Robert Young makes shoes for Betsy Johnson, Miu Miu, Bergdorf Goodman

Robert Young makes shoes for Betsy Johnson, Miu Miu, Bergdorf Goodman
By Walter Ang
July-August 2009 issue
Asian Dragon Magazine

To avoid being shipped off to Mindanao to work for his father's lumber business, Robert Young took a job at a garment trading firm in Manila that imported apparel from Hong Kong.

After being exposed to the ins and outs of the industry, he eventually founded Contex International Manila, a company that exports Philippine made garments and shoes to foreign clients.

"Garments flourished like anything in the 70s and early 80s. In the late 80s, the demand went down and we shifted to footwear," says Young. He initially sold casual shoes for school and office use until hitting on a winner: flip flops with wooden soles. "It was called the kontiki sandal and we sold half a million pairs. It became very hot in Hawaii."

Footwear became the name of the game. The Philippines became known for its stylized bakya, chunky wooden clogs with intricately designed (usually carved) heels. The bakyas for export were not the usual utilitarian clogs that grandmothers wear to the market, but highly designed pieces. Shells and faux crystals are usual embellishments while one of the more elaborate carvings in the sole include a miniature three dimensional bahay kubo.

"People would take a look at the shoes I was exporting and ask 'Who will buy these crazy looking shoes?'" he laughs. "I would always answer, 'Remember, these designs aren't for you.'"

He notes that foreign markets do not perceive our footwear the same way we do. "They value it as being handcrafted. For them, it's one of a kind. There is a sense of personalization involved. Not everyone has these kinds of shoes," he says.

Young has leveraged this insight and now sells to companies such as Betsy Johnson
Miu Miu, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. "The designs are usually from their end and we manufacture using either imported or locally sourced materials. We have the heels and soles carved in Paete and Biñan, Laguna. It's really high quality, skilled work," he says.

Young became involved in the Foreign Buyers Association of the Philippines (at one time becoming president), a group of local buyers that provide export liaison for representative offices of foreign companies here in Manila. The group used to rely heavily on imported raw materials such as leather, shoe laces and shoe lining.

However, due to consistent and constant negative encounters with customs, such as red tape resulting in late release of raw materials, there has been a shift to using indigenous materials. "We now use whatever is available locally, like satin, velvet and abaca for textiles. It's also our way of helping the country," he says.

The third of seven children of Chinese father Ben Young and Bulakeña mother Valeriana Mercado, Young took up economics in San Beda College and, therefore, has a keen sense of the factors involved in the export industry.

Garments are the second largest export of the Philippines next to electronics, which begs the question why the industry receives so little government support. "Not only do we have to deal with customs problems, we also have utility costs that are ridiculous. Our electricity costs are either the highest or second highest in Asia! Not to mention that we have a crazy political climate that creates apprehension on the side of the foreign buyers. The government really should do its homework," he says.

Young's decades worth of work with foreign buyers from America, Europe and Asia has given him a perspective on work ethic and methods that are vastly different from the way things are done here. "The international arena is very apolitical. The professionalism is really at a level that we have not yet reached," he says.

To help the country's ailing garment export scene, Young is now also involved with the Foreign Buyers Association of the Philippines Foundation. "This is an independent entity that deals mostly with generating funding for promotions for the industry. We are currently in discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry to organize a `Filipino Market Week' that is envisioned to showcase the best of Philippine apparel and footwear to American buyers," he says.

For Young, the game plan is simple. "China's already beaten us out of the basic goods market, so let's concentrate on high end products," he says. "We just need the right item with the right pricing. We can definitely carve a big chunk out of a niche market."