Written by Senior Reporter Joseph L. Garcia.
IN HANGGANG SAAN, Hanggang Kailan, famous actress Dina Bonnevie played a villainous tobacco plantation heiress in Ilocos who throws out her half-sisters Esther and Jocelyn (played by Alice Dixson and Vina Morales) from the estate. In real life, Ms. Bonnevie (Geraldyn Bonnevie-Savellano since 2012) has been parlaying her efforts into helping build a lively weaving tradition in Ilocos Sur.
During the recent Likhang Habi Fair at Glorietta, we had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Bonnevie at her booth showcasing her indigenous textiles brand, La Bonne Vie (which means “the good life” in French, similar to the actress’ last name). The brand originated from her third husband, Deogracias Victor Savellano, who was previously the governor and vice-governor of Ilocos Sur and is now an undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture. In an interview with BusinessWorld on October 15th, she shared that she did not intentionally venture into indigenous textiles and it came as a surprise to her.
The brand was established in 2013. Prior to that, Mr. Savellano embarked on a project to locate and unite all the skilled artisans in Ilocos Sur. He also provided funding for their weaving endeavors. According to one source, he searched for the most talented weavers in the region, provided them with looms, and supplied them with thread to support their weaving activities. The province of Ilocos Sur is renowned for its weaving customs, which produce a fabric known as abel iloko.
After getting married, she took over the management of the project. She had some prior experience as her father, Honesto Bonnevie, was involved in abaca trading and products bearing her name. She proudly claimed, “I made it popular,” referring to her father’s products. She remembered her husband’s suggestion, “Lend your name to inabel weaving so it would gain fame.”
Not simply a merchant.
“When I first started selling inabel, I joined the American Women’s Club [bazaar] as a vendor,” Ms. Bonnevie shared. “Some of my classmates from Ateneo teased me, saying ‘You’ve become just a shopkeeper!’. In response, I jokingly said, ‘Hey, what I’m selling is mine. I’m not just a shopkeeper, this is my advocacy. I’m a humanitarian, what’s wrong with you?’. They even made fun of me for marrying a politician and becoming just a ‘tindera’ (shopkeeper). It was all in good humor.”
During these market events, she encountered customers from SM’s Kultura, Rustan’s, and Tesoro’s, who are now making large orders from her. In order to facilitate the transactions between these companies and the weavers, Ms. Bonnevie established La Bonne Vie as an official brand, with herself as the representative for the weavers.
“They are not our staff members in the first place. It is impossible for us to hire any weavers,” she remarked. “I made them a salary offer, but no one accepted because they are landowners.” She explained that weavers take a break from their work during harvest season to tend to their farms. Instead, she provides them with free thread and allows them to set their own prices for their textiles. When asked about the impact of this arrangement on the weavers’ lives, she replied, “It has made a significant difference.”
She mentioned visiting farms and observing the dirt floors in several homes. Once the weavers began collaborating with her (not working for her, as she specifies), she noticed progress. Some families have even purchased multiple tricycles, cars, and delivery trucks to transport their goods. Some have even expanded beyond La Bonne Vie, establishing their own brands, but still willing to assist Ms. Bonnevie with her orders.
When asked about how she feels about some of her beneficiaries no longer needing her assistance, she responded, “My intention was never for them to become my slaves or employees. I aim to empower them and help them become entrepreneurs in the future. Our common goal is for abel iloko to gain recognition,” she stated in both English and Filipino. For example, she visited the home of one of her blanket weavers and observed that the manang (a term of endearment in Ilocano for an older sister) was able to build a bigger storeroom than her own with the earnings she made. “There were shelves upon shelves of blankets,” Ms. Bonnevie shared with pride.
“I am enthusiastic about supporting and empowering artisans. I have great admiration for the skilled craftsmanship of the Ilocano people and their art. The patterns they create are not simply copied from a template or blueprint, but rather originate from their own minds,” she stated.
La Bonne Vie’s products have expanded to Australia and China, but the actress and entrepreneur has noticed that Chinese factories are producing inferior versions. She also acknowledges that the shift in Filipino consumer attitudes has greatly benefitted businesses like hers. “Being proud of local products is already a huge step. There was a time when people were overly influenced by Western culture,” she stated. “But now, Filipino people have changed. They are more conscious of buying local and supporting their fellow Filipinos. By working together, we can promote Asian products and showcase our pride.”
