Puey Quiñones on surviving  America,  the pandemic  — and going corporate!

After his hiatus in Manila brought about by a personal predicament, Puey Quiñones flew to Dubai. His friend, Michael Cinco, had achieved success in the Middle Eastern kingdom, and Puey thought of exploring it as a possible new base for him. After a few weeks, he realized he could not operate in that cultural setting. He recalled, “I was not keen on the preferences of my prospective clients who preferred colorful outfits. That would not be me.”

An invitation to do a fashion show in Los Angeles came just in the nick of time when he did not know what do next. “It was being produced by this Persian guy whom I had never met. And I said yes to the show because I felt like it was my opportunity to do a comeback in the US. It was a successful event.

“However, in terms of the promise that I get paid. I didn’t get paid by the producer. So, ang nangyari (what happened was) I had to keep extending my stay in the US kasi nga nagaantay ako na mabayaran (because I was waiting to be paid). But along the way, other opportunities cropped up. Katy Perry’s stylist was in that show and I am told he noticed

my work. He invited me to collaborate on one of Katy Perry’s music videos. So, I did one of the costumes and accessories. It was a good opportunity and they paid me for that. I sort of realized I could make it in America. And then, another opportunity came from Tyra Banks. I did one episode for America’s Next Top Model. I did the whole collection of the show.

“I took it as a sign I could make a go of my stay. So, I asked a lawyer, an immigration lawyer, about the possibility of my staying in the US. And she told me that, ‘You know, with your portfolio, I think you could qualify for the Einstein Visa.’ He was referring to the Extraordinary Ability talent visa. So, I tried applying and the US government granted me a green card in six months. That was fast because it was self-petition.


Daily Tribune (DT): It must have been easy. You just had to wait for its release.

Puey Quiñones (PQ): There were a lot of struggles while I was waiting for my documents. Because, you know, if you’re on that stage, you cannot do anything. You cannot work. Technically, it was a no-no. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have rich parents who could support me. And I really didn’t have close friends. I was actually living in my friend’s garage. I offered to clean the house in return for my free stay. I also cleaned other people’s houses. Or I washed dishes. If a friend was transferring to a new home, I volunteered to help. I also did Christmas decorations. And, of course, I cooked when there were parties. And they commissioned me because they knew I was a designer back home. All these, for a fee, of course. I did everything to survive. I’m a survivor. I’m a cockroach. Then, I got my green card.


DT: What was your first legal job?

PQ: My former collaborator in China called me and told me that they were going to open a bridal store in LA. And they needed help. They needed someone to manage it. But the problem was they were based in Irvine while I lived in LA, which is quite far. And I didn’t have a car. I said yes, anyway. So, I would take the bus. It took two or three hours to reach Irvine. Finally, I told them that Irvine was not safe if you’re opening a bridal store.  Besides, to reach our target market, I told them we should go to Downtown LA. And they listened.


DT: How did you start in LA?

PQ: I said, “Let’s take a risk and open a small atelier in Downtown LA. I’ll do everything. I’ll manage it and I will clean it, too. Just trust me.” So, naniwala naman sila (They believed me).


DT: Was it easy to achieve success?

PQ: From zero client a month, we aimed for 40 clients a month. Until we reached 400 appointments a month. We went on to a bigger space. It’s called Cocomelody. It is an international brand. I was the creative designer for the brand.


DT: How about your living arrangements? Did you live in the showroom?

PQ: They gave me an apartment. I said, ‘I’ll work for you 102 percent. But this is what I want. I want my own apartment.” It was just one block away from Downtown LA.


DT: How was your personal life in America? You must have been lonely.

PQ: I had a partner in America. He is my life partner and he has been very supportive. He is 55 years old. He is a museum curator.


DT: So, when did you return to the Philippines?

PQ: I left the company when it was acquired by Alibaba. Because it was not the same anymore. I became their biggest expense because I had the biggest take home pay. By then, too, I felt I was ready to go. So, I resigned. And I came back to Manila in 2019. I launched my Cocomelody, the bridal brand, here. When I left, they gave me shares. But I had to close it during the pandemic.


DT: How did you survive during the pandemic?

PQ: I went back to my love for cooking. I sold packed lunches. I got a lot of orders. But I really disliked the heat in the kitchen. And then, I saw on television that nurses, frontliners and doctors were using trash bags as their PPEs. So, there was a group of designers and they were trying to come up with a pattern of the PPE and deciding on what materials to use. So, I did my own prototype. And then, we started sewing them so four of my staff who were stranded with me would have something to do. I started making PPEs. And I started donating to different hospitals. And when people found out that I was doing that, people would send me fabrics so I could make more. And then, they would sometimes send me money so I can pay the seamstresses. So, we were able to survive because of that. And you know, we were able to help probably 20 or more hospitals. I would go deliver myself those PPEs.


DT: What happened as you were recovering from the pandemic?

PQ: The pandemic changed our business dynamic. We did not close down but instead, we started growing. A good friend of mine needed one who will manufacture their clothing brand because the factory in China that used to do it had closed down. She suggested that I try being a contractor So, I started with five sewing machines. Now we have 70. And we are expanding and getting bigger. Now I have a factory.

DT: So, now that you’re manufacturing clothes, what happens to your couture business?

PQ: I want to focus on the real business of fashion which is making money. But my couture remains to be my passion project. Now, I want to choose the client that I want to work with. Clients I am comfortable working with. Then I have my RTW division. We sell our RTW pieces in Katutubo, the popup market organized by Mons Romulo and Ben Chan. We sell handpainted barongs.

And of course, I have just opened Quiñones Bridal or Q Bridal.


DT: How are you able to do all these?

PQ: My husband and I have a general manager who used to work for the brand I worked for. So, now she works for me. The design is mine. Actually, I have a design team. I’m the creative director and I have designers for my different departments. I have them for my couture, my ready to wear and my manufacturing and uniform company. So, I have a designer who does technical design as well. Then, I have a foot team. I have a general manager who oversees the production amd operation and we have a lawyer that handles the accounting. My goal for my Philippine brand is to professionalize it.


DT: What do you mean by ‘professionalizing it’?

PQ: Just like how it was when I was the creative director for Cocomelody. I had designers under me. And I just gave them the direction for our collection every season. Now, I have a designer that handles the market, for example. US market is a completely different market from the Europe and Asia market. The American market may like a certain silhouette that doesn’t apply in Asia. That’s what I learned from working for a corporate entity. Because we have a database that we follow.

I know what sells and doesn’t sell. I know exactly what color will do well. For example, the difference between LA and New York. Those are completely different markets. In terms of the discipline of the buyers, Los Angeles buyers are more laid back compared to New York. A New Yorker buyer will go inside the atelier or showroom and pick in 30 minutes, she’s done.