How Sunday School Clothes Landed My Designs In Helena Christensen's Closet
Rafé Totengco | Creative Director Of Handbags, Anne Klein & Nine West

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Why Should You Care

As a Filipino-American fashion designer, Rafé Totengco brings a unique sensibility for color and utility into his pieces. His innate artistic talent combined with his effervescent personality and curious spirit have made him a clear favorite in the fashion world.

Totengco says that he’s been designing his own clothes since he was a child, making him one of the lucky few born with a clear passion to pursue in life.

In this interview, Totengco takes us through his prodigal success in the Philipines and gives his sturdy, specific advice for setting yourself apart from the crowd in your first job.


Rafé Totengco was born in a small community in the Philippines. In the 80s, Totengco moved to Manila to pursue an undergraduate degree in advertising, since no fashion degree was offered at the time. After dropping out of school to pursue fashion, Totengco started designing his own clothing line in Manila.

A few years later, Totengco visited his sister in New York, fell in love with the city and eventually went on to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. Upon graduation, Totengco landed his first job in New York as an illustrator and assistant designer.

After success as an assistant, Totengco decided to open his own company selling skinny belts and wristbands to a store in SoHo, which led him to design bags. Totengco’s accessories line was soon picked up at Bergdoff Goodman and Fred Segal amongst other luxury outlets.

In 2006, Totengco produced the first designer accessories capsule collection for Target. In 2010 he became the creative director of handbags for the Jones Group, whose brands include Anne KleinStuart Weitzman and Nine West.

Totengco was named recipient of the 2010 Filipino Presidential Award for bringing the country “honor and recognition.”

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Growing up Catholic every Sunday you go to church and you wear your Sunday’s best.  I didn’t really at that time because I was so…I was always drawing because I had this huge chalkboard. By the time we got to church I was always covered in chalk. So, at one point my Mother decided to buy me fabric all coordinated so that I could have them made so, that I could have Sunday clothes. I bought a fashion magazine and started sort of tracing over like guys and what they were wearing. I started kind of playing with it, I said, “Oh, I don’t like that pocket, what about this pocket?” Eventually got to the tailor, had them made and then like four days later, a week later I was like, oh, my God, eureka!


I was 5th grade. I kind of got a little obsessed early on. Eventaully moved to Manila after graduation.


And, then, at the time my sister was living in New York and came to visit me and she was like, “What are you doing?  Come play with the big boys.” I’ll never forget this, first night in New York City, she took me to this club in the East Village called The World.  I was wearing my best club outfit, oh, my God, it was so wrong.  I get there, this was like the height of house music and it was incredible, incredible, I’ve never seen people dressed that way or undressed that way.  I never seen people dance that way. It was like a revelation, “Oh, my God, this is it, I’m home.”


You know what’s interesting, when I started I broke a lot of rules that weren’t even there yet. here I was like just walking up to Marie Claire and like knocking on the door and be like, “Hi, I’m a new designer, I’m going to show you my stuff.”  And, they were like, “Okay.” I didn’t know any better so, what the hell?  What’s going to happen? They say no.


I have to say New York was intimidating, I mean, it still is.  The competition is…like nothing you’ve ever seen. I was very lucky that I had a lot of friends who were willing to help me. So, someone is a make-up artist, someone does hair, someone is a photographer and you all kind of do this whole project together because it takes a village. Really, meet your crew. Network, meet those people, be friends with them, and help them.


my first job was like buying buttons for this company.  I was an assistant designer so, they were like, “Oh, I don’t like buttons, here Rafe, meet all of the button people.” At one point they were like, “Oh, we need belts to go with some of the dresses.”  I’m like, “Done, let me do it.”  They’re like, “Who are you going to have it made with?”  “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.” As soon as somebody sort of asks you, “Can you do this?”  You’re like, “Yes,” even if you don’t really know how, just say yes because you know what?  It can’t be that difficult and there are other people there to teach you.


Eventually I opened my own company, really from scratch, started working doing wristbands and belts.  Went to a store in SoHo and sold them the belts and a week later they sold out, they said, “Do you make bags?”  And, at that time I had no experience whatsoever, no factory, nothing and I just kind of said, “Oh, yeah, they’re running late.”  I closed the phone and I was like, “What the hell did I just do?”  I was like, “Oh, my God, they’re running late, really?  They’re not even here yet.”


It was definitely, I’d say, my baptism of fire into the world of accessories, and yet every time there was that little hurdle or that little challenge, I’d overcome it, there was always a way. I was determined to just sort of do my own thing.


I’ll never forget this, one day I was walking down SoHo and I saw Helena Christensen wearing my bag and I was like (makes noise). I walked up to her, actually I kind of stalked her a little bit in the street, I was like I don’t know if she…really should I walk up to her and my sister was like, “Just do it, just say hello.  I’m sure she’d love to know the person who designed her bag.” So, I walk up to her and introduced myself and she was like, “Oh, my God, I love this bag,” and blah, blah, blah.  This was pre-Instagram, can you imagine had that moment had just like (snaps fingers) click, clap, selfie…you know?  And, then, Bergdorf came and saw me, they wanted to buy the collection and before you know it Bloomingdale’s…it was like one after another.


I’ve been mentoring students at SCAD, for example and sometimes they tell me like, “I really want to do this, I really want to be in fashion.”  And, sometimes I tell them, “Okay, so, it’s like somebody saying I want to live in New York to do what?  You want to be in fashion to do what exactly?  Because there’s so many facets to the industry that you could be a part of and not necessarily be a fashion designer, that’s not the end all to fashion.”


People ask me sometimes why I love New York so much and I always tell them I met me in New York because New York has that sort of way of shaping you. Like I learned how to say no, being Asian and coming from the Philippines we don’t really say no, we kind of say yes but really don’t do things.  Here, it’s like, “No, I can’t do that,” like, “Yes, this I can do.” There were moments were I was like okay, I’m just going to pack up and go back to the Philippines, I survived New York for five years now, I should be good. Every time moments like that happened , I said to myself, no, no, no, one more time, one more time.


I doubt myself everyday.  I…every decision, the collection is done and I’m still thinking, well, maybe I should’ve made that strap a little wider, maybe I should’ve changed a trim color, it’s like constant doubt. But I think every creative person…will or should because you’re never as good as your last collection, right?


Sometimes I wake up and I say to myself okay, Monday, game on, ready. And I love it because then I realize I’m learning something new here that I haven’t figured it all out.

Made By

Cinematography: Danielle Calodney

Edited by: Danielle Calodney

Interviewed by: Isabel Castro

Danielle Calodney

Danielle Calodney has been called the Chief Content Officer for 20to30, and that is the closest she has ever come to a proper title. She produces, shoots, and edits most 20to30 videos while also taking care of the site. She is grateful to live in a time when playing on the internet and making movies can be combined into one job.

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