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Rafe Totengco on Handbag Designer 101 Podcast Every Tuesday

Updated: Dec 21, 2023





Emily Blumenthal

Host

00:00

Hi and welcome to the Handbag Designer 101 podcast with your host, Emily Blumenthal, handbag Designer Expert and Handbag Fairy Godmother, where we cover everything about handbags from making, marketing, designing and talking to handbag designers and industry experts about what it takes to make a successful handbag. Welcome, Rafe Totengco to the Handbag Designer 101 podcast. Rafe, you are the founder, creator, creative director of pretty much everything. Rafe Correct. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

00:35

Yes, that is correct. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

00:40

How many years has it been? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

00:42

Since I launched God the first time, 98?. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

00:51

I didn't even know it was that long. Yes, oh my God. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

00:59

Yeah, still at it. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

01:01

Listen, if we're going to OG status, I mean I brought you to SCAD. They were like find a designer to bring with you. I'm like I'm calling Rapi. That was a fun weekend. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

01:11

Yes, yes, no, completely, that was fun oh my gosh. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

01:14

So were you born in the Philippines or were you born here? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

01:18

I was born in the Philippines when I moved to New York in 1989. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

01:22

How old were you? No pressure 21. So you did all of your schooling in the Philippines. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

01:28

Yes, yes, yes. So no, it was as. I wanted to come to New York because when I was in the Philippines, I already had a business. I was 18, I think I had an atelier of like 30 workers doing clothes. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

01:40

How do you live in an atelier at 18? And how are you adults enough to do that? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

01:46

Oh well, I wasn't, but kind of worked out. It started with a seamstress on my kitchen table, essentially, and it grew from there and people wanted the clothes I was making and before I knew it I was like, oh, we need more, we need more, we need a tailor, we need somebody. So you were in high school, do you? At first I would say like freshman college. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

02:05

Okay, so is anyone in your family like within the crafts world. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

02:11

No, actually both of my sisters at that time in the Philippines were fashion models, so they were my exposure to fashion, which was so you're the youngest. 

02:21

Yes, and it was a great education actually, because I could see. For me, it was really like a eureka moment to see these women, who were essentially college girls, transform themselves into like creatures of the night, with all these incredible fashion and modeling, and this whole world was so seductive to a teenager and I was hooked, I loved it and I was making clothes for myself. At that time there was no fast fashion, so you really had you were the fast fashion. 

02:56

Well, as fast as I could make them. I mean because I was literally making clothes for friends to wear every weekend for so you taught yourself how to use a machine. No, I didn't sew any of it. I had seamstresses and a tailor to do all that stuff. I would sketch it and they would make it for me and it was kind of like a. You know, you learn as you go. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

03:15

Were you going to pull materials and fabrics? I mean, I know that, but we had a whole. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

03:20

We had a big area for wholesale fabrics and stuff like that and you know I had a runner who would like run there every day to like buy fabrics and buttons and all that stuff. And at that time in the Philippines everything was so like preppy and I really was kind of more thinking about like Yoji and Rae Kawakubo, so that was more my vibe and I couldn't get any of those clothes there. So I was just like, let me emulate what they're doing and see if I can create kind of like in the mood of this course, at that time there was only magazines, right, and I couldn't even afford the magazines I wanted to buy because ID was so expensive. It was like ID Magazine. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

03:58

I can't Wait. Can I ask you, though the designers? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

04:01

you just referenced, oh my. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

04:03

God, no, hey, I'm here for it, but the designers that were your inspiration were Asian designers. Is that why? Because you know. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

04:11

No, I also love gold. Yeah, well, that I love. I love Claude Montana, like all of those you know. I mean, I kind of loved all of them, the Americans, interestingly, not so much, because I just thought clothes were a little basic, except Zoran. I don't know if you remember Zoran. Oh yeah, and it was one collection Calvin did. It was kind of like so not Calvin, which I loved. It was like very kind of Moroccan, kind of, you know, eastern inspired. I was like, wow, this is, and actually okay, now count to think of it. I also love Perry Ellis. 

