Filipino Designer Jonathan San Juan: Bringing diversity to the American fashion world
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Before our interview began, I was in awe of Jonathan San Juan’s work. The portfolio he shared with me was filled with elegant gowns, comfortable sportswear, and a light pink dress with long embroidered sleeves and a maxi-length skirt flowing down almost touching the ground. When we asked him if the dress was for a future fashion show, he smiled and said, “It’s actually for my sister.”
San Juan is a 25-year-old, self-taught, freelance fashion designer currently attending West Valley College in Saratoga, California. When he started designing, he mainly created gowns as he was fascinated by the “glitz and glamour” of red carpet fashion. He went on to create a collection that was inspired by the New York City scene or, as he describes it, “sportswear but with glamour.” As a designer, he creates clothes to give his clients confidence wherever they are going. He designs clothes that can carry someone through the day while “keeping in mind to choose the most sustainable and fairest way of making clothes.”
Chopsticks Alley Pinoy sat down with San Juan to learn about his life, his passion for fashion, and to ask him how diversity brings essential conversations in the fashion world.
Born in Manila, Philippines, San Juan had to grow up a little bit faster. His father worked overseas, while his mother, a teacher, was busy teaching classes. His older sister went away for college, leaving San Juan to care for himself and his younger sister. Even then, San Juan and his sister managed to create fun memories. He fondly remembers that one such memory sparked his interest in fashion: The two of them playing around with bedsheets and curtains. San Juan styled these fabrics for his sister to wear and took photos of her in his “dressy fashion.”
In 2011, after he graduated from high school, San Juan could not immediately go to college because of financial problems as paying to go to college in the United States is different from the Philippines. One day, San Juan and his mother were watching “Project Runway,” a famous American reality competition show where up-and-coming fashion designers compete to win opportunities to further their careers in the industry. Hearing the contestants talk about how they made a career in fashion sparked his interest.
San Juan reflects on that moment: “I realized, ‘You know what? I’m having fun with this. And I can make money with it. So I think that’s kind of like I’m going to work towards that. This is my goal now.’”
With encouragement from his mother, San Juan began reading books and watched videos to learn how to design clothes. He made his first dress using a standing iron board as a mannequin. Looking back, he notes that he not only enjoyed it, but also had a “knack for it.”
In 2014, his family immigrated to the United States. All the while, his passion for fashion design continued to grow. After searching for colleges with a fashion program, he enrolled in West Valley College. Reflecting on his first day of class, San Juan admits to thinking that he “was going to be a big fish in a small pond” and that he was “going to be a superstar” because he had already read so many books, seen videos, and even taught himself how to make clothes. However, when he walked into his first class, his teachers used terminology and methods of designing that San Juan had no clue about. From that moment, he realized that he needed to take the chip off his shoulder and be open to learn new things.
That humbling moment led San Juan to find a fantastic opportunity. Last year, he landed campaigns in three online magazines based in the San Francisco Bay Area: Picton, L’ Affaire, and New Face Fashion. One of his best friends encouraged him to put his designs out into the world; she saw something in him and his work that she believed deserved to be featured in magazines.
San Juan explained the process of getting his designs featured in publications: Online magazines such as Picton, L’ Affaire, and New Face Fashion constantly search for local talents in the area. In order to submit his designs to those magazines, he collaborated with models, photographers, and make-up artists for a test shoot. Test shoots are an important opportunity to expand connections and meet new people. While those who work at test shoots do not receive compensation, everyone involved is given proprietary rights allowing them to post the pictures on their social media and other mediums. After the shoot finishes, they — mainly whomever worked at the shoot, such as the photographer and designer — receive the edited photographs and discuss which magazines to send the photos to.
For San Juan, knowing that someone wore his designs in a magazine is “something else.” Feeling validated, he knows that he won’t be the only one “who sees [the designs he created] as a beautiful thing.”
We then dived into a discussion on diversity and how it impacts the fashion industry. Upon asking San Juan how important it is to bring diversity to fashion— especially how the fashion industry received criticism for being mostly white and culturally appropriated designs from Black culture — he did not hesitate. Especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, San Juan believes that it is an everyday choice — we have to choose diversity. For brands or anyone in the industry, it is not enough to pick any random model, then ignore the issue with a statement like “I don’t see color.”
