Mai Mai Cojuangco, based in Italy, designs leather bags with “tanto amore” (a lot of love)

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MaiMai Cojuangco, seen with the reflection of an enlarged photo she took of the bag maker’s work table, scraps of leather and all: “I’m making handbags again, so it’s been a little crazy. But that’s how life is, isn’t it?” —PHOTOS BY JILSON SECKLER TIU

I have always, always loved handbags,” Mai Mai Cojuangco said with a dreamy expression in her eyes. “I can’t afford to buy everything I want, but I’ve always loved bags. My sister Liaa (Cojuangco-Bautista) is like me.

Last Saturday, Cojuangco launched its first collection of handbags under its Demetria brand, a 24-piece collaboration with clothing store Idee in Makati. Demetria is a name she shares with her daughter, and it is also her grandmother’s name.

Margarita Demetria Cojuangco-Zini, Maï Maï to her family and friends, has lived in Florence, Italy for 15 years, where she studied bag and accessory design.

Years ago, she worked as a designer for her Italian husband’s company, whose family owned the international license for Benetton and Sisley accessories. They also own the accessories brand Segue.

But after a few years, the descendant of Cojuangco – fourth daughter of José “Peping” and Margarita “Tingting” – wanted to strike out on her own and develop her own brand. “I wanted to broaden my horizons, to be able to produce bags at another price level. I wanted to throw myself into an environment that was new,” she said.

Collaborators: Cojuangco (right) with Rica Lorenzo from Idée
Collaborators: Cojuangco (right) with Rica Lorenzo from Idée

Huge advantage

“But two months after I started doing my own thing, I got pregnant,” she added. The young mother has stopped working to focus on the education of her daughter, Demi, now 7 years old. “And then the economic crisis happened… A lot of things happened.”

Before motherhood, “I wasn’t just designing bags,” Cojuangco said. “I also made bags with my own hands. There’s a huge upside to that because I knew the build. It’s a real job, a real job, and I have a lot of respect for leatherworkers who have been doing it for decades. I only did it for three or four years. I had the privilege of working with people who knew their job.

Last year in Florence, she met Rica Lorenzo, owner of this new secret little shop in Makati called Idee (2263 Chino Roces Ave. Ext.). They were introduced by Cojuangco’s older sister, Pin Cojuangco-Guingona, an Idee client.

Idee has had collaborations with capsule collections from designers like Bea Valdes, Sofia Borromeo and CJ Cruz.

Cojuangco, says Lorenzo, was very easy to work with, “very pleasant. Unlike other creative people, she is not in a bad mood.

“We met six months ago, and we worked very quickly,” said the designer, who was tasked with seeking out – and practically begging – an Italian workshop that would agree to make a very small number of handbags for them. It was a challenge, she says, because Italians were used to working with established companies.

The designer created three styles, eight pieces each, designs she says she’s never seen from other brands and would wear herself. She also designed all the hardware just for the collection, wrapped in leather. All bags are also lined with leather.

There’s Semper, “always” in Italian, a large roomy tote “in which you can fit all your and your child’s things, and it would still look good when it’s big and full,” worn for “everyday warfare”; a small, oval-shaped shoulder bag called Demi, named after her daughter; and Bucket, each piece tied at the top with its one-of-a-kind silk scarf, a few of which are from luxury brands in its own collection.

The Olive Bucket
The Olive Bucket

Neutrals

All styles have removable straps and are available in wearable neutral colors (black, indigo, olive, pine, petrol blue, dark brown, red).

Handbags sell for 48,750 pesos (Demi); P49.850 (bucket); and P59,800 (Sempre) – a fraction of what they could get in luxury online shops, given the quality and craftsmanship. Each one is made with tanto amore, lots of love.

Cojuangco, which also founded a start-up last year and launched a social messaging app called Sympies, has big plans for Demetria. At the moment, she likes the idea of ​​putting her creations in small shops, to test people’s reaction and hear what they like. At their next race, she says, she and Lorenzo hope to be able to offer more color options, for example.

She laughs at the thought of people thinking she’s making a comeback. In the 90s, she and her sisters, Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworksi and China Cojuangco-Gonzalez, were celebrities and society darlings who did their fair share of commercial modeling. They were the “It” girls, pre-social media.

“It’s funny because it’s not like I’ve done show biz,” she says. “I’ve only done magazine covers…I’m very adventurous. When I want to do something, I’m not afraid to do it. The opportunity presented itself. I’m making handbags again, so it’s been a bit crazy. But life is like that, right?

“Filipinos like to match their clothes to their accessories.  I thought if I added colorful scarves to the bags, they could be worn with different options,” the designer says of the Bucket.
“Filipinos like to match their clothes to their accessories. I thought if I added colorful scarves to the bags, they could be
worn with various options,” the designer says of the Bucket.

She traveled alone on this trip. Demi, who is on Easter vacation, stayed with her father.

“It’s always important for me to come and visit. I think there’s a lot to do in this country, but there are a lot of new and exciting opportunities,” she says.

“I always miss home and family. If you live far from your family, a lot depends on you. Back in Italy, I do things on my own. I drive my daughter to school, we do her homework together. I mean, I have help, but it’s different with family. Having great family support also allows you to do things for yourself, maybe traveling for work for four days or something. But having a child also brings a whole new set of rich experiences.

“I come here whenever I can, I always wish I could stay longer. Thank goodness for the Internet! I don’t want to put limits on what I can and can’t do because I’m not physically there. My family is happy that I do this. It’s me who closes the loop.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inquirer.net.

Crossbody style called Demi, named after the designer's daughter.
Crossover style called Demi, named after the designer’s daughter.
The bag
The “everyday war” bag, the Semper, designed to stay beautiful “even when it’s big and full”.
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