04:45

Oh, when he was you know Silhouettes and you know it was like preppy but also like oversized, so he did a lot of things that were interesting. Oh and sorry, norma Kamali, of course. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

04:56

God bless her. She still has a bang. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

04:58

Yeah, no, absolutely, absolutely, so, yeah, so I was inspired. By all of that. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

05:03

So if it wasn't for your sisters? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

05:05

be totally For me and my friends. Actually, I only started dressing my sisters later because my sisters at the beginning were like, oh you know, our little brother is trying his little thing, you know. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

05:16

Bless. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

05:18

Oh, I was getting it Eventually, like a lot of people were starting to wear my clothes. That's when you were just like, hmm, maybe you can make me something, you know. You know, it was fun. It was fun. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

05:29

So it never dawned on you to get a sewing machine and do it yourself. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

05:32

Well. So that was my frustration. That's why I moved to New York to go to FIT to learn, because certain things I wanted to do and then see you trust, couldn't do it. I was like, wait, what do you mean? You don't know how to do it. She's like, no, I don't know how to do it. I'm like, ah, you know something was wrong. I did know how to fix it. That was very frustrating for me. So I wanted to learn the technicalities and how things were made and understand why certain things drape this way and, you know, just kind of go a little deeper, beyond sketching and giving it to a seamstress and a petting. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

06:03

People don't seem to realize that understanding how materials work back then wasn't perceived scientific. But it really is it really is why certain materials work together, why one drapes one doesn't Right. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

06:16

You want to come back, do it in silk, don't do it in linen. You know stuff like that. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

06:20

You have to understand the fibrous content about things work and you know ex-percentage cotton. I mean, that's straight up chemistry and math. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

06:29

Yes, yeah, and there's just like there's so much as well, like techniques that I just didn't know. Like I would look at certain things from, like you know, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar or, like you know, italian magazines, and it'd be like so, why does this look like that? Why is this sleeve doing that? Like, what's the secret there? So, yeah, so I enrolled in FIT. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

06:50

Was that a big deal Must have been. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

06:52

It was. I was really actually frightened, because I was like oh my God, what if I'm not at it? Good, what if I suck? 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

07:00

Do you remember the flight to New York Cause that's a long one. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

07:04

Yes, no, it was kind of exciting Actually. I flew through LA. I stopped in LA first to see relatives, which was kind of like a nice sort of way to get into, you know, sort of segue into New York. And I remember arriving in New York in the evening from LA and it was like Terrify. 

07:21

Actually I wasn't terrified, I was excited. I was like, oh my God, here it is, here we go, let's do this. It was fun, it was just like you know, I always say I love leaving and I love coming back, because just something about like that skyline and those lights coming in, that was, you know, for me like a magnet. I was like, oh my God, here we go. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

07:41

Yeah. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

07:42

Yeah. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

07:44

Where did you live? Did you live in the dorms? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

07:46

No, my sister was living here at the time, so she Tessa she goes back to Tessa. 

07:53

Yes, so she lived in the Upper East Side, 89th Street. Yeah, 89th Street yeah, really far from FIT, oh my God. Yeah, but it was. You know it was. It was a five floor walk up and you know we did it. It was. You know that was home and I slept in a fluton and you know it was a tiny, tiny apartment and we made it work and then we got downtown, but yeah, you and Tessa, so your second older sister was there before you. 

08:22

Yes, exactly yeah, tessa was the first to move to New York. Yeah, so she sort of paved the way for me, in a sense, because she's actually the one who sort of convinced me to come to New York. Because she's like like, all this stuff you're doing in the Philippines, this is fun. She's like like go play with the big boys. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

08:38

Hmm, that's were you. Were you as close with her before you moved? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

08:43

Like I have to say, we got closer as I moved, obviously because we had, you know, we had to live together, and it was also like the first time, I think, we actually interacted as adults. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

08:53

Right. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

08:54

Before then, before that, I was just like her little brother. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

08:56

Right, right, right, and also like who's buying food and who's doing this? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

09:00

Yeah, we had to you know, yeah, we had to sort of yeah coexist, and so it was good. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

09:07

One of the things I like about FIT students. I mean I've taught at all three schools and I think it's because FIT is a SUNY, a state school of New York, versus Parsons, which is, of course, private. But the majority of my students at FIT have always worked. And I think it's because. Number one the expectation of being an FIT student is that you need to work, because you know any student work. Their salt only goes for two years if you're an industry person. And number two, because of the cost most people are paying their own way. Did you work while you were going to school? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

09:40

Yeah, I was working for a manufacturing company and actually I really loved it. I loved going to class in the evening because it worked. So everything I did and during the day sort of reinforced what I was doing in the evening. So it was great because I was kind of really into it. Like you know, like day to night literally, like I would there till 10 o'clock at night, because my classes went from like six o'clock to 10 o'clock at night for like I've taught those classes. 

