April 18, 2023 – Redge
Trans designer Bonita Penaranda on fashion philosophy, painful lessons, and the need to be around the right people like her model-confidant, Taiwanese model, Jesych Yang.
Courage takes on many forms.
For some, it involves leaving the security of a regular job. For others, it is letting go of comforts drawn from a friend who has already “made it.” And still for a very very few people, it is deciding to honor the gender they feel they are, in lieu of the one they are assigned at birth.
For up-and-coming fashion designer Bonita Penaranda, courage is all three.
“I started as a stylist for a major TV network,” Bonita begins, “As someone from Rizal with no prior experience, I was being paid 1,000 php (about 20 usd) a day for 24/7 work. My next job was at a rival network— paid 3,000 php a day and still with no artistic freedom.”
Persevering, Bonita’s work managed to attract eyes including her first styling muse, Sue Ramirez, as well as the trust of celebrities like MJ Lastimosa. “I also met with someone who had very much broken into the industry already,” she shares, “and for the longest time I was this person’s confidant. Sad to say, I fell for the trap of thinking that her success was also my success.” Renouncing this vice, Bonita quickly tried building a career and name for herself, only to be overshadowed by a global phenomenon— a pandemic. “The entertainment industry was one of the hardest hit, and I thought ‘what had I done?’ I left a safe career path and a generous friend and now there were no jobs.”
Little did Bonita know, her belt-tightening measures through the pandemic would squeeze something out of her…
Waist Tightening…by Design
“My pandemic baby was inspired by Queen Elizabeth,” Bonita beams at the memory, “and my first tagline was ‘to make the corset everyday wear.’” Resolving to not let the pandemic starve her, Bonita borrowed from the past and designed something stylish that empowered women— most of whom were stuck in the house.
“The corset is the ultimate in women’s wear. When someone has their waist cinched, one can’t help but stand up. Combined with the right heels— you have a more confident posture that says a lot before anyone even hears you.”
While Bonita’s corset is a past project, her philosophy of empowerment informs her designs to this day. “It is all about the feel, but if you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you attract more.” She shares.
To accomplish this, Bonita tweaks all the principles of design she first learned at Slim’s Fashion and Art School in Makati, which counts famed couturiers Michael Cinco, Ezra Santos, and Joey Samson as its alumni.
“Color is always first,” Bonita explains, “it sets the mood. Then the quality of material and stitching— you want everything to act the way it should.” Indeed, Bonita is a fan for scuba crepe, spandex, latex, and bejeweled fabrics. “Silhouette is number three. The garment should make a statement, with or against the light.” She concludes. Notably, price is the least of Bonita’s concerns in design. “As long as I like the project and understand the client, price is not an issue. I will finish a design even at slimmer margins just so long as everyone is happy. Profit is easy. A client being seen and feeling empowered is more difficult…and satisfying. My favorite project is always the one I’m working on.”
Often working alone, in her studio, even during weekends and late into the night, Bonita confesses that she does at times, sport a temper. “Naiinis ako pag paulitulit nalang dapat I-correct ung tauhan ko. (I get irritated when I have to correct the same errors over and over again),” she says, “But I’m working on it. I want a peaceful working environment.”
Bonita’s ethos extends to her chosen family— her friends. She believes that “Success is a combination of luck, talent, and connections— so surround yourself with people hungry like you.” One of the people she trusts to try and call her out on her designs is none other than Bonita’s close friend and confidant— Asia Model Star Awardee, Jessica Yang.
Better known as “Jesych,” Jessica Yang claims Bonita “doesn’t serve ‘garments,’ she serves looks,” she shares during a pre-event interview for Alike, “She’s a visionary.”
Taiwanese by blood but Filipino by heart, Jesych started her modelling career in the Philippines in 2007, and while taking jobs internationally, is very familiar with the local fashion scene.
“I trust Bonita because not only does she understand my body, she also understands my character,” says the magazine cover girl staple, “She brings out the powerful side of me.”
Aside from this tacit connection, Jesych and Bonita also share another thing in common— a passion for creative direction.
“We brainstorm looks when we are together.” Explains Jeysch, who initially wanted to be an artist rather than a model. “Sometimes it’s a simple idea of mine, and the rest will grow from there. Or sometimes it’s a look she already has in mind then after I wear it, we will edit the look from there.”
Aside from working well as a team, Jessica also performs impeccably as a solo creative. She has forayed into music with her debut album “Midnight Sun” which is available on Spotify, and is born from her youth in Taiwan. “I have always loved music. Back in Taiwan, I would write songs and then force my friends to listen to me sing,” she mentions in an interview for another publication.
More than indulging in just the visual and auditory aspects of her crafts as both a fashion model and musical artist, Jesych also revels in the brief yet poignant sensation of using her body as a canvas— in the form of tattoos.
"My tattoos are like little stickers 'randomly' placed at the perfect spots on my body.” She explains in a 2021 interview, with all being visible from only one side of her body, leaving them completely invisible from the other. According to Jesych, this was to lessen the work load for post-shoot editors. She currently sports 11 tattoos, each with their own story. There is a spontaneous “Namaste” in Cambodia which she got with her brother, meant to honor each other and others. Another