea, cocktails, evening and galas.
You come from a prominent political family. How difficult was it to pursue your dreams of a fashion career?
If I didn’t have the inner desire to fight for what I want, I probably would be a lawyer now. I would be a very, very sad lawyer. I was the first-born grandson. My father was a politician; he was the governor of Batangas. I was the man, and because of that there were certain pressures. I deviated in every single way. I pray to God that I am making my family proud. I hope they are proud of what I have done.
How did you convince your mother to join your business?
I started so young. I was barely in my twenties and when I got my first paycheck, my first reaction was to give it to my mom. In our family she’s always been the person to hold the purse strings. I didn’t have to force her to help me. It was just a natural course of events. I guess we just fell into place. She became our CFO by virtue of being our mother.
What have you learned about working with family?
The number one thing I learned is not to take things personally. Don’t take what happens at work home to the dinner table. Number two is respect. I am the creative mind. I am doing sales and marketing. My family respects my decisions in those areas. My mother is in charge of finance, because from day one she taught me to be careful with money, not to overspend, to be practical and frugal. My sister is in charge of human resources and production. They respect whatever my decision is, in the same way I respect my sister’s decision on whether or not to send employees home because of bad weather outside.
Should entrepreneurs ask their family and friends for help when they are first starting out like you did?
Oh yes! Absolutely! Who else will be honest? Who will tell you if something is bad or looks awful? My family is my worst critic. I’m not kidding. They are the most difficult human beings to please. I don’t know who else to trust but them.
Where do you find inspiration and ideas for your designs?
Usually from my childhood and things I found interesting as a child like insects and bugs. To this day, these things inspire me. I think about how God made such interesting creatures, and how I could translate that into my work. Art is a big, big inspiration for me. I try to surround myself with as much art as I can, because it’s like food for the soul. People inspire me when I am making made-to-order garments. I try to understand their individuality and idiosyncrasies and bring that energy forward. What makes them feel shy? What makes them feel confident? It’s an interesting, beautiful process because you get to know the person, and give them an opportunity to live out their fantasy. That’s why my customers are more than my customers. My customers become my friends. Their children become my friends and customers.
You tried entering the U.S. market. What did you learn from that experience?
I tried for a year and a half in New York City. You have to deal with press agents, representatives and showrooms. It was almost like a fortress, and I felt like a little ant, trying to enter that fortress. It was expensive. There was, literally, sort of an “Aha!” moment. Why was I going to the West, when everyone is going to the East?
It was New York Fashion Week. All my sisters were there, and we were shivering in the cold. It was one of the worst winters in New York, and we were all trying to keep warm. We looked at each other and asked, “What are we doing here?” The snow was knee-deep. We were bringing our clothes from one showroom to another, peddling our wares. We all looked at each other and said, “It’s so warm back in Manila, let’s go home.”
Why not go back, go home, and service your country and region? I am not American, but I know what Filipinos want. That was 10 years ago.
How important are your clients to your company’s success?
Your networks and relationships are like a tree. The stronger the roots are, the stronger the tree will be. You must be careful and cautious with all client relationships, because they sustain you and make you grow. Especially in the field of fashion, everyone is backbiting and talking. If you approach your client relationships with authenticity and as someone who genuinely wants to make them feel beautiful, it will sustain the relationship.
How do you define success?
In order to be successful, I need a personal connection. It is the interaction I look for. It’s capturing that smile, that knowing smile that I’m satisfied with. It’s that intangible feeling that you get when you’ve done your job. You take a step back when you’ve done your job, and think, I know that she looks beautiful and I know that she feels beautiful. I know in that beauty I have succeeded.
What is your next goal?
My dream is to grow my brand regionally, and make it more accessible in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. I’m no longer an ant. You can call me the new bull. Actually, what has made us in the region are the uniforms. Couture has the smallest revenue of all my companies, but it drives and defines the brand and makes it stand out. Couture is like an arrow which drives us forward. We need to make the clothes sharp and flawless, because that’s what people see on TV and in magazines. The perception of couture should be one of high value and high beauty. Everything else follows.