The Makings of a
An Interview with Caroline Mangosing,
CEO & Creative Director of Vinta Gallery
in Toronto, Canada
by Janice Lobo Sapigao
Hanging out for half a day with fashion designer and owner of the Filipiniana-inspired clothing company VINTA Toronto, Caroline Mangosing, to say the most, is to be hanging out with the Mayor of Filipino Toronto.
“You wanna get Filipino food?” Mangosing asked me when we met up at a coffee shop called Le Gourmand in Chinatown—a part of Toronto I had yet to visit during my too-short weekend in “The Six” (don’t call it this, haha). She said that her friends—whom I also got to meet that day—had started their own weekend Filipino breakfast place called BB’s Diner, and that she hadn’t yet been there. Hungry, hungover (I won’t say who), and excited for this entry point to connect with the Filipino community in some way, I of course said yes. That day, I had met other Toronto-based tattoo and visual artists, graphic designers, workers, her homegirls, her former students and youth, and even her family. This it’s-a-small-world effect occurred naturally and unplanned, and this magic is how I would also describe Mangosing’s journey to fill a needed void for Filipinos, and Filipinos in Canada.
Not Your Doña
“I’m pretty irreverent, “ Caroline said to me as we walked down Spadina Avenue in Downtown Toronto’s Chinatown neighborhood north towards the Kensington Market area, which was the first site of the non-profit organization, the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture, which she helped found and used to run as the Executive Director at 34 years old. The Kensington Market community is home and history to a multicultural world of stores, vendors, restaurants, and art that once housed a professional arts organization which specifically served the growing Filipino community in Toronto, Canada. Though the space is at a different location now, it is still youth-led. The visuals of the neighborhood’s diversity spilled out onto the street as I listened to her, “People get intense about things, but I have this entitlement or arrogance people all over the Philippines call people from Manila—Manileño—as though we act like ‘we are everything.’” Mangosing said further that her relationship to Filipino culture is irreverent, and she doesn’t carry the assumed humility or “salt of the earth” notions akin to common narratives around Filipino culture.
Her straightforward, exacting speech was a spear thrown to pierce an opening in the heart of Filipino values of shame (hiya) that so calls for social propriety. Standing at five-foot-something, with black-to-blonde ombré colored hair, dangling round mahogany wooden earrings, and matted red lip color perfect in the summertime heat, I was convinced within five minutes after meeting this woman, that her irreverence is a much-needed change of pace towards modernizing Filipino-inspired clothing by going against the traditional etiquette that dictates one’s every move. Her work actively moves away from Filipino formalities toward a creative, sartorial independence, almost as if to say: Fuck You, I’m Taking This—this fashion, this beauty, this history—and I’m Making it Mine.
Stopped alongside tourists and locals huddling at the busy intersections on Dundas Street towards College Street, I learned that Mangosing’s Dad is Ilonggo and Ilokano; her mom is mestiza with Chinese roots, or in her words, “pure Manila” referencing the three or four generations of her family who’ve lived there, likely since one of Manila’s early population booms towards the end of the 19th century when Chinese sailors and traders asserted the importance of their offers and services. At the time, Chinese Filipinos made up 10% of Manila’s inhabitants. In a voice with rasp mixed with softness, Mangosing declared to me what can easily be mistaken, misquoted, and misunderstood due to its blunt brevity: that she just doesn’t identify as Asian. “We are so many tribes of indigenous people all over the islands,” she said as we walked onto the crosswalk, and she gave me a brief history of Filipinos in Canada, her family history and its revolutionary origins, and her own immigration story from the Philippines to the United States to Canada.
“The Chinese assimilated into the Philippines, and even our Chinese is different.” The patriarch of her family is Lim Kung Yap (also spelled Lim Cong Jap), and this created the Spanishized surname Limjap, which meant that generations of Manileños in her family fully labeled themselves Chinese mestizos who not just immigrated to the Philippines, but integrated during the Philippines’ Spanish Colonial Period. Lim Kung Yap, “who upon his baptism became Joaquin Barrera Limjap, was the founder of the Limjap family.” His son, “Mariano Nolasco Limjap was a prominent businessman, a patriot, who financed the activities of the revolutionary Katipunan, served as a member of the Revolutionary Congress and was among the signatories of the revolutionary money issued during the Filipino-American War.”
Not Your Haciendera
Generations later, you have Caroline Mangosing, who will have also come from a family tree of ocean, and entrepreneurs, risk-takers, and immigrants. Who will have created something out of nothing but need.