10:04

not a fan, but yeah yeah, no, I mean, I was there for like four nights a week. It was intense but at the same time, because there were evening classes every, I would say, my interaction with the other students, my classmates, were like they were listen, if you're going to be there from six to 10 at night, you're not there to party, you're there to learn. And I loved it. And that was to me like I'm still friends with the people I met there, some of the people that I met there, because they were serious, you know, they were there to learn. So I kind of like that. That sort of that energy of, like you know, intensity was really, I mean, for me. I thrived on it. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

10:40

Yeah, I mean you're like that's the age to do it. How did you transition from you know making a peril on your kitchen table to realizing that handbags would be your jam? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

10:55

You know, to be honest, I really thought that I would be doing clothing in New York. But then, when I was working for this company, I realized within the first year that I was like, oh my God, to actually produce a clothing collection, one I don't know what I would have to sell, I have nothing, but it just like financially impossible unless I didn't have deep pockets. We don't, you know, middle class background. I did come from, like you know, a trustee farion. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

11:23

You know that means, and who missed out? Talk about it, you know. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

11:28

Yeah, no, it was wrong family. Yeah, no, I was just like I looked at those bills because I would sign off on the bills you know to give to accounting and I'd be like, oh my God, the buttons of the buttons. This season was 25,000 and those are just samples. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

11:42

Right. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

11:43

Ouch, like that's just buttons, we're not even looking at the fabric. And I was like pattern makers, this and that, and when you start to add all of that up without even like really adding it up, just like literally looking at the warehouse or even the sample room, sample workers, and I was just like, oh my God, that's to produce samples, yeah, totally. I was just like no, I can't. So that I somehow quickly realized that at least with accessories it's one size fits most. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

12:13

Yep and size agnostic, non-judgmental fashion. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

12:17

Exactly right. And also age list in a way, and not size specific as well. So that was to me it was like okay, so I can still be in fashion, work for myself and not go under. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

12:29

Right, so much yeah. How long after you graduated did you start your own line? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

12:37

I never graduated. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

12:41

How many years in did you go? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

12:43

You know, I have crazily enough, I had like two or three classes left. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

12:47

Dude, you should be chat to them. You get that honorary degree Really. Yeah, man, I'll make a phone call for you. Let me know. Yeah, let me say I'm putting that honorary degree. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

13:01

The crazy thing is they actually asked me years later to come and speak to the graduating class and Joyce Brown backstage said to me what year did you graduate? I was like honey bunny, yeah, I can't tell you. I never finished. She goes. Oh, please don't share that. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

13:18

I'm like no, no, no, did you end up speaking? I did, I spoke fast, man. And the proud students, oh my God. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

13:27

No, it was funny, my assistants at that time they were like holding it in the audience because they were like, oh my God, he's speaking to the graduating class. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

13:35

I had another secret man. I guess that preceded social or having bad people working for you to rat you out Like no. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

13:47

Actually, I thought it was just kind of funny. I was like really they want me to speak to the graduating class. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

13:51

Okay, that's amazing, that is amazing. So you had started a handbag line whilst you were there and then was like forget it, I might as well just keep going. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

14:01

Yes, I mean essentially because I got really busy with manufacturing and I was kind of doing everything myself initially. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

14:08

I just did have the time to how did you decide what your anchor piece, your core silhouette, would be? How did you decide the materials? How did you go through that process so young, while still having a day job and work and go to school? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

14:23

God, I can't even remember. I think it was mostly like the beginning was like okay, I want to do these silhouettes and I wanted something that was kind of easy, somewhat classic, but I wanted them at that time, you know, I wanted them to be in PVC, like patent PVC, which I started out with belts, with skinny belts, and then skinny belts, I did wristbands, and then actually it kind of happened by accident, I walked into a store and I was selling them, you know, wristbands and belts, Fred Siegel, Big Drop, you imagine and then I remember the buyer was like you make bags? 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

15:01

I was like of course, of course, yeah. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

15:04

Yes to it all. It's just, you know, running late when I'm like, oh my God, I don't even know what's this bag look like? So yeah, I mean like I remember like designing the collection in a cafe with my roommate at that time and she was like what are you doing? I'm like I'm designing a collection of handbags. She's like what Wait? 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

15:23

your roommate, you mean your sister. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

15:25

Well, she had already her own apartment and I had her own apartment and I had a roommate and we were just laughing it off like having coffee, and I was just sketching away. I didn't know what I was doing, right, yeah, it was one of those things and it's just funny. Somehow, like Mademoiselle magazine heard about me, I don't remember how, so the editor was like I want to come and see the collection. I was like, oh, okay. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

