In the Philippine retail scene Mark Jappy Gonzalez isn’t only a visionary, he is, in this era, a disruptor. That is, in a landscape where the players have been pretty much entrenched for decades, the brands established, the business practices almost set in stone, Gonzales enters the picture, breaks the formula, and tries the untested.
Not nailed down to the malls, he opened Univers in an almost-exclusive residential condo enclave (Rockwell). He brought in brands known primarily to a style-discerning market. He didn’t do traditional advertising and marketing, yet when he opened Off-White in 2018, without publicity, the store saw long queues, a happy phenomenon repeated every time a new merchandise would arrive. I’d hear some friends actually complain about how they didn’t make it to the store in time to snap up their favorite Off-White item that sold out. To this day some envious retailers wonder about Off-White’s success in the Metro Manila retail landscape that’s nowhere near the affluence of, say, a Hong Kong or a Singapore.
Offhand I could give an answer to that with just my cursory observation of Jappy through the years: Jappy has an unerring eye, discerning taste, strong knowledge of and strong ties to his clientele—and knows the business side of fashion. How else can you add to those strengths? And one more—he knows his fashion history, modern and farther back. His is no mere lip service to fashion in an era when name-brand-dropping has become the millennial norm.
Jappy has more than paid his dues to retail and to the fashion industry. He entered it as a fashion merchandiser/fashion designer in the country’s first fashion specialty store chain a little more than 30 years ago, then ultimately set up his own fashion retail store Homme et Femme for the fashion-forward segment. Even as he got his feet wet in the retail business, he didn’t abandon the creative adventure. I remember how in the early 2000s, during his downtime, he’d style for us the shoots of Metro magazine and Metro Him, way before futurists defined the emergence of the “metrosexual.”
He co-founded the H&F Retail Concepts in 1995 to open multi-brand stores, including Univers. He brought to Metro Manila the Comme des Garcons, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Marni, Dries Van Noten, Y-3, Acne, among other trailblazing brands. Univers has become the destination of the fashion cognoscenti in Metro Manila, and not surprisingly, didn’t suffer a serious blow in this pandemic.
In 2017 he was voted into the Business of Fashion (BoF) 500, the third Filipino to enjoy such recognition given the movers of the global fashion industry. The other two are Stephen Gan and Bryanboy. He received the distinction in New York during the New York Fashion Week.
Today, in this pandemic, Jappy has thought out of the box, yet again, by pursuing the Univers Foundation to support the visual arts, one of the sectors worst hit by the lockdown. The Foundation will fund grants and scholarships for Filipino creatives.
To start the Univers Art Project Series, Univers collaborated with photographers to mount an exhibit that opened November and is ongoing, sold both in store at Rockwell and online. Thirty percent of the sales goes into the grant fund of the Foundation for the local art community.
Our conversation with Mark Jappy Gonzalez:
What led Univers to finally go into art venture?
We’ve always had art represented at Univers; it’s really part of our DNA. The difference now is that we don’t work with a gallery anymore. This way the process becomes faster, but it is more work for us. Art has always and will always be part of our visual expression.
And also by our continued presence in the market we aim for a more sustainable output, keeping artist work constantly present.
How are you using the virtual platform to amplify this art venture?
As we already have an online presence, this would definitely expand our image to those who see us only online. The main point here being accessibility. We aim to be within reach, with all the convenience associated with our standards of service.
“Photography is a medium of art that I feel is much relegated to the sidelines”
Can you explain further the rationale behind the Foundation? You feel the times call for grants for creatives? Is the pandemic the immediate impetus?
The pandemic definitely has something to do with it. Traditionally, we trade in imported goods. A call to help local industries came to be at this time. And as I said, art is organic in us.
So the Foundation is our way of giving something to the local community, this time the art community. Art is and will always be integral to our existence as much as it is integral to anyone’s cultural life.
So, much like education, the Foundation aims to further artist’s development and career with the hope that artists will leave a cultural mark in society.
I’m curious—why did you choose photography? Do you feel that photography as art is gaining ground in the country, like it is abroad? Is there a growing market, or is the market getting evident at least?
Photography is a medium of art that I feel is much relegated to the sidelines. The art landscape here values other mediums more. The lenses and the lensmen also capture images as keenly and as expressively as those of other visual arts.
Not much of a preference, but more of a jumping point for us. Next would be prints, followed by objects. We aim to represent our POV in various expressions, through art.
I was exposed to the pillars of Philippine photography, like Romeo Vitug. He was adamant that photography is the human eye playing with light and shadow, and therefore, he didn’t believe in image manipulation within the studio. What do you think about this generation of Filipino photographers who have state-of-the-art technology at their disposal? What is your personal preference in photography? How do you see the art?
When we sought our artist we share a POV with, one of the first questions we asked is, they shot in film and if they developed in film as well. Sadly, it seems to be a dying art here. It is a lamentable fact. The cost of also working in this medium is rather expensive. There’s much manipulation there as there is digital post-work. That in itself is an art.
I believe that having state-of-the-art software definitely increases the expression of the artist almost infinitely. But sometimes limitations can bring out the best in an artist.
I hope that one day more photographers will return and at least dabble in film. Maybe our grant can help with that.
Maybe next time we exhibit, we will work with the pillars of modern Philippine photography as part of an essay that bring light to this form. Thank you for the wonderful suggestion!
What do you think about the local auction scene? It is good that it was able to pivot to the virtual.
Overall, I think it’s brought accessibility to the gallery landscape. For some it’s a pivot, but for some it’s been this way for a while. Manila is just catching up. And the pandemic had a lot to with this!
Finally, what in your view is fashion during and after the pandemic? What kind of demand for it is shaping up? What brand DNA or what brands do you think will be in step with the times?
Of course, there are certain brand sensibilities and values that would find it hard to remain relevant, at least for the time being. This results in customers’ needs. Brands have reacted by making shifts in their offerings and making them relevant at these times. The better brands remain focused while having to achieve this.