I can’t tell this story without Canada, without the Philippines, without migration. In her own immigration story, she moved from Manila to Los Angeles with her family when she was ten years old, and from there, they moved to Vancouver when she was sixteen for her father’s career and work visa in technology. When her father was laid off, they applied to live in Australia and Canada, and when their visa application was approved in Canada, they drove from L.A. north up to Vancouver along the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington to Vancouver, Canada and became landed residents (permanent residents). They became permanent residents in 1989 where Canada’s 1976 Immigration Act was still in effect. This particular law made immigration a part of manpower policy, and it favored educated and technically trained immigrants like her father.
When asked about how this cultural mixing was present in her work, she stated sharply that the “Philippines is only an identity that comes out of [Spanish] colonization.” Mangosing pointed out that the Philippines was comprised of different regions and tribes.
What does this have to do with the clothes she designs? She said, “Whatever makes you reach back [to the Philippines] and makes you feel fulfilled, it doesn’t matter where the clothes are from.” In fact, Mangosing’s awareness here is anything but “whatever” because it is two-fold: 1) as a businesswoman, she knows that her Ifugao clothing sells out the most because it’s identifiably Filipino by its stripes and colors, and 2) she almost got her Master’s degree to work with Professor and Geographer Philip Kelly at York University whose research interests include Immigration, Labour, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Diverse Economies. I don’t know if I asked first, or if she went ahead and made this claim, but either way, it was an important statement: “He never made me feel like, ‘Ugh, you’re such a white guy!” She answered a question the way I would have, and continued the honesty, “It’s like, if you say one word that’s wrong, you’re written off!” This sense of irreverence arises, not as disrespect, but as self-esteem and confidence in her own work.
The 25-minute walk to BB’s Diner affirmed for me her love and struggle for the Filipino community. She started volunteering at the old Kapisanan in 2005, took over and restructured it into an arts and culture org focusing on youth in 2007, around the time that she served as the Executive Director of Kapisanan, there were over 140,000 Filipinos in Toronto, and it is currently one of the fastest growing populations. At the time she worked at Kapisanan, she was living apart from her partner, Romeo Candido, who is a writer, director, and composer who was in Manila earning directing gigs and supporting her by sending her money to start what became Kapisanan. She even produced and appeared in one of her husband’s films, Ang Pamana: The Inheritance, which is available on YouTube.
“The film was 80% in English because the main character had to claim an inheritance, and he learned that his lola had a deal with the aswang and all of the creatures. I played the lola.” Mangosing relayed that their film was too scary for most local Filipinos, and that people were screaming like they were being murdered as they watched. Theirs was trying to ride the wave of “the revenge ghost and Japanese horror vibes.” I might have asked something about working with her husband, along with learning that Toronto and Vancouver were like the Hollywoods of Canada, what with writing rooms and the popularity of the show Kim’s Convenience playing at the time (which, of course, I had visited while I was in town). “He’s always supported my acting,” Mangosing shared about her husband. “More so, we really embarked on our partnership as a working one. I produced all of his earlier independent film/television projects—writing all the arts council grants, and making the productions happen.”
These endeavors and projects are the genesis of Vinta Gallery, which is named after the traditional boat from the Philippine Island of Mindanao. It is a boat that has become modernized and more colorful, and Vinta is Mangosing’s colorful mimicry of the boat, and a recognition of the boat being a main vessel for trade between island peoples. Vinta reflects fashion that is a harmony and mix of the different cultures in the Philippines.
In an interview with the co-founder of Hella Pinay and fellow fashion designer of Haliya, Stephanie Gancayco—with whom they share ancestors who were friends and were part of the intelligentsia that supported the revolt against Spain, and the person who encouraged me to reach out to Mangosing when I planned my Toronto trip—Gancayco wrote about Mangosing, “After years of feeling isolated in mostly white spaces, she longed to connect and make art with her fellow Pinxys.”
“I’m not trying to be pure about it. I’ve had some push back, but very little. One immigrant [Filipino] guy, somewhere between young and being an uncle, projected himself as an expert on hand-loomed malongs, and told me the malongs I bought were not hand-loomed. This was when I first started.” I leaned in closer to make sure I was hearing this story correctly. Like Mangosing, I am allergic to this kind of mansplaining that seems doubly offensive knowing that your own community can criticize without necessarily helping. She continued this story, which was from when she first started out, “The lady from Mindanao who sold it to me [at the market] told me it was. And what am I gonna do? Am I at the point in my life where I’m gonna fuckin’ take her to task?!” I thought about how complicated this small business life was as she carried on, “There’s only so much I can do. Was I gonna go to Mindanao myself? Right now, we’re at an entry-level position!”
