If there’s the road less traveled in Philippine fashion retail, that’s the one Mark “Jappy” Gonzalez has been taking. He’s done it with daring and creativity, with foresight and sensitivity to the market, and with a strong heart that enabled him to do the long haul despite business reversals and through uncertain national climate.
More than two decades ago in 1995 he opened a store (Homme et Femme) in a still on-the-rise mall (Shangri-La Edsa Plaza) housing cutting-edge brands and fashions (e.g. Acne, Marni) that veered away from the mainstream fashion consumer taste at that time. Steadily and slowly, it developed a clientele whose preferences and tastes grew along those of Jappy through the years.
He then founded H&F Retail Concepts which established Univers and eventually other monobrand stores.
This was 10 years ago, when he raised his maverick persona a notch or two higher by opening Univers at One Rockwell, a store with a modernist and sleek design by architect Ed Calma. It showcased select brands (e.g. Rick Owens, Carven, Aspesi) that again, the mainstream fashion and style market in the country wasn’t even into. Not only did the brands grow select market segments in the Philippines, in time, Univers also became a regular destination for shoppers to whom style and fashion were a distinct identity—an expression of individuality and choice.
They were not only expressing themselves; they were also doing it in unison with Jappy’s taste and style direction.
Jappy opened monobrand stores such as Balenciaga, Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Y-3, Off-White, Fred Perry. He was named into the BoF 500, a select and elite breed of professionals whom the Business of Fashion believes influence and shape the world fashion retail industry.
Jappy has earned his place in global retail, not by going with the flow but by asserting his fashion and lifestyle beliefs, marching to the beat of his own drum, so to speak. In his more than 30 years in Philippine retail industry, he has become its “disruptor.” Industry insiders would sit up and could only watch him introduce a brand or make a retail move that didn’t conform to their template. And Jappy did it with single-minded focus, and more important, thorough knowledge of fashion. Jappy has been a diligent student of fashion and its creators and movers.
And the best answer to the Jappy non-believers? Univers is celebrating its 10th year this year, going strong even in this pandemic.
Jappy disrupts armed with his mastery of fashion
Jappy disrupts armed with his mastery of fashion. He knew fashion history, enabling him to read its trajectory. He has his ear to the ground, even as he curates elite selections. For instance, some of our recent animated conversations centered around the growing presence of K-Pop idols and Korean actresses in the branding of luxury fashion. He explained to me Korea’s manufacturing and style history, in tailoring, for instance—how generations of Koreans were reared wearing blazers as school uniforms. Good tailoring is ingrained in its style DNA.
Jappy has seen much of Philippine fashion and retail. From his college years to his designer and stylist years (not many know that, long before people turned fashion styling into a career, Jappy dabbled in styling, and pushed the envelope, for the Metro magazine we edited), to his entrepreneur years, he has seen the fashion industry go from manufacturing and export to mere consumption today.
In this interview with TheDiarist.ph, Jappy shares a good deal:
You feel you’re in a good place now, career- and business-wise, for Univers?
I believe I’m at a stage where I’m re-calibrating our existence—moving ahead with the times and how I see us in the future. Bleak as the world is now, there’s always hope.
We’re looking at a time when hype has difficulty gaining adherence, and people looking for and wanting authenticity
How do you describe the Philippine luxury retail landscape in this pandemic? Do you note any change in the consumer behavior and taste?
Cautious is the way I describe it. Precarious to a point. A little self-indulgent at times. Definitely a change; we’re looking at a time when hype has difficulty gaining adherence, and people looking for and wanting authenticity. Authenticity on how a brand reflects a consumer’s own character.
Was there ever a time last year when the pandemic left you scared about your retail business? How were the first months of lockdown? What kind of pivot did you do?
More uncertain than scared. Hopeful in the end. I’ve been in retail for most of my adult life, and I’ve seen a lot of life-changing events take place. In the end, we still exist. There’s a lesson from the past I’ve learned: adapt or die. Or better, re-invent without changing your views.
It’s been a creative exercise in all aspects—including which direction we take towards a new retail landscape. Thankfully we were already going digital when options closed in for retail. So much of it was a matter of activation.
The stores represent what is normal and visiting the stores gives one a feeling of reassurance that life is here
How is your retail store chain navigating this new normal? You said that business stayed good, if not better. Why do you think it did? Your clients find Univers a safe place, as a brick-and-mortar store?
People still like to go visit places, see familiar faces. As humans we need social contact, a reassurance that we still form part of a race, community. Coming from quarantine and restrictions, we all want to feel a sense of freedom, to appreciate life, to connect.
The stores represent what is normal and visiting the stores gives one a feeling of reassurance that life is here.
Digital is relevant, but from my end in fashion, and here in our setting—we would be now how on-line businesses started in EU 15 years ago; in its infancy, but the difference now is that this is accelerated by circumstances.
What, to you, is Philippine luxury retail now—what about it serves your purpose and your passion? What excites you? Anything that frustrates you?
Let’s start with the unpleasant truth. Bureaucracy. End.
My happiness at work stems from the acceptance and appreciation of what we do, how we do things. It’s also our challenge to keep growing. It’s that constant feeling that fuels me. The new, the unchartered. That curiosity that has led me down this path. It’s also seeing that what we’ve built from the ground up grows into this “being” today.
