Merging Fashion and Advocacy in Handmade T’boli Bracelets

Timmy Potenciano and Jopie Sanchez, the two young women entrepreneurs behind Nawa, talk about their fashion business of trendy brand of brass bangles made by artisans of the indigenous group in South Cotabato.

Wearing Nawa bracelets by Lake Sebu; (right) Nawa brass bangles in progress

The brainchild of Timmy Potenciano and Jopie Sanchez, Nawa first began when trendsetter Timmy was wondering where she could purchase well-made brass bangles in Manila, noting that the style was becoming popular with fashionistas abroad.

Seeing Timmy’s crowdsourcing post on social media, Jopie, who went to high school with Timmy, got in touch. Jopie, a freelance hair and make-up artist, had worked on the set of K’na the Dreamweaver which was set in South Cotabato. She had established ties with the local T’boli weavers and brass casters while she was there.

“We had sets of bangles made for ourselves and then when Timmy posted hers and got great feedback, we decided to capitalize on the opportunity,” says Jopie.

Jopie and I like to refer to Nawa as our gift from the Universe, because it sort of just happened on its own. We didn’t want to be just another jewelry shop, because we want to focus on the people that prop up the brand too, by giving back to them,” says Timmy.

Letting things unfold

In the T’boli language, Nawa means “breath,” or the character/aura of a person. In Tagalog, it means “amen” or “let it be.” Timmy adds, “By letting things unfold, the brand name and message holds true for us in more ways than one.”

Aside from promoting T’boli craftsmanship, Nawa also gives back a percentage of earnings as donation to the School of Living Tradition in South Cotabato, an organization focused on preserving the T’boli culture.

“The T’boli artisans are the life blood of our brand. They use traditional means of creating the jewelry, as well as the malong cloth we use for packaging, in ways that are little changed by technology,” says Timmy. “Nawa is an homage to the T’Boli people and their craftsmanship and tradition, and with our brand, we hope to keep their traditions alive, and give them the recognition they so rightly deserve.”

Working out of Manila, Nawa started with Jopie and Timmy communicating with the T’boli brass casters just via phone and internet. The pair wanted to take advantage of the growing trend as soon as they could, so they decided to make do with the remote communication.

Despite starting only a few months ago, they are currently taking orders for their 18th batch of bangles. The #WearNawa hashtag has been trending on Instagram, with the bangle-flaunting fashionistas wearing them all over the world. Even Liza Soberano and Cheska Kramer have been spotted wearing Nawa.

“We did not expect the success. At all. We still have to pinch and remind ourselves that we are doing good. We just wanted to do something substantial and inclined towards our interests,” says Jopie on their quick success.

Timmy reflects on why the bangles have captured the hearts of trendsetters: “First and foremost, the bangles are gorgeous. Shallowness aside, the brass bangles hold a lot of tradition and meaning behind them. They’re not just another mass-produced accessory that you can grab off the rack at your local fast fashion store. They are made by real people with real stories to tell, and it makes me happy whenever people commend the social aspect of Nawa, because it makes me happy that they are conscious of the origins of Nawa.”

To the Land of Dreamweavers

Recently, the pair made their trek to South Cotabato to meet personally with the artisans.

“We visited the community and met up with our suppliers in an effort to get them more involved and so that we can also build ties with them. We believe that relationships matter when it comes to business so we want them to be as invested as we are,” says Jopie.

Jopie, who is in charge of the company’s financial side, adds “We don’t believe in lowering the monetary value of our orders just because we do so in bulk. We actually quote higher than what our suppliers ask for because we want them to know that we value their work. We want them to in turn place more value on their work and culture as well.”

For Timmy, who hadn’t been to South Cotabato before, the trip was a wonderful revelation. “Mindanao is a place that I have not specially explored in the Philippines, so going to South Cotabato, hearing a different dialect, seeing different costumes, was an eye-opener for me. But at the same time, we are all still Filipinos, and even if it was different, a lot of it felt very familiar,” she says.

“Lake Sebu is beautiful,” Timmy adds. “And I could not help but be in awe of everything – the surroundings, the peoples’ way of life, all of it. When we went to visit our weavers, who live in a really remote part of Lake Sebu that involves a really uncomfortable motorbike ride, I burst into tears. I was so overcome with the effort it takes to make the malong cloth, and the effort it takes to ship these products to us.”

After being able to meet and plan with their artisans in person, Nawa has just launched a new line of thin brass stacking rings. “We will release other items later in the year, which we are really excited about,” says Timmy.

After their trip to the Land of Dreamweavers, the duo behind Nawa cannot help but dream:

“Our dream for Nawa is that it flourishes as a brand, so we can give the T’Boli people we work with more opportunities to continue their craft and uphold their tradition,” says Timmy. Jopie agrees, “Hopefully we get more people interested in preserving [this] culture and supporting locally made products… and help more people in the community in more direct and sustainable ways.”