Mangosing’s humor mirrored the tragicomedy I often associate with Filipino jest. “Can they even afford to pay to certify their work? Am I gonna go and be like, ‘Really, manang?! Is it really hand-loomed?! Show me your certificate!”
We laughed the last few steps of our walk onto Lippincott Street, past the restaurant that, by that time, I thought we were going to—called Aunties & Uncles. As we were seated, I asked if that was the Filipino silog spot we were going to.
“It sounds Filipino, huh? It’s not, though. I think it’s white-owned.” (It is, I checked. What up, Russ Nicolls.) “These guys [BB’s Diner] just opened. They all work in reputable fine-dining restaurants downtown,” she said, as she pointed to a shaded area of the patio where a group of Filipino folks were a mixture of standing and seated, soaking up the summer sun or chillin the shade, some half-full plates in the table, most with drinks in their hands.. Mangosing giggled as she recalled, “These guys joked about calling this Titas & Titos.”
Once we arrived at the restaurant—a pink house renovated into an indoor and outdoor dining space, sharing the outdoor plane with the neighboring brunch place, Mangosing proceeded to hug and introduce me to practically everyone in the place. We ate on light pink picnic tables. This solidified to me that she was, indeed, the Mayor, if a mayor was truly of the people, and familiar with each face, name, and their work.
When we were offered to consider the day’s special, queso de bola, I lamented my body’s dislike for cheese, to which Mangosing replied, “Cheese hurts all of us. Many of us.” And she further roused, “We don’t have black and white cows [in the Philippines].”
The menu had all of the Pinoy breakfast hits, like bangus, longanisa, fried chicken, and many other marinated proteins that I thought were distinctly Filipino American, but I was wrong. These were distinctly Filipino. I had had these dishes at my mother’s house in San José, CA, and at Café Colma (inside Lucky Chances Casino) near San Francisco, or at the San Francisco Bay Area’s slew of Toppings restaurants. The moment of ordering our food brought me back to this reality: that in another country, in another hyphenated Filipino context, this food is the fabric that connects us.
Not Your Matrona
While we waited for our food, I asked Mangosing about the places she’d lived. She shared that she went to fashion school on the West Coast [in Vancouver] first, and that she dropped out of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, formerly Kwantlen College in the very last semester, and didn’t graduate; she cited pattern drafting as the most stressful deterrent in school. She then graduated from Emily Carr University of Art & Design with a fine art degree in Photography. This exit led to a larger exit strategy.
“I left home at 17.” Mangosing said, “I planned my escape.”
Mangosing’s past included the composition of most women who have lived full lives of obstacles before they leave home. What she shared with me is the story of, unfortunately, a lot of young women who have complicated relationships with their families, particularly, their fathers. Mangosing shared details about her father who was an abusive man, whose actions pushed her to leave home.
“My dad is a frustrated artist. He wasn’t allowed to take Fine Art, so he became anti-art.” Mangosing and her two sisters are artists—both sisters are graphic designers. Though Mangosing doesn’t identify as an artist, I am convinced that the making and careful thought process she adheres to is an art form. “My dad told me to go to some sort of school even though I paid for it.”
“Does he see how you are now?” I asked, just moments before our food arrived at our table. Her corned beef silog. My longanisa silog. And another push from the waiter to try the queso de bola, prompting another joke from us admonishing cheese.
Mangosing reflected on her relationship with her father’s difficulty to validate her, and how they fight the same fight when they see each other. She stated that she always challenged him, and that he was a misogynist, typical baby boomer, Pinoy alpha male who thought he was better than her. I noticed a shift in her tone—the voice of a woman who is strong against a tense relationship and reality that’s gone on for too long. A drip of exhaustion, plus a willingness to address bullshit. When I asked about how their relationship is now, she replied that their relationship is strained, but they get along, though things still feel competitive with him. “Compete with your daughter. Ano ba?”
Mangosing’s dad is also an entrepreneur and a retired corporate executive. She shared with me his latest endeavor, and how he still calls on her for help with this new business. At that same moment, the queso de bola delivered was to our table on the house.