How did you go into design? What were those early years—the ‘80s, ‘90s—like?
I went into design while I was already employed as a merchandiser. Like everything else that I evolved to later on in my career, it was based on a void/gap that I felt strongly about having to fill. I realized soon after that it was a “talent” to be able to realize a vision.
The mid ‘80s till the mid ‘90s, the decade when retail was robust… The Philippines was exporting more in terms of RTW
The mid ‘80s till the mid ‘90s, the decade when retail was robust. Stable politics and economy were and always will be the foundation for any business. And that moment was a good time to do retail. The optimism was clearly felt. Rapid expansion, malls were being defined to what we know today, local manufacturing was still a viable option. The Philippines was exporting more in terms of RTW then. We were still competitive.
Cinderella (where Jappy worked—Editor) was the place to shop!
When JAPS, my eponymous label launched in 1986, it gave me validation that I knew what the market needed. One could say it gave me the confidence to listen to my “gut feel”. Cinderella recognized this need in the market and thus backed my start in design. One of my fondest memories was when I was asked to present a collection when I asked what I felt was needed (in their marketplace ), and the results of my presentation and subsequent sales.
Admittedly you came too early for the ‘90s market, but you dug in your heels and stayed the course. Now after all these decades what, are you convinced now, is your niche in Philippine retail? What brands do you advocate?
Brands come and go but our ideals remain so. It’s a niche we carved out for ourselves, and this is something we’ve continued to define over the past years and continue to do so. More than the brands, it’s the collective thought of our curation that makes the whole.
How do you choose which brand to bring? What of it is your taste and your client’s taste—if you can break it down to a ratio? How do you get wind of a designer or brand that is bound to make it?
It’s your pulse… It’s nothing that comes out of a spreadsheet
It’s a feeling in your gut that tells you this is the right time for an idea. An idea that’s manifested by a brand. It’s your pulse, and if you keep your ear to the ground and really listen, then you know. It’s nothing that comes out of a spreadsheet. It comes from a collective consciousness of thoughts heard, scenes seen, conversations had—and how one forms an opinion or a vision from it, where we all differ from each other.
Having a strong sense of self though is what forms all of that together. Without that, you’re just copying, which has no place in my head. And this same criterion is how I chose the brand to work with.
In the end we have a lexicon for which we’ve created a platform where we can express this.
Was your fashion radar honed by your decades in fashion? What are your learnings from the ‘90s retail? You were rather ahead of the market. What were the brands then that you now think were ahead of the market?
Actually more the ‘80s. That’s when it started for me. The ‘90s was a reaction to the ‘80s, at least for me it was. I’ve been in the fashion business for about 35 years, and I’ve developed a keen sense of identity. The sense guides me to a path that’s clearly meant for me. And this road is often the less traveled one. That said, it’s also the most foreign in one’s eyes.
Curiously enough, the word for foreign in the romantic languages, in English literally translates to “stranger.”
And that’s where I live.
Brands like Industria by Fabrizio Ferri, a photographer based in Italy at the height of Milan as a fashion center, offered a minimal, sensual, discreetly luxurious line that would be perfectly relevant now. It was indulgent but not ostentatious. Helmut Lang left us with an enduring and indelible mark. As did Martin Margiela that continues to be relevant. Raf Simons, always ahead of its time. Prada—a brand so strict in its vision that in two decades it still exemplifies this coda. These are brands with identities that shaped the 2000s. and are still strongly influencing the markets today.
Why do you think that today’s Filipino luxury consumer is showing more sophisticated taste? From your portfolio, what brands usually do they start with, the entry-level brands?
It’s curious to say that our psychology is that of a developed economy. But on the flip side it’s really the opposite. There’s a duality in our culture that pervades. An appreciation of street luxury, a new fashion segment that developed in the 2000s with the help of social media, and the ever influential street fashion. Duality— same market heritage luxury behemoths exist alongside each other.
What is your favorite city in the world? Paris?
London actually. Paris I love, it’s a delightful city but it’s got some attitude, but it’s more of a home away from home for me. It’s where I have habits I would equate to being home.
London, on the other hand, represents a diversity in culture that, to me, is unsurpassed. Fashion, food, art, history and the things relative to my interests. It’s a very intellectual city but still grounded, which I find attractive.
Where do you want to take Univers?
We’re always in a state of improvement, growth and movement. And the question of our future is one that persists in my every decision I make. If history is to repeat itself, our move will be brave and focused sharply as to how we define ourselves. That said, it’s in the everyday decisions that our foundation is laid upon.
Barring unforeseeable events, what does your “crystal ball” show for PH luxury retail? If there’s one thing you really dream of doing, what is it?
A hotel. Might definitely not be the best time. But maybe by the time it comes to fruition, the time would be right. Like most things we’ve accomplished.
Looking back and looking forward, what do you now think and feel?
My career, which now spans over three decades, has seen the turns that the retail industry has taken. From a manufacturing economy to an importing one. The shifts in supply chain and marketing development have been an evolution that I have participated in and will continue to do so, these past 10 years and into the next chapters.
And that’s my POV (point of view)—that we represent that point where irreverence meets relevance—remains true to the shifts, and the future of the market has, of course, allowed me an evolution.