15:47

Oh damn, here we go. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

15:49

Yes, here we go. Oh, so she came in with I think I had like three bags and belts and whatever and I displayed them on like a garden, like a planter Right Up there in the apartment and she was really sweet and she was like you should go and meet Ann Slowy. I was like, oh, okay, who? Oh? 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

16:09

man Ann Slowy. I was like okay, yeah, that predated Google. You're like sure, where do I look her up? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

16:14

Yeah, so I actually you're like it's so funny. I used to like so ignorance is bliss. I showed up W magazine. I'm like I'm here to see Ann Slowy. You're like you have an appointment. No, no. Here. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

16:26

But I have my bags. Oh my God, so crazy. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

16:30

And Ann was coming in from lunch at, the security guard was like there's a guy here to see you. And she was like oh, hi, I'm like, hi, I'm a handbag designer, blah, blah, blah. I'd like to show you my collection. She's like sure. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

16:41

Okay. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

16:42

You imagine no. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

16:45

Absolutely not. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

16:46

And then she asked me. She was like, oh, here's a really cute, because when we're working on a story, can you make a bag for me? I was like sure. And I'm like okay, she's like I'm doing a cork story, can you do a cork bag? I'm like sure. So I had a work bag made that was a fold over clutch break. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

17:02

Where did you, where did you get the cork from? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

17:06

I? Where did I buy it from? I bought it from I forget which company, but I bought it like online. No, actually. No, I bought it for 38th street. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

17:14

Yeah, I was going to say online, that's cute. No, back then it's like 30. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

17:17

No, no, no, no, no, no. And it was so difficult to work with. Was that great? 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

17:21

You know, I was consulting with one designer who was obsessed with cork like obsessed, and I've worked with Amrim cork. They hired, the Himmich works and, yes, it's sustainable. Yes, it's eco. Blah, blah, blah. And no one wants a fully cork bag. I mean, it's a great editorial piece but nobody wants it. Exactly Right and it's hard to work with. Yes, it was good for shoes, not good for bags. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

17:41

Right. So I did a fold over clutch trimmed in leather, when it was this big sort of 70s with a you know cut out frame and a loop coming through, and I sent it to her. And I was just so frightened because I was like, oh my God, what if it doesn't make it? I spent all this money, blah, blah, blah. And then she called me afterwards. She's like oh, are you ready to pick up the clutch? I said okay, I didn't even say anything. I was like, yeah, she's like well, do you want to know if it made it? And I'm just here to pick up the clutch. Of course I was my own messenger. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

18:12

Right yeah. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

18:14

And she was like no, it made it to the page, you'll see. And I was like, okay. And then you know, like months later it came out as a full page with luxury shoes and my clutch at the center. I was like, and then Bergdorf's called like oh, we'd like to see your collection. I was like, oh shit. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

18:33

You were in a bucket of happy accidents with this, yeah. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

18:36

Let me tell you, no, it was kind of just like, yeah, one thing after another. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

18:40

Right place, right time. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

18:41

Yeah, no, it was fun. I kind of went with the flow and you know, Bergdorf's was like incredible. The fashion director at that time was so sweet and so supportive and, you know, gave me a lot of advice and it was nice and I told that was a time where they were actually looking for new people. So it was, you know, a good time to be doing that. How? 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

19:01

did you determine your like? You know such a different time which I hate saying dates us, but you know how vested were you in your, your customer, with the price point, like were you going to Bergdorf's like Nothing. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

19:17

I mean initially I didn't know at all, I was just kind of going with, first of all, the aesthetic of what I liked, which was, you know, very much inspired by vintage bags and bought like in 26 Street flea market. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

19:29

Right. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

19:30

I used to buy them from Anne Carina Vulpie, vulpie, my God, I was like her regular. Every Saturday I was there Like hey, anna, what's new? Yeah, I would buy all these vintage bags and I would kind of dissect them and kind of rework them so that I could kind of make your own DNA tied to it. 

19:45

Well, also because I'm so much of the vintage bags you can't really do anymore the way they are Right, it's like hardware doesn't, you know, doesn't function the way they use to, and how do you simplify things. So it was like a really good like lesson for me in construction as well. Yeah, and initially it was all just the visual and also kind of looking at the bag and be like, so I think I can sell this for this much. So then you know, subdivide that into like what the wholesale is, without necessarily running up the real cost of it, because I was frightened of the real cost, because I, you know, I'm sure that actually I know now that back in those days I wasn't making money. I was making up for this to pay for it, but not to like earn a living Right. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

20:26

Right. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

20:27

You know, it was literally just circular right, like something sold and you make a new one and I didn't know what I was doing. But you know it was a good lesson. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

