Weaving with Dina Bonnevie

By Joseph L. Garcia, Senior Reporter

IN HANGGANG SAAN, Hanggang Kailan, famous actress Dina Bonnevie played a villainous tobacco plantation heiress in Ilocos who throws out her half-sisters Esther and Jocelyn (played by Alice Dixson and Vina Morales) from the estate. In real life, Ms. Bonnevie (Geraldyn Bonnevie-Savellano since 2012) has been parlaying her efforts into helping build a lively weaving tradition in Ilocos Sur.

At this month’s Likhang Habi Fair in Glorietta, we caught up with Ms. Bonnevie manning the booth of her indigenous textiles brand, La Bonne Vie (“the good life” in French, just like the actress’ last name). The brand’s roots are a project of her third husband, former Ilocos Sur governor, vice-governor, and now Department of Agriculture undersecretary Deogracias Victor Savellano. “It’s not like I intentionally entered into indigenous textiles. This thing came to me as a surprise, actually,” she told BusinessWorld during an interview on Oct. 15.

The brand started in 2013. Before that, Mr. Savellano had a project to look for all of the artisans in Ilocos Sur, group them together and fund their weaving efforts. “He looked for the best weavers in the land, and he found them, made looms for them, and gave them thread so they could continue weaving,” she said. The province of Ilocos Sur is known for their weaving traditions, the result of which is known as abel iloko.

The management of the project was passed on to her after their marriage. She does have some experience: her father, Honesto Bonnevie, traded in abaca, and finished products had her name attached to it. “I made it popular,” she said of her father’s products. She recalled her husband saying, “Lend your name to inabel weaving para sumikat (so it would get famous/popular).”

NOT JUST A SHOPKEEPER“I became a tindera in American Women’s Club [bazaar],” said Ms. Bonnevie of when she first started selling inabel. “Of course, I saw my classmates from Ateneo saying ‘Naging tindera ka na lang (you became just a shopkeeper)!’. I said, ‘Uy, akin naman ang binebenta ko (Hey, what I’m selling is mine). Hindi ako tindera, this is an advocacy, I’m a humanitarian, ano ka ba (what’s wrong with you)?,” she said in jest. “‘You married a politician tapos naging ano ka na lang, tindera? What happened?’ Nilait-lait pa ako [they teased me].”

It was during these bazaars that she met clients from SM’s Kultura, Rustan’s, and Tesoro’s, who now order from her in bulk. To ease transactions between these entities and the weavers, Ms. Bonnevie built La Bonne Vie as a formal brand, herself representing the weavers.

“They’re not our employees to begin with. You will never be able to employ any weaver,” she noted. “I offered a salary to them, and nobody would accept because they were landed people.” According to her, weavers pause their work during the harvest season to focus on their farms. What she does instead is to give them thread for free, then let them give her a price for their textiles. Asked how much this arrangement has changed the lives of the weavers, she said, “By a lot.”

She told about visiting farms and noting the dirt floors of many of the houses. After the weavers had begun working with her (not under her, as she makes clear), she noted improvements. Some families have been able to buy multiple tricycles, cars, and delivery trucks for their products. Some of them have branched out from La Bonne Vie, building their own brands, but still happy to help Ms. Bonnevie with her own orders.

Asked how she feels that some of them don’t seem to need her help anymore, she said, “I didn’t do that for them to be my slaves, or to be my employees. I’m empowering them. I want to make them entrepreneurs in the future. The common denominator for them and for me is for abel iloko to be known,” she said in English and Filipino. In one case, she visited the home of one of her blanket weavers, noting that the manang (an Ilocano term of endearment for an older sister) had earned enough to build a storeroom even bigger than her own. “Shelves and shelves of blankets,” Ms. Bonnevie said with some pride.

“I’d like to say I have a passion for empowering artisans. I believe in the craftsmanship of the Ilocano people. I believe in this art. The patterns [they weave] are not patterns that have a template or blueprint. The blueprint is in their brain,” she said.

PROUDLY LOCALSome of La Bonne Vie’s products have gone on to Australia and China (with the actress and entrepreneur noting that Chinese factories have since come out with pale imitations). She also notes that changing Filipino consuming attitudes are a huge help for businesses like hers. “Being proud of local is already one thing. There was a time when people were so Western-crazy,” she said. “Now the Filipino people have changed. They’re thinking now is to buy local, to support Filipinos. Together… you promote what’s Asian, you promote what you’re proud of.”