“That’s not enough anymore because you have to see color,” he said adamantly. “When you walk into a photo shoot, I would love to see color.”
San Juan pointed out that fashion houses and designers need to purposefully choose diverse models for their shoots, runways, and campaigns with 50 percent being people of color. Still today, there are fashion brands, particularly at Paris Fashion Week, that are known for hiring white models who are tall, skinny, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Despite this standard, there are brands beginning to realize the need for diversity and hiring models with diverse backgrounds, body types, and height differences.
In the future, San Juan hopes to utilize fabrics native to the Philippines. As a Filipino fashion designer, he understands how important it is to represent his culture as well as making his designs sustainable for his community. Even in a small way, he hopes to embrace and appreciate Filipino culture in his future collections: he was planning to design a clothing line based on his culture for a school project, but it fell through. Despite not having the backing of a big corporation, he is still determined to bring his culture to his work and decolonize his mindset.
For San Juan, decolonization means learning both how to be unapologetically himself and how to hold himself accountable. He acknowledges the “colonial mentality” a lot of Filipinos carry: the removal of agency from individuals through the process of colonization, in which the colonized people were degraded and taught that their story or space is not inherently valuable. He said with pride, “I need to unapologetically produce art that has my Filipino stamp. I need to make sure that I am choosing models of color every time, especially darker-skinned Asians, and stand by that decision no matter how they are perceived by the masses. Decolonization is putting your values [out there] and amplifying its beauty for everyone to see.”
When we asked if he faced any obstacles as a fashion designer, San Juan mentioned that since he is pursuing a career that is perceived to be “feminine,” his conservative family was concerned about what people would think of him and the family. However, their worries did not stop him from working in a field that makes him happy. He explained, “Crucify me if that’s not what you believe, but I’m going to do what I need to do.”
The other obstacle San Juan faces is financial. While there are governmental programs that cover college tuition, in the field of fashion design there are many material costs. He needed to source and buy fabric, a sewing machine and a mannequin in order to continue his career. For many children in Asian families, these additional costs add to concerns regarding whether what they are working towards is sustainable. For San Juan, it was difficult to reassure his family that everything will be and is okay. Nevertheless, he said smiling, “I’m making my bills. I’m eating well. I have friends. It’s going to be okay.”
As our interview drew into a close, I asked San Juan what advice he would give to those interested in pursuing a career in fashion design. He thought for a while and then said: “Fashion design is not a cakewalk.” He leaned in: “You have to buy your own product first, before you could [get] other people to buy it. If you truly believe in what you have to offer, then I’d say that’s already doing fifty percent of the work.” He continued by saying that fashion design requires a lot of hard work, but also encouraged those who come to the field to bring “a teachable heart.” From his experience, he commented that even if someone knows they are talented and knows everything about fashion, there is always so much to learn. He concluded by saying, “Know your worth and know what you’ll bring into the table. And know that’s enough.”
As for what is next for San Juan: Earlier in the year, he was already sketching ideas for a collection, but had to postpone it due to COVID-19. Although scrapping a design idea can be frustrating, San Juan sees it as an opportunity to start on another collection, one inspired by current events and movements like Black Lives Matter. He remains committed to bringing diversity in the fashion world and making it sustainable for his future collection and beyond.
When it comes to fashion and art, San Juan believes that the story behind everyone’s life is more important than the product itself. Whether the art is subtle or in your face, the story of the person behind the design is what matters. Now, San Juan is finally seeing a path towards continuing to design beautiful gowns and building his own life. Even when the world seems bleak, Jonathan San Juan still sees everything in color.
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Asela L. Kemper - Oregon
Co-Editor Chopsticks Alley Pinoy
Asela holds a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Emerging Media & Digital Arts from Southern Oregon University. She holds many positions including poetry reader for Timberline Review (also as a copyeditor for poetry), Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Marías at Sampaguitas, contributor for Royal Rose Magazine, and poetry editor for Ayaskala. She has also previously published in SOU Student Press, Flawless Mag: The Border Issue, Silk Club: QUIET, Reclamation Mag, and No Tender Fences. Asela uses her passion for creative writing to open conversations on diversity and identity in literature. As an Asian American, she uses her platform to engage and uplift underrepresented Asian American artists. She resides in Oregon, USA with her family.