Pauline Suaco-Juan was once the Editor-in-Chief of a most celebrated fashion publication. Now, she influences both designers and entrepreneurs being CITEM’s new Executive Director, armed with her deep-rooted know-hows that spark extraordinary changes in the trade industry, not to mention her burning dedication to inspire a creative global movement.
Words by Kar Abola
Interview by Jonty Cruz
Portraits by Renzo Navarro
Hair and Makeup by Stephanie Estevez
For 15 years, Pauline Suaco-Juan was the Editor-in-Chief of Preview, the fashion magazine that set the pace for designers, brands and businesses in fashion and other creative fields locally. So when her decision to step down in 2016 was announced, it came as a bit of a surprise. What would this mean for the fashion title? How would this change the industry? How would it influence the Filipino creative business?
Elsewhere, The Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM) was looking to appoint a new Executive Director. By this time, Pauline had been retired for over 2 years. After hearing of the opening from Rajo Laurel, she threw her hat in. After all, support for the creative industry comes in many forms, one of which is the government export trade shows organized by CITEM, an effort running for more than 30 years. In her interview, she already questioned the longstanding model of trade shows and pushed for a shift to digital, a challenge she took on. Pauline recounts her experience, laughing, “I always said that I think the reason I got the job was because I was the only one they interviewed who had digital experience. Everyone agreed with this direction, but I said, ‘Be careful what you wish for because it might come true.’ And in this case, if we do it, oh my God, you guys better be prepared because life as you know it will cease.’”
What’s a day in the life like for you in CITEM?
So not like my formal life (laughs). I actually miss being more hands on with the projects. Here, it’s really more guidance, approval and conceptualization. But I’m excited for the opportunity [to try and build a digital platform for CITEM].
I’m curious to know, how has your experience in Preview influenced your vision for CITEM which is more traditional?
I think it’s how we wanna do content marketing. I think you’ll only get that because Owen [Maddela] and Ichi [Apostol-Acosta] are with me and they also come from the magazine industry. If you look at the other trade promotions groups, what they have is basically a website with the information and it’s all done news-style. But in an era when export promotions have to happen online, you aren’t going to the interest if your format is like that: very business, very news.
So it’s making it lifestyle.
Well, that’s one of the ways. Another is to have data available and palatable, and get the community to do user-generated content. There are ways to get a website to become a community platform, where buyers and sellers are able to meet and engage. That is the difference, and that is the experience that we bring when we say we wanna do this. So, when we were looking at the different sites all over the world from physical trade shows to the trade promotions organizations, nobody has done the model that we’re trying to do. So it’s a little difficult to explain because there’s no reference ready.
How has the managing process been like for you as the Executive Director?
When I came in, the first thing I told them is that my management style is more collaborative. I’m hoping it’s working because, as much as 30% of CITEM has been there for 30 years. They’ve learned a lot of things along the way, and those insights are valuable to me. I use those to make decisions. And of course, I value that the project officers, the ones who are on the ground, who execute, who frontline and get the feedback straight to them, have a lot of insight that help you refine how you execute a project. So I really value that all these opinions come together and that we’re able to use all of these so everyone is happy at the end of the day.
The challenge for you is not just converting the model to digital but instilling within your agency what a digital CITEM could be like.
Yes. I guess the challenge in the 3 years that I have left is to be able to make enough of an impact so that it becomes indispensable. It really has to be implemented fast and well so that you see an immediate effect. If not, then, I guess the next person who comes in could just say it’s not working. Kill it. Why would you invest? I really believe that you really have to be online.
For Manila Fame, what are you looking forward to?
