Paloma Urquijo Zobel Talks About Promoting Filipino Culture On Tatler's January 2021 Cover
There is passion in her voice whenever Paloma Urquijo Zobel talks about a recurrent theme in this conversation, home. And today, home is in two places: the urban jungle of Metro Manila and a slice of paradise on the island of Palawan. It’s an interesting life—one that she’s passionate enough to share.
Born into a family of renowned Filipino-Spanish ancestry, she possesses the chestnut brown hair and regal bearing of her forebears. She is the daughter of Bea Zobel Jr, a philanthropist and patroness of the arts. In some ways, she has followed in the footsteps of her mother, with a carefree spirit that can often be discerned in her choice of fashion—bohemian chic is preferred—and in the fervour with which she pursues her many avocations.
Paloma, who had grown up mostly abroad, has led a life that would impress even the most cultured of bon vivants—studying in London and working in New York. Yet, the call of the Philippines had always been constant. She came home for Christmases, for summers and for one academic year at the British School. “I always say that I have some sort of guardian angel that’s helping me with all these experiences because I’ve really fallen on the right track [in terms of] the things that have moulded me. [All those experiences] have helped me, but it also made me realise how much I wanted to live in the Philippines and move here,” she says.
Paloma finds it difficult to explain why she feels at home in the Philippines having spent more of her life abroad. “I just feel so at home and so in tune when I’m here; and I wish I knew how to describe why or what it is, but I can’t. I remember perfectly well landing at NAIA [when I was younger] and being like: ‘Yes, I’m home, I’m home, I’m home. I’m here.’ I still get that feeling now. I don’t get that when I land in Spain, I get it when I land in the Philippines, and I think that’s something that won’t change,” she says.
Since 2016, when she moved back home on a more permanent basis, Paloma has created a name for herself in the world of lifestyle retail. She founded Piopio, which has grown into an umbrella brand for fashion lines, an artists’ village, a restaurant and a bar. Interestingly, its growth paralleled that of Kalye Artisano, an artist’ village in Lio, the first tourism estate of her family in idyllic El Nido, in Palawan. “When [my mum and I] were doing research and meeting artisans [for Kalye Artisano], I was introduced to weaving. I thought: "This is amazing.This is an insanely intricate and amazing art form. I don’t understand why it’s not sold on every single corner of the street [or] why it’s a dying art form.’ I bought a few blankets here and there and [decided that] I’m going to try and give [weaving] a new image. [That’s how] Piopio was born.”
The world of weaving is rich in both history and indigenous culture, which Paloma vigorously believes should be protected. “[Inabel] is insanely intricate. It takes two to three months to weave,” she explains. And the history is just as fascinating. “They used to put [inabel pieces] on Spanish battalion ships because they used to think that it could bring their husbands back,” she adds.
The communities and the people are what bring meaning to Paloma's expeditions, giving her interesting stories that enrich her life. There’s Manang Cora, the first weaver Paloma had ever worked with, and, she adds, one of the best. “[She] was the one who took a risk with me. I [asked her]: ‘Can we do [a] hot pink [design]?’ And she said: ‘I’ve never done hot pink in my life; I don’t even know what colour that is,’” Paloma relates.
These very personal relationships and successes inspire her to forge on, in a bid to better the communities’ lives. “My biggest fear is the day that an international fashion brand comes and asks for something to be made from inabel. How will the communities fend for themselves? How will they know to price it correctly? It’s going to happen one day, the day that the floodgates will open and inabel is recognised. It’s going to be amazing, but they need to learn how to professionalise,” she worries.
Read also: Liwayway, La Herminia, Filip + Inna, And More: Local Brands That Champion Filipino Weaving Heritage
During this brand development stage, Paloma set her eyes on other local artists. She names fashion designer Carl Jan Cruz as one of her good friends and steadfast supporters. “I was pleasantly surprised,” she says, when asked about it. “I came in not having lived in the Philippines and being welcomed by these creatives with open arms. Of course, I questioned myself [but] everyone supports and collaborates whenever they can. [I think it’s because] at the end of the day, we all have the same beliefs, the same love for this country.”
Aside from the fashion line, Piopio also manages two projects—Kalye Artisano and Jungle Bar—both in Lio. Kalye Artisano is a cultural hub that features exciting local businesses, coffee shops to a custom bike shop, accommodation, restaurants and even a bakery. Jungle Bar, which will be merging with Filipino-inspired restaurant Tambok’s, is a local operation that uses ingredients from various Philippine islands, as well as from her family’s farm also in Palawan. “The most important [thing]”, Paloma shares, “is that the experience or product gives you a sense of place and leaves you a bit more enlightened about where they’re from, their use, their culture and heritage.” So, while the bar and restaurant have had to go through the collective challenges faced by the F&B industry, things seem to be turning around, as they are re-opening this month.
These endeavours have been great challenges for Urquijo, who also admits that they’re a wonderful learning experience. And coming from a family of business-minded people, it seems that she’s found a comfortable equilibrium between art and commerce. “[My family] is extremely business-oriented and -focused, but they’re also very artistic. My cousin is an amazing artist, [a lot of them] are great dancers. It’s a large family, there’s room for everyone to do everything.”
Paloma's mother, for example, is a wonderful representation of the clan’s diverse talents. As a patroness of the arts, Bea is a huge supporter of local culture, and she’s not one to back away from getting her hands dirty either. “That woman is amazing,” Paloma says. “When we first moved to El Nido, we were sleeping in a very small house, [with] no aircon [and] with constant brownouts. We were sleeping on a mattress on the floor and my mum was like, ‘This is the best time ever.’ And I thought, ‘If she can do it, then so could I.’” Together, mother and daughter have forged the kind of relationship that inspires and creates. “We butt heads but everybody does; so I took a step back and [realised] that I could learn so much from her and vice versa. [Working with my mum] has been awesome and I really appreciate the opportunity. It’s a lot of fun too because she’s also a bit crazy.”
Read also: PIOPIO: A New Spin On Traditional Filipino Fashion
As someone who comes from an illustrious family, these experiences support Urquijo’s individual growth. “Were there expectations and pressures growing up? One hundred per cent. But now more than ever, I realise that those expectations were what we put on ourselves because of the great example of those that came before us,” she declares.
Taking all these lessons to heart—her time abroad, the knowledge she’s gained from her family and the passion she has for the Philippine arts—Paloma has managed to make an important contribution to the cultural scene. She’s managed to polish the image of what it means to love local, which is as important now as it ever has been. “I don’t think it’s to my credit,” she adds, as a disclaimer. “I think [I was just] at the right place at the right time. [When Piopio began] was literally the year that supporting local took off.”
In 2021, Paloma hopes to continue in this rejuvenation of local support. Not only does she hope to put inabel on the international map, she also wants to one day create an open-source database of the various indigenous talents she’s come across within her travels. A nearer goal, as in this year, is carrying on with her original mission of “supporting the communities and making sure that everyone has overcome 2020”.
Read also: Weaving The Threads Of Filipino Heritage
- Photography Shaira Luna
- Styling Carla Villanueva
- Set Design Justine Arcega-Bumanlag