20:39

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21:19

For the past 20 years, I've been teaching at the top fashion universities in New York City, wrote the handbag designer Bible, founded the handbag awards and created the only handbag designer podcast. I'm going to show you like I have countless brands to create in this in-depth course, from sketch to sample to sale. Whether you're just starting out and don't even know where to start to begin, or if you've had a brand and need some strategic direction, the handbag designer one-on-one masterclass is just for you. So let's get started and you'll be the creator of the next it bag. Join me, emily Blumenthal in the handbag designer one-on-one masterclass. So be sure to sign up at EmilyBluemethalcom slash masterclass and type in the code on cast to get 10% off your masterclass today. When, at which point, were you officially a business? Do you remember the moment where you were like, okay, I need to be conscientious, I need overhead, I need an office. Like when did all that hit? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

22:23

After, I would say, the first trade show that I joined, which was at the plaza at that time, the accessories circuit, the plaza. How did you know to go to a? How did you? 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

22:32

know to do a trade show at the time, at least for all. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

22:36

Yeah, I think somebody had reached out to me to join, or I think my showroom was joining at that time and I kind of joined the showroom. I don't remember exactly, but it was a blizzard of 90. When was that blizzard? There was a big blizzard in New York and because all the buyers were stuck in the plaza, everybody kept walking into our room. 

22:56

And you know, I met a lot of buyers and a lot of like and actually had a lot of orders which was kind of like, wow, okay, so this is real now. All right, what do I do with this? This is beyond now, just Bergdorf-Goodman Right. So it was yeah, and you know, and after that I was like, okay, let me get my first assistant. Yeah, it was just like one step at a time. I literally started very, very small with one assistant and we kind of did everything and it was amazing, I had a partner at the time, my life partner and business partner. You know, we both kind of put our savings to the brather and, like you know, kind of started from there. Really, it was, you know, small, tiny. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

23:35

Was it scary to be doing this with someone else? Because it's a lot of like. People don't seem to realize the complications, like I mean you, everybody. I feel like ignorant Lee goes in working with somebody, right, you need the support, you need the backup. You realize you can't be everything to everyone internally and externally. So you know, then you, you say, ok, I'm design, I'm fashion, I'm kind of sales, because I need to be in all these meetings, because I need to hear with the buyers, but I'm not the one handling the money, that's, I can't do that, right. But you know, then it's like then you kind of have a boss of their internally and like, was that tricky? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

24:18

No, because I think we were both. I mean, I think we were very clear that it was my name and my company and I literally, you know, aside from working on the back end and supporting all of that stuff, like final decisions were really still mine. It's not very clear from the start. I mean, he was really like an amazing support system, you know, because he kind of did all the back end that was like impossible for me to figure out, you know speaking to the left. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

24:44

Did you have anything in place If it didn't work out? Like? Did that ever cross your mind Like, oh damn, I hope we stick together. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

24:50

At that time we did not, interestingly enough, but eventually we did. We, you know, hired an accountant, had it, you know, had the company sort of like registered and all of that stuff. And yeah, I have a sport in it that he never right, that, you know. It never went south. We were determined to, like you know, do something with this. It was good, it was a good, it was a good partnership. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

25:13

Is he still your partner? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

25:15

He has passed, unfortunately. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

25:18

Oh, I am so, so sorry. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

25:20

Yes, unfortunately, but. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

25:22

Wow, I had no idea. I am so sorry. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

25:25

It's all right, that's okay, yeah. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

25:27

The comma Right. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

25:29

Life happens. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

25:32

Boy does it ever? It's like God, you think you're prepared for so much and then, like something, just sucker punches you yes. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

25:40

Yes, yeah, yeah, and you know, let's not forget 08. I think that was a rude awakening for a lot of brads. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

25:49

Oh, that. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

25:50

Right, yeah, yeah. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

25:52

Oh, on market dropping. You mean people don't want to keep buying more and more and more. You mean you're going to cancel my order. Now what am I supposed to do with all my inventory? How many Trump shows can I do to sell the shit? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

26:05

Plus, nobody wanted anything, right, nope, but like it was like like literally the floor dropped, the floor caved in. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

26:13

How did you handle that? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

26:15

It was very hard. I mean, I thought it was like I went from like 15 people to three people in one afternoon. It was hard wrenching, it was hard, so very, very. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

26:29

Was that his call saying like, look, we got to get rid of all these people. We can't afford them. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

26:34

It was both our calls. I mean, it was like the writing was on the wall. There was just like every store had canceled the orders. It was like, how do we? 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