It’s quite exciting to work with creatives, the artisans and the community, as well as to discover new talent. Funnily enough, one of the initiatives we did last April, which we hope to continue, was called E-Tailers, so everyone can understand. And traditionally, CITEM is a trade show, meaning it’s really B2B. But if you’ve gone to CITEM over the last few years, the branded fashion exhibitors, like apparel and accessories, have been dwindling, especially after they scrapped ManilaWear, the project of designer Josie Natori. And because the schedule of Manila Fame is not the buying season for fashion, it’s really out of the way. When digital came about, there were other ways to go directly to the companies. So one of the ways we wanted to revive the fashion sector was to get new people, new blood in. We figured to do this through E-tailers. It might not be the traditional B2B model that CITEM is used to as they’re B2C, but they export. Their medium, being online, means their market is the whole world, and that’s really something you have to face because the business models are changing. So we were hoping to incubate those kinds of brands and companies, especially that a lot of the young fashion brands that have potential are online. So if we want to grow them, if we want to grow the potential that is there, we need to see what’s online.
What do you think the government’s role is in creativity?
Oh, there’s a lot. When you talk about the creative economy, for example, the model is really what the UK was able to do, how they were able to empower the creative sector. Tony Blair pointed out that there were significant economic contributions from the creative sector. It earned more than manufacturing. And when you look at the UK traditionally, the industrial revolution started there. So the creative sector earning more than manufacturing? Wow. But I think the first thing is really being able to harness the data. Like in the Philippines, a lot of the creatives work underground because it’s a hassle to get a receipt and to register. But if you think that way, it also means you can’t charge properly for what you do and you cannot export your work because nobody abroad will hire somebody who doesn’t have papers. So there’s a burgeoning trade, for example, in communications design where that happens. But everyone’s underground so, as a sector, you cannot effectively market it.
And actually the Filipino creatives are exportable.
Exactly—in terms of talent. And it’s funny because DTI and the government are always asking, “What is the next export? What can we sell? What is the low hanging fruit?” To sell our performing artists [and our graphic designers, that’s kind of like low hanging fruit]. There is a creative economy roadmap that is currently being drafted… A lot of this is also in creating creative cities or creative clusters like Silicon Valley or Hollywood.
The roadmap will hopefully lead to talent. How do you export it?
This is just my thing. Of course, exporting services is well and good. It’s money. But at the end of the day—and this is where the UK really put emphasis on—it’s in intellectual property. It’s to encourage innovation. That is the currency of the creative economy. And if you think about it, if you’re a creative, you’re lucky to hold all the intellectual property because it’s passive income. That’s what’s supposed to earn income for you, even when you’re not technically working. But there are more Pinoys who render rather than design. That’s what the CCP and us at CITEM are hoping to change, especially with Create Philippines.
What do you look for in a creative?
A strong point of view.
What do you think is the role of individual Filipino creatives in uplifting our culture and identity? Isn’t it the work?
For me, if you’re looking for a unique selling proposition, you look to your roots because that’s what makes you special, and once you’re rooted in it, that’s when you can fly and then go run and play with it. For me, that’s how you use being Pinoy. It doesn’t have to be in a bayanihan sort of way or a terno sort of way, or in the cliche cultural or a stereotype way. It can already be a synthesis, or it could have already taken off. But for your work to have heart and roots, you really can look to your heritage and reimagine.
What are the 3 main reasons trade shows should go digital?
The world is online.
It’s a trade show, for one. You can’t get away from the fact that even before you go to the trade show, the buyers have already googled what they’re gonna buy. So by the time they get to the trade floor, they would have already made up a list. So if you’re there and you don’t have a digital presence, you’re already at a disadvantage. By the time they get to you and you’re carrying products but you’re not on that list, sorry.
All the information is online.
Everything is data-driven is online. now, and all that data is available online so there’s really no excuse for you not to predict what the market prefers with the tools that are available. If you’re selling and it doesn’t fit that pattern, no one is going to buy. Trends, whether it’s for home, fashion, food, energy or whatever sector you’re in—you have all that information at your fingertips.
Budgets, especially in retail, are at a point where it’s really stretched.
Unlike before, buyers could go all over the world and serendipity would be the reason for buying. Now, your budgets are so much smaller and you have to work so much harder. A product has so little room before it hits the sale or discount bin. Then, you have to have the right price point, the right customer service. It’s compounded by other things and not just the product you’re carrying.