A Family of Artists
Mangosing’s mother had a clothing line in the Philippines called Skeeepeee; she liked to name things after American influences. She said that the sewers for the brand were on the family compound in Manila, and that there was once a plan for Mangosing to finish fashion school and eventually continue the family business. “I was 19 and not ready for that.”
Despite the signs and foreshadowing, and still on a path of becoming on her own terms, she made her own designs at a young age. “For my high school graduation, I made a fashion collection by myself. The clothes looked good, but were not well made. I rushed everything, and I didn’t finish the hems.” Floored by the signs that everything she had in her life now was indeed poetic, or dare I say, it is written—that her mother’s and father’s plans for her, in a way, came true.
“Wow,” I mustered. “Would your high school self be so in love with who you are now?”
“I think so!” Mangosing exclaimed as she lifted her fork to started eating, “I can’t even fathom, or don’t even know. What brought me to Vinta was a crazy journey.”
Fashion has informed everything she’s done: internships with fashion photographers in New York City in the States, having lived with models there, and then ended up hating the industry and people she’d met. “People in the fashion industry are so vapid, and I didn’t like their values.”
At this point in the interview, we had barely started eating. Here’s a micro review of the food at BB’s Diner: it’s hella good. We were finding a home in the conversation. To give her a break to eat a little bit, I proceeded to tell her about TAYO Literary Magazine and the work we do to build community: through publishing, and through community events with writing and storytelling at the center. From the San Francisco Bay, to the land of Drake (who grew up with Filipinos besties, holla), our Filipinoness and desire to do art and build community—neither being mutually exclusive—were a common ground. I told her about how I was doing that, and that it was the purpose of the trip. I was there to visit my mentor, M. NourbeSe Philip (who was also interviewing someone at the time of our interview—what poetry!).
Mangosing said that her best times in New York were when she was teaching black and white film photography to primarily black youth in Brooklyn (she switched to digital for Vinta). These experiences informed her work with Kapisanan, where she taught Filipino culture to youth, some of whom have grown up and have become artists in their own right—”geniuses,” Mangosing called her former youth. “Now, youth programming is at the forefront of their work, check their website.” It’s true.
One of her former youth, Cathleen Calica, is an entrepreneur, too, and was actually seated next to us at BB’s Diner by happenstance. I had just followed her on Instagram a few weeks before my trip (ayyy, @yunguava)!, because I loved the way she wore Vinta. Mangosing gave her the kind of hug that lingers, the kind you give old friends. She cited another artist whom she once brought to Kapisanan, Carlos Celdran, who leads performative, historical walking tours of Intramuros in Manila. “He doesn’t applaud America in that tour,” she said. “He’s the one who taught me what it means to be irreverent.”
Her youth have also grown up and gone back to the Philippines to run art festivals there. She has also trained a lot of organizers there. “The reach has been great, but if that ever comes back to me, I would be surprised.” It was apparent to me that she has been in the background of a global Filipino arts scene. Another thing was also as clear as day: no one has outwardly validated her work. I don’t think Mangosing needs to hear validation or praise, but it is one to be radically genuine towards women who just know that they would have been afforded credit if they were male. “It’s strange, but this is how sexism, patriarchy, and fake woke-woke feminism happens.”
Mangosing interrupted herself by saying hello to her sister, Christine had just had a baby and who designed the branding and website of Vinta Gallery and Kapisanan, “Oh, my god! Where’s your child? Your boobs are higher than mine!” She happened to show up at BB’s Diner on this Sunday morning, too.
It is too easy and trite, I think, to not give a woman her due—especially Mangosing who ran an intergenerational organization like Kapisanan, organized the annual Kultura Filipino Arts Festival, and was often the person on-call to speak on and for Filipinos in Toronto by local and national media outlets. You know, I have worked with fellow Pinays all my life, and most intensively in college and graduate school, in communities in San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, and here is what I know about women who are damn good at their passions, and still do good work in their communities: they are tired. They were tired of waiting for the community work that led them to burnout, and it doesn’t mean that they loved it any less. It means that, perhaps after years of this, they have every prerogative to explore their community work in various forms. This is what I hear in Mangosing’s stories, especially in the transition period from when she left Kapisanan and took the Vinta Gallery project with her. She mentioned that she felt wasn’t well-liked in her role as the Executive Director, that older generations of Filipinos often criticized her, and that, quite frankly, she just didn’t care about what anyone thought about her. I admired that about her.
“People, especially leftist activists, kept calling me Doña, or Haciendera. I didn’t care if people hated me, because I did the work. Toronto culture has been making waves all over North America—scholarship, culture, art, and I’ve had a hand in that.”