26:42

What did you do with all the production? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

26:44

Unfortunately, I had already prepaid for some of them. We had to kind of go through them and then close them out. We closed them out, which was also like the worst thing you imagine, like stuff coming in and they they don't even go to the stores, they go straight to like close out. It was hard, that was really yeah. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

27:03

I mean, but that's life for business, right? Yes, I mean, you want to at least just make back the money you paid for it, like, if anything, and then you're like I'll take whatever you can give me, just need something. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

27:12

Yeah, no, I mean this is right before 08. I mean, we were like on a high. I mean, my God, we were producing women's shoes, we were doing men's bags, we were doing you know, jewelry even. I mean we kind of did so much, we almost did too much. And in the footwear, I mean it can't be produced in Spain. We did produce out of Italy, produce out of China. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

27:33

Yeah, yeah. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

27:35

Before I knew it, I went from like one assistant to like four. It was like I mean, it was amazing. It was a really amazing trick when I'm still friends with some of my assistants at that time. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

27:45

Well I mean, look, you are a standup guy, you're a nice person. I think the people with whom you were working probably understood that it wasn't by choice. So it's not like you were being a dick about it. You were like I would keep you if I could, but I can't. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

28:00

Right, so Guess what Like if you read the papers. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

28:04

Yeah, yeah. All, we're all in it by the way, take it back on your way out, because I got some extras. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

28:11

Yeah, no, it was. It was bad. I mean, even when we did sample sales, it was like God, there was like a line of all around the block for people who were buying it, because the bags were like I mean, retail was like 450. I was literally selling them for like less than $100. Yeah, just, you know, get it out. Yeah, cash, no, it was hard. It was hard, especially because we weren't such a high. We had a license agreement with a Japanese company. They opened stores for us. There was like all this stuff that was like amazing, amazing, amazing, selling international, you know, doing the shows in Milan from Ecom in Paris, and it was like it was. 

28:49

And then poof, go, go, go, and then poof. I was hard. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

28:53

How did you working for Nine West come to be? And then how did it come to pass? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

29:00

You know that was interesting because I was that time I was working with a financial person who and it- was very timely for a designer. It was very timely. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

29:09

Yes, and you then, all of a sudden, guest design a mid tier brand per se and take over. And then, by the way, my brand's coming in-house for you to do it too, right. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

29:21

No, it was. Yeah. I was introduced to Richard Dixon, who at that time was a new CEO, and I remember you know we met for coffee and he's like he goes, what do you want to do? I was like what do you want me to do? He goes. Well, he goes. Our business is broken, it needs fixing. It's not just one business, it's several businesses. So I was like, oh, I said I can do that, which. I was like, can I do that? I don't remember me, but I think I can do that. And I already had an offer at a table for another company at that time that was so much more easier and smaller and I was like I can't tell you, but anyway, it's been so long. 

29:57

Oh, it's okay, it's okay, rather not, but anyway. So I was like this under the rug, look at you. Yeah. I was like, yeah, this I can do so much easier. But then nine West. I was like that could be fun, that could be a challenge. If I fail, I'll fail miserably, you know, I'll go down in flames. At least let's do this. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

30:16

At least you'll look good going down. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

30:18

That's exactly. And then I met the brand president, who I knew, for you know she was working in Bendles and we had lunch as well. And after lunch we were like laughing and it was just like I said. I was like, can we do this together? She's like, yes, we can do this together. I was like okay. And then I was, you know, as soon as I arrived my first day. I remember my first day with, like the design team Okay, I'm really sorry, but we're canceling everything. And imagine, we're flying to China in three days to fix everything. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

30:51

Wow. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

30:52

In China. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

30:54

How do we influence people really fast? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

30:57

I mean because the call was like you do what you want to do, what you do what you think is right. So I walked in and I was like this, all of it's like not appropriate. I was like, oh my god, like I don't have the answer, we have to do it all together. But I just know in my gut that this is wrong, like we have to fix this. So we all flew to China Like eight of us worked until like midnight for like a week until everything was sampled correctly, but then we came back to market and, fortunately, the response was amazing, like literally like. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

31:28

Night day, yes. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

31:30

Like well, one of their biggest accounts was Macy's and they actually said finally something we can buy. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

31:37

They brought your brand in house too, eventually. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

31:40

Yes, the agreement was they were going to license it and if I was just kind of like, stay quiet for a year while I fix the business, because I was also overseeing Rachel Roy and Klein. And then within West there was wholesale international off price, so there were essentially three divisions right Within one brand and Klein was the same. There was off price, there was full price, full price. Rachel Roy was exclusive to Macy's, so there was a lot of development. And then there was also conversations about bringing in Brian Atwood. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

