In 2009, Russell Villafuerte joined the second season of Project Runway Philippines despite having no formal training in fashion—and ended up as first runner-up. He joined another fashion design reality show in 2011 and won the grand prize.
Throughout nine seasons of Philippine Fashion Week, Russell’s collections have made it to Preview and MEGA’s top 10 lists. His works have graced magazine covers and editorials, as well as red-carpet events on major celebrities like Ruffa Gutierrez and Kim Chiu.
And yet, Russell believes he hasn’t made it yet.
“When you say you’ve made it, it feels like that’s where the work stops,” he says. “Design is constantly changing. You need to constantly adapt and just keep on working.”
Interior design roots
Growing up in Antique, Russell started drawing croquis and clothes in high school. “But my first love was art,” he says. “I actually wanted to take up Fine Arts but my parents didn’t see it as a realistic career choice.”
As a compromise, Russell decided to take up Interior Design at UP Diliman. “It involves art, but you also get a professional license.”
Fresh from graduation, he auditioned on a whim for Project Runway – and made it to the top three on most challenges, despite his struggle with the technical aspects of clothes construction.
A fan favorite throughout the show, he placed second during the Final Runway.
Focus on fashion
“I lost because my dresses were badly made,” he admits. “Joining that competition forced me to focus more on making the most of the 15-minute fame I got from that.”
Determined to improve, he took up basic fashion design and menswear courses at the Fashion Institute of the Philippines. He also trained in draping under Project Runway mentor Jojie Lloren.
Russell saw a chance to test his skills again two years later. Joining MEGA Young Designers Competition, Russell made it to the grand finals, where he presented his “Biker Lola” collection that blended traditional Filipiniana materials with black leather for a quirky take on the biker-chic aesthetic. This time, Russell won the grand prize.
After immersing himself in the industry for five years, Russell decided to go back to interior design. While in fashion, being an interior designer worked to his advantage. In a wonderful coincidence, it was the other way around for his 2014 board exams, which he passed with flying colors.
“The final design task, which makes up 40% of the total score, was to design a boutique for a fashion designer,” he says. “Now that was insanely lucky on my part!”
Asked whether he sees himself more as a fashion or interior designer, Russell says that he likes to refer to himself as a maker.
“I can’t get by for long without making and designing something,” he says. Recently, he has also started creating keychains from junk items. Fashioning them into little robotic figures, he calls his accessories AbuBots, a portmanteau of abubot (trinkets) and robots.
Russell never seems to run out of quirky ideas and novel approaches to design—here’s a look at his creative process, and his words for aspiring young designers.
On fashion and interior design: A major difference is obviously the scale and scope. In fashion design, most clients will only wear your creation once, especially with weddings. Fashion is a “want.” Interior design, however, is more of a “need.” A badly-designed space cannot be easily replaced because it’s expensive and time-consuming.
On his artistic icons: For fashion design, it’s Ivarluski Aseron. I also consider Kyle Ng (of Netflix’s Social Fabric) as my fashion spirit animal. He’s like the coolest international fashion celebrity for me.
For architecture, it’s architect Antoni Gaudi, the foremost personality of the Art Nouveau movement. I’m a maximalist by heart and nothing and no one can ever come close to Gaudi in that department.
On his design aesthetic: I don’t like to limit myself with a certain aesthetic. However, my design principle has always got to do with sustainability. As much as possible, I apply the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) in my works.
On what inspires him to create: I design through instinct most of the time. One thing that does make me inspired, though, is music. I listen to all types, but listening to World music really keeps me going.
On design as a career: Design is a business, and branding is a big deal. Do not sell yourself short. A client who wants to pay ₱4,000 for a dress will expect it to look and feel like ₱10,000, so charge accordingly.
Design is also a collaborative effort. You can’t do everything on your own. That’s probably my biggest mistake when I started, not trusting anyone else to do some of the work for me.
And be nice; the Philippine design world is small and you can’t afford to have a bad reputation.
On his definition of good design: Recognizing a need is the primary condition for design—a design without purpose is ugly.
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