She believes that the widespread use of inabel will lead to greater success for her. She states, “True success is not limited to wealthy individuals in Manila purchasing your textiles. Even those with average means should be able to buy it, as it is a valuable treasure that people should take pride in.”
Weaving does not always involve ideal situations.
Ms. Bonnevie started her business in 2013 with a small group of 10 to 12 weavers, all of whom were elderly women. This highlighted the potential decline of the craft as her weavers aged. Over time, she was able to attract younger individuals to learn weaving, but the pandemic greatly affected their interest. Sadly, some of the older weavers passed away due to COVID-19, while others left to pursue careers in caregiving and business process outsourcing. Ms. Bonnevie lamented that weaving is no longer seen as a profitable profession, and expressed concern for its fragile state. She hopes that the government will implement nationwide initiatives to encourage younger generations to take up weaving.
“It is a form of expression, a means of communication, and a representation of our heritage. The designs hold tales and possess a voice!”
She showcased the creations in her collection, including kibin-kibin, a fabric with a raised pattern depicting two people holding hands, symbolizing a marriage proposal. She described the fabric as a reminder of growing old together through all of life’s ups and downs. Another design was called tokak, inspired by the image of a frog emerging from it, and there was also one featuring a fisherman.
In a different situation, she discussed experimenting with various thread ratios in order to enhance the quality of the product. Ultimately, she decided on a blend of 70% polyester and 30% cotton, with the main fabric being polyester and the raised designs being cotton. This ensured that even after washing or drying, the shape and color of the product would remain unchanged. This decision was made in response to customers returning items that had become misshapen or discolored.
What is the purpose of fame?
This raises the question: are the people there to support her, or because they are interested in the weaves and the weavers? “The younger ones? They don’t know me.” She shares an experience where a younger shopper had to be reminded by their mother: “Don’t you know who she is? That’s Dina Bonnevie! I was her fan when I was younger!”
“She mentioned that the child was born in either 2002 or 1996. What knowledge would she have at that age?”
On that particular day, there were numerous younger customers who were unfamiliar with Dina Bonnevie. They would often ask, “Who is Dina Bonnevie?” before an older relative, typically a woman, would identify her. Despite not being recognized by the younger customers, she considers it a success when they purchase her fabrics.
She is aware that she holds some influence. “One of my strengths is that when I enter a business, it’s already popular before I even promote it,” she stated. “Without any marketing efforts, there is already recognition.” She cites instances of people sharing about encountering her on their social media platforms. “Other people come to me.”
The negative aspect is that one error can become widely known. It is crucial to have complete confidence in the quality and to practice what you preach.
How does it feel to work in a business that is far removed from the entertainment industry? (Although she continues to act, her most recent projects include the ongoing TV series Abot-kamay na Pangarap). It seems that fellow actress Carmina Villaroel had inquired about the same topic. “Well, if it’s a gift from God – something I didn’t ask for but was given to me – it just fell into my lap. It came to me. And when it’s a gift from God, it comes with a sense of responsibility. You have a purpose.”
However, for practical purposes, she brings her computer to the set to respond to emails, handle client calls, and evaluate their inventory during breaks. She explains how her past acting experiences now benefit her in her textile business. “The entertainment industry is all about bringing a character to life. Giving it personality. It’s the same with textiles. How do you infuse it with character, vitality? Wear it.”
She currently has many responsibilities on her plate: being a wife, mother, grandmother (to the children she shares with Vic Sotto), and stepmother (to her husband’s children). In addition, she also has public roles as an actress, celebrity, entrepreneur, and political spouse. She attributes her ability to handle all of these roles to her passion.
One must be passionate about everything. When working, do so with passion. It is disheartening to see T-shirts with negative messages like “It’s going to be a bad day” and “I hate Mondays.”
She highlights the brand’s T-shirts. “All of the T-shirts I sell here? The ones with a patch? I personally created those,” she proudly stated.
One must have a strong enthusiasm for their job and truly enjoy what they do. If you are passionate about your work, you will invest your whole self into it. Having a passion for everything leads to successful outcomes.
Ms. Bonnevie is not merely acting; she is committed to inabel for the long term.