32:11

I remember that. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

32:12

Yeah, so yeah, all of a sudden I went from like meeting to meeting to meeting. It was like I was in design meetings in Fnitom. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

32:22

I mean, I'm sure that was exciting at the beginning, but what brought that to an end? Were you like? This is like the passion's gone. I'm just pumping out, no it was private equity. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

32:30

Private equity came and bought Nine West and started subdividing everything and eventually, kind of putting a lot of debt into it and sold it off. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

32:40

Were you able to get your brand back without any issue? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

32:43

No, yeah, I mean because it was a license agreement, so they never owned it. They owned the rights to produce it, but since they weren't producing it anymore, so it was like it was time to give it back to me. So it was kind of amazing actually, because I think at the time when they were going through line item per line item, they were like, oh, we don't own you, that's right. No, you don't. They were like, oh, we have to pay you off. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

33:07

I'm like kind of yes so Because they were going back on the contract you had with them. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

33:15

Right and they had to kind of like again because they were selling off the different brands. It was kind of like the writing was on the wall. It was like the end of an era, essentially, and I had a great run, had a great run, had a great time. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

33:26

How many years were you there? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

33:27

Five years, that's a long time. That's a long time, yeah but it was it went so quickly because we were oh god, we were like we're in China four times a year, we're in Europe like four times a year. We were like nonstop. It was like literally like I was a. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

33:43

That was faster than you would ever dealt, Like you know. Yes. And all of a sudden you're like I need to like up my game because I'm now doing what I'm doing on crack. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

33:53

Yes, yeah, it was crazy. It was a crazy time, but it was great. I have to say I have no regrets. I made a lot of really good friends and connections, people who I'm still in touch with to this day, and even you know the factories I work with in China. A lot of those people, of course, seized to work for Nine West and they started working for other companies, but I remember the last time I was in China, which was like 2017 or 18. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

34:18

Pre-pandemic. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

34:19

Pre-pandemic. I was like, oh, I mean, don't want people like you know you can. We all have dinner and, like, everyone from the old office showed up and we had a great time and we're like Big dinner. Yeah, it was a big dinner and we're all laughing and reminiscing and it was really nice and to me it was like, okay, so you know what? Not for anything else, but the fact that they're all here tonight means so much. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

34:43

Well, you're also once again a nice guy, so it's not like, yeah, I mean, people remember working with people who are not pleasant and you're a pleasant guy, so I'm sure. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

34:54

We would laugh about that. I mean, like God, they would teach me like little words and little phrases and a Mandarin, and they said, even if we worked until like midnight sometimes and you know they would have to, like you know, go home at like one in the morning, somehow, they were like not upset with it, they weren't annoyed with me, like they knew that it had to be done. So we would kind of laugh about that stuff because it's like and also I was, you know, the first to tell them like I'm really sorry if you have to go home, go home Right, but I'm going to stay because we need to get this done Right. Like no, we'll stay with you. I'm like, oh, I feel bad. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

35:28

Yeah. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

35:29

You know, I'm going back to a hotel. They're going to like travel for like an hour to go Hour yeah. They're like no, no, no, it's okay. It's okay, when you leave, we'll catch up on our sleep, shhh. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

35:38

You know what I mean. Oh my God, we're not coming back. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

35:41

Yeah, how. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

35:43

Because, after all that happened and then the pandemic hit, how has that led you back to still pursuing your brand and doing it at a different pace? Because you know the market has changed. Social media has changed brands, with fans having to share your story. You know like, you still know your customer. You still know who she is Like. Are you? Has she evolved? I mean, obviously she's older. What are you doing to capture new people and keep these people coming back? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

36:15

You know. So it's interesting because, like recently, this company called Front Row Fashion Week had reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to do a show in LA, and in my initial reaction I was like, oh my God, I can't, like I've got no energy, it's exhausted. And then at some point I was like you know what, why not? Why not? Because I the idea of a bag show was just like, oh my God, it's going to be so boring. Who wants to see tiny bags that are on way? Yeah, I thought you know what? 

