Can you price creativity?
What is value? In collaboration with PURVEYR.
Radyo Pililia giving his round of eclectic selections after my satellite broadcast from OTO last week, shot by yours truly.
These days, a recurrent topic of conversation I have with many of my friends is how we are all in some sort of career crossroad: Friends looking for jobs, others falling out of them. This period is forcing a relentless self-evaluation, among many of us, on the value we provide as members of the economy.
What this value entails today is very peculiar. Traditionally, manufacturing industries pegged the value of something to the cost of a product or service – like the parts required for the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars nearly two weeks ago. At some point, the accounting department of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA research centre managed by CalTech and the manufacturer of Perseverance, priced all the materials — new, old, and in development — required for the rover based on availability, scarcity, and complexity. The manufacturing industries can calculate the value of the things they create thanks to institutions like the California Institute of Technology, which have crafted rigid models and systems dedicated to the research and creation of tangible things. Being quantifiable and thus measurable, it is easier to conceptualise value based on things you can see and hold than those you cannot.
In the creative industries, where I work, value is incredibly difficult to pinpoint. Recently, a friend asked for advice on how to cost for projects as a freelancer in the creative industries. Sure, there are expenditures that are easily calculable, like the cost of software or transportation from one place to another. But there is a big elephant in the room: How do you put value on “intangibles” — things made out of nothing, which somehow comprises “creativity”? Most importantly, as my own boss, how do I ascribe that value onto myself? An old trope among creatives is that there is a tendency to undervalue ourselves. For example, I don’t have a formula for how motivated I will be to write a newsletter on a Monday or how well I will learn kinetic typography in a week. Yet, factors like motivation and learning capabilities are essential to creativity – an elusive, powerful and valuable thing.
Below is a teaser to a report I wrote for PURVEYR which touches on this topic. The report traces the history and evolution of t-shirts in the Philippines as it finds new value in the creative industries — a value less determined by the cost of tangible things. In fact, my biggest takeaway from producing this report is this exciting marriage between the world of objects and ideas — an observation we can see in how t-shirts are created today.
T-Shirts Represent an Interesting Shift in Today’s Filipino Creative Industries. Here’s How.
Words by Sai Villafuerte, in collaboration with PURVEYR. Images by Marvin Conanan.
In collaboration with Cultural Learnings, PURVEYR’s inaugural Insight Paper is an in-depth overview of the development, production, distribution, and marketing of t-shirts in the Filipino creative industries. The report includes insights from a nationwide consumer survey, as well as interviews with key players in the industry. The report also provides recommendations for brands and independent producers to identify new sources of value, helping overcome challenges relating to the creation and sale of t-shirts. For more information, click here. This article is also available on PURVEYR.
The Filipino garment industry, of which t-shirts are a central part, was once valued at $3 billion. However, it has been in decline since the early 2000s – from $2.3 billion to $1.2 billion worth of exports between 2005 and 2016.
This decline is largely attributed to a move made in 1995 when quotas and tariffs on garment exports were removed, phasing it out completely by 2005. Following colonial independence, many developing countries relied on quotas and tariffs for additional revenue to grow their industries.
Many viewed this removal as an opportunity for innovation, levelling out price competition globally. In the Philippines, it downsized or outright closed many of its garment manufacturers. The country lacks ample sources of domestic fabric and the removal of these incentives meant imports for raw materials were costlier. For example, during the height of its production in the 1990s, the country had 38,000 hectares of cotton crops. Today, just 1,000 hectares exist nationwide. The Philippines currently imports all the cotton required for local textile production, being cheaper than locally produced cotton.
With fluctuations in supply undermining Filipino garment production, local t-shirt brands and producers are turning to the creative industries for new sources of value.
A new source of livelihood
Years into his solo practice, Auggie Fontanilla realized a milestone in his career as a visual artist – one with a knack for Americana insignias and emblems with Filipino motifs of religion. This visual identity helped diversify his sources of income – one of which is provided by t-shirts.
He compares t-shirts to food – “a staple commodity.” It also functions as a walking advertisement which, as an artist, is really helpful for me.”
Freelancing in the Philippines is especially apparent in its creative industries where an autonomous workforce is supported by an expansive network of relationships, providing access to opportunities, resources and capital. Likewise, the Filipino creative industries are among the top ten exporters for creative goods in the developing world, valued at $1 billion in 2015. Its growth signifies a pivotal period where knowledge and expertise, not only products, help people earn a living.
“T-shirts are a medium for your message. For creatives who want to tell a story, a t-shirt is a very easy and accessible medium to use,” said Jowee Alviar in an interview. Team Manila is a Filipino design studio, often associated with the local graphic t-shirt boom in the early 2000s. Recently, they partnered with two other groups on a sewing facility to develop and cut their own t-shirt blanks – a testament to their rapid growth over the years. As its creative director, Alviar places substantial value on knowledge and expertise – the combination of which is creativity.
“Price perception is normally matched with the value attached to your brand position,” he remarked. “There is a sweet spot your market is willing to pay for. You can increase your mark up by bringing in good ideas.”
An economy at a crossroads
Currently, there are efforts by the Creative Economy Council of the Philippines and the British Council to map out the Filipino creative industries. This signals a major shift in what we consider to be part of the economy and, thus, a source of growth.
With the pandemic disrupting 70% of garment exports from the Asia-Pacific – a region comprising 75% of garment workers worldwide – t-shirts are at the crux of a divisive debate on the sustainability of the environment and people’s livelihoods. The Filipino creative industries have the potential to add new forms of value by feeding new knowledge and practices into infrastructures requiring solutions to modern problems.
“I view it positively,” said Vince Javier, creative director and co-founder of Don’t Blame The Kids (DBTK) – a streetwear brand with a strong cult following since its inception in 2012. “For DBTK, we appreciate the opportunity to inspire other people to create their own brands.” Javier also believes the proliferation of creative brands is developing a market that is more geared towards quality rather than quantity. “The industry is expanding because of this … People are starting to better understand the processes behind a product and the values attached to that.”
Being the fashion industry’s most democratic garment, t-shirts act as an effective “medium for a message,” a description first dubbed by The New York Times in 1973. In doing so, how t-shirts are made raise interesting questions on its role beyond a consumer product.
After all, t-shirts always embodied a modern vision: apparel that held the body without safety pins, needles, threads, or buttons. It is a cultural object – one that, since its invention, was always subject to reinvention.
You can purchase a copy of the Insight Paper here.
Tickle your fancy
It has been exciting to witness PURVEYR’s growth since I stumbled upon a copy of their print in magCulture, an independent magazine shop in London. It is also crazy to think that I have gone full circle, now living in Manila and working with someone I got to know through a magazine. Thank you, Marvin and Sara, for considering me to do this work and for keeping the creativity alive even during the hardest of times.
Below are some articles from other creative publications I frequently subscribe to.
This profile of Grayson Perry for It’s Nice That ruminates on what it means to be an artist.
I see a lot of myself in this interview with Mary H.K. Choi on “sustaining a creative metabolism.”
Alec Dudson, editor-in-chief of intern, drops some real talk in this piece about having enough “experience” for paid work.
Here is some practical advice on how to build a career from different income streams from 99U, Adobe’s creative resource.
Cultural Learnings is an editorial platform curated by Sai Villafuerte. You can support it by subscribing to this newsletter, sharing it with your friends, emailing your thoughts, or answering this survey.
Cultural Learnings is on Manila Community Radio every Wednesday, 5-6 PM GMT+8.