As Creative Director, she has had to do a lot reflection. When people called Kapisanan looking for traditional Filipino clothing to wear, Mangosing heard the need for Filipiniana. Her reflection and design work looks like illustrating, looking through magazines, and she said her approach to fashion is more like that of an engineer. She is technical, and wants Vinta to be practical but stylish. She focuses on fit, its usage, making sure the clothes look good, and that they are versatile pieces that can be integrated into anyone’s wardrobe. She also checks to make sure the clothes are efficient to make for the sewers, and she has had to navigate business systems in Canada and the Philippines. Her main artisan is 67-year-old Estelita Lagman, who also made her wedding dress. With Lagman, who is an official partner of Vinta,Mangosing runs Vinta Gallery as slow, ethical fashion that refreshes with a few key pieces every season. “It’s not marketed that way, but that’s what it is.” She shared that Filipinos don’t really care about ethical fashion, but when they do read that it is one of the missions of VINTA, they appreciate it. Acknowledging that this is a tough truth, Mangosing is slowly building a future of fashion that sustains itself, whether or not people know or care. “I know who made the clothes. Manang [Estelita] even made my wedding dress based off of a flat drawing I sent her. It was a flamenco style dress.
“If I do something, I’m gonna do it the most excellent way—the highest standard way.”
On Fearlessness and Fate
One of us reflected that Mangosing seems to always have been at the right place at the right time.
“I always felt...protected,” Mangosing affirmed.
I asked, “Who do you think is protecting you? Like, a spirit?” I remembered that I was wearing a white tourmaline that’s known for helping the wearer with honesty and speaking one’s truth.
Mangosing disclosed to me that she’d gone to three different healers throughout her life, and two of them indicated she had a powerful, otherworldly spiritual—a dragon spirit. I wondered if this was a form of the Bakunawa which means ‘moon-eater’ or even ‘man-eater;’ it is “also spelled Bakonawa, Baconaua, or Bakonaua, is a dragon in Philippine mythology that is often represented as a gigantic sea serpent. It is believed to be the cause of eclipses.” This subconsciously feminist Philippine folktale seemed fitting of the fire Mangosing has inside her, this unrelenting flame to keep going, to keep it moving. Mangosing kept her life moving even when, in 2010, the year of the tiger (which is her year, too) Mangosing’s house burned down. In the year of the water dragon, her family eventually recovered after the fire; and it was also the year, welcomed her son into the world. Mangosing’s son was born in the year of the dragon. This pattern has helped her realize the peaks and valleys of her life, the ‘right timing’ of it all. This wasn’t an outlandish connection to me; I am lucky to have been told this. I believe most Pinays have babaylan capabilities. I believe those qualities come, having been there most of our lives, but coming into our consciousness when we’re ready, or when it’s necessary.
When asked what’s next for Vinta, she explained that she would like to open a brick-and-mortar shop one day. Or maybe, to debut at New York Fashion Week. But definitely, to collaborate.
As we concluded our conversation, a few more of her friends stopped by our table to say hello. One graphic designer. One there to hang out before their shift at the Spanish restaurant. One tattoo artist who had just been to my hometown, to San Jose, to work with clients—the same one who painted and designed BB’s Diner signage. “Damn,” I said amazed at the Toronto sun at its brightest for the day, its nurturing artistic community, and, of course, at the Filipinos coming through, “y’all just...do this on Sundays?”
Mangosing’s story is made up of many years, experiences, and threads of fashion, arts education, migration, and Filipino culture intersecting. Our conversation reminded me that there is storytelling in, behind, and through fashion. Mangosing’s layered, personal narrative coupled with her creative direction of Vinta Gallery aligns with a larger portrait of cultural artists out of Filipino Toronto who are pushing the forms of music, art, fashion, and education. Her stories reveal an intuition and high caliber of work—her journey, work, and vision are, I believe, a calling.
Janice Lobo Sapigao is a daughter of Filipina/o immigrants. She was named one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s 2017 Women to Watch by KQED Arts. She is the author of two books of poetry: Like a Solid to a Shadow (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2017) and microchips for millions (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2016) and three other chapbooks. She is a VONA/Voices and Kundiman Fellow, and the Associate Editor of TAYO Literary Magazine. She co-founded Sunday Jump open mic in L.A. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing from CalArts, and she has a B.A. in Ethnic Studies with Honors from UC San Diego.