36:44

Why don't I like? Well, also, they gave me an offer I couldn't refuse. They literally were like we'll pay for everything, Give them some money, Just show up with their bags. I was like, oh, Okay, Okay, I can do that. I, yeah, I, I could, yes, I could do that. So I did it and you know, I decided to do like a three minute, like presentation, essentially of like dance sets instead of models voguing with bags. Actually, I have to say, like not for anything else, but I was just like, oh my God, this was so much fun. Everybody had a great time. Even the audience was kind of like. They were like, oh my God, like what's happening now? That's so cool, Like club music and these girls were coming up with the bags and I had hand dancing and all of them had bags. I was just like make sure, whatever you do, there was no choreography. I said feel the music. Whatever you do, don't make people forget that it's about the bag. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

37:36

Bag. That's great, well done. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

37:38

And it was, and it was a way for me to also like meet new customers, and yeah. So I, you know it's interesting because I think again, because I think that's a great thing because of the bags are sort of ageless, I'm capturing a whole new audience. I'm actually, funnily enough, I'm capturing my friend's daughter's generation, like their next generation, of like oh my God, this is so cool. Or like, oh my God, we like we wanted mom's clutch, so now we want to have our own clutch, and yeah. So it's just one of those things. I just have to keep at it, right. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

38:08

One more question Now. I know you. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

38:12

I mean I probably have to do a question. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

38:14

No, you totally did. But in recognizing your roots from the Philippines I know you have a clutch that's made from a shell from- the Philippines. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

38:23

Yeah, a little shell yeah. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

38:24

Right, that's it. I didn't want to say the wrong shell. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

38:26

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I couldn't remember. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

38:28

Are you actively making sure that your heritage and culture is still always an integral part of the brand? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

38:36

You know, it's interesting because it's not something that I consciously do. I think it's inevitable for what I do. You know, it's like people always ask me. It's like how do you make sure that there's a Filipino touch? I'm like I actually don't think of it that way. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

38:49

Like. It's not like. Your silhouettes are Tagalog named, Didn't you say right? 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

38:54

Yeah, tagalog, yeah, yeah, yeah, Tagalog, yeah. No, it's like, yeah, I mean, I guess, because I am who I am, it'll come through, no matter what right, and I'm happy about that because it's authentic to who I am. And when people see it, they realize where I am from and from the islands. They're like, oh, we get it. We get it, it comes through. I'm like I should hope so. It is my DNA. So, yes, yes, but I also love the fact that I'm also working not just with the Philippines, but I'm working still with my Chinese factories, india as well. I mean, for me, I think it's really my interest and love of craft and I think it's handmade and I think that you can see that is, you can see, like someone working at it, versus something that's a little bit more like manufactured. So yeah, and I don't produce a lot of quantity, I produce just enough, so there's not too much overstock to get rid of, which is really, I mean for me, at least that's my. You know I don't produce thousands, as I used to, but I'm OK with that. And I think people like the fact that they don't see the samples themselves coming and going. They like the fact that when they go to a party, they're like where'd you get that? I had one, really like. 

40:03

One of my favorite stories was like this woman who said to me she goes, you know, I love wearing your clutches because you know, let's face it, when you go to a party black tie dinner, a fancy party the women, we, she said, we women don't dress for men, we dress for each other. Bingo, she said so when you put your clutch down at a table and everybody's got their clutch at a table, just like game over. Yeah, bax, it puts that like shell clutch. It's like she goes, you could have as many rhinestones on that bag, but this clutch, let me tell you, you won't see it anywhere else. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

40:38

And I know your DNA with the PhD. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

40:40

Yeah, right. So I was like OK, I'm doing something right, I'm connecting with her and you know to this day that clutch is sold out. I have to remake it and I'm happy about that. That people still covet it. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

40:52

Well, it is covetable that people do. Thank you, you were right, Raffi, it has been an absolute joy. Thank you so much for having me. Well, I'll always have you. You know that. I mean we honored you at the Handbag Awards. Your video was so emotional. I mean I could have, like I said, hosted this without you and told your story back to you, but it's better with you telling it. I agree, how can people find you, follow? You buy your beautiful bags. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

41:17

So social media at Rafi New York, r-a-f-e New York, spelled out wwwrafficom Easy 3Ws 3Ws exactly, and neimanmarcuscom probably has the most of my things as well. Yes, Still. Still Still. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

41:35

Amazing Thanks. Oh yes, still Absolutely as it hey. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

41:40

Every season you're like oh my god. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

41:42

Can't wait, man, keep it going. Yes, it has been an absolute joy. Thank you so much for being part of the podcast. 

Rafe Totengco

Guest

41:48

Thank you so much, Emily. Have a great week. 

Emily Blumenthal

Host

41:51

Have a good one. Thanks for listening. Don't forget to rate and review, and follow us on every single platform at Handbag Designer. Thanks so much. See you next time. 

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