For her, she said that the more people wear inabel, the more successful her efforts would be. “True success is, hindi lang Titas of Manila ang makakabili ng textile mo [Not just the wealth matrons can buy your textiles]. Even average people can buy it, because that’s a treasure that people should be proud of.”

It’s not always roses for weaving, of course.

Ms. Bonnevie, for example, began the business in 2013 with just 10 to 12 weavers, all of them old women, signifying the danger of the craft dying along with her weavers. In time, she was able to entice younger people to begin weaving, but the pandemic hit their interests hard. Not only did some of the older weavers die of COVID-19, but the younger weavers moved on to jobs in caregiving and business process outsourcing. “They didn’t see weaving as a lucrative profession anymore,” she said. “It’s in a very fragile state, actually,” she said, while expressing a wish for the government to step in with nationwide projects to entice younger people to become weavers.

“It is an art, a language, our culture. Through the designs — these designs have stories! They speak!”

She pointed out the designs under her line: there’s kibin-kibin, a textile embossed with two figures holding hands, used to propose marriage. “Through thick and thin, we grow old hand-in-hand,” she said about the cloth’s promise. Another one was tokak, named after the frog rising out from it, and another with a fisherman.

In another instance, she talked about studying different ratios of thread to improve the product. She settled on a 70% polyester and 30% cotton blend, with the base in polyester and the raised designs in cotton. “This way, even if you wash it, or put it in the dryer, the shape will never change. The color will never change.” She did this in response to customers returning their items due to warping, or bleeding.

WHAT IS FAME FOR?That leads us to ask: are the people there for her, or for the weaves and the weavers? “The young ones? Hindi nila ako kilala (they don’t know me).” She recounts one encounter where a younger shopper had to be reminded by her mother: “Hindi mo ba kilala? Si Dina Bonnevie ‘iyan! Noong bata ako, fan ako niyan! [Don’t you recognize her? That’s Dina Bonnevie! When I was young, I was her fan!]

“Eh, iyong bata pinanganak, 2002. Or 1996. Anong malay niya [The kid was born in 2002. Or 1996. What would she know?],” she said.

There were many other younger customers that day. “They never knew who Dina Bonnevie was. Who the hell is Dina Bonnevie?,” she said, noting that she was only recognized after an older relative (usually female) would point her out to them. “Success iyong pumunta sila. Hindi naman nila alam kung sikat ka eh. Pero binibili nila iyong fabric ko eh. [I deem it a success that they come. They don’t know if you are famous. But they buy my fabrics.]”

She does know she still has some pull. “An advantage I have is, when I get into a business, before I even promote it, it’s already sikat,” she said. “Even before you make any marketing efforts, you’re already known.” She makes an example of people posting about seeing her on their social media accounts. “Punta iyong mga tao. [Other people go.]”

“The downside there is, one mistake, and the whole world knows. You have to be really be sure about the quality, and you have to walk your talk.”

DIFFERENT ROLESWhat is it like to work in a business so far away from showbiz? (Though she still acts, with her most recent credits being the ongoing TV series Abot-kamay na Pangarap). Apparently, fellow actress Carmina Villaroel had asked her the same thing. “Well, if it’s God-given — I didn’t ask for it — it just fell into my lap. It came to me. When it’s God-given, it comes with a responsibility. You have a mission.”

For practical matters though, she brings her computer on the set to answer e-mails, take client calls, and even review their inventory, all in between takes. She discusses how previous experiences in acting help her now with a textile business. “Show business is all about giving life to a role you’re playing. Giving it character. It’s the same with the textiles. How do you give it character, life? Wear it.”

She’s juggling several roles now: there are her private roles as wife, mother, grandmother (from her children with host Vic Sotto), and stepmother (to her husband’s children); and then her public roles as actress, celebrity, entrepreneur, and political spouse. She credits the energy she has for all these things to passion.

“You have to have passion for everything. When you work, do it with passion. Sometimes I see T-shirts that say, ‘It’s going to be a dumb day,’ or ‘I hate Mondays.’ That’s so negative.”  She points out the brand’s own T-shirts. “Every single T-shirt that I sell here? The ones with a patch? I made that,” she said proudly.

“You have to have a passion for your work. You have to love what you do. If you love what you do, you put your heart and soul into it,” she said. “When you have a passion for everything, everything turns out well.”

Ms. Bonnevie isn’t just playing a role: she’s in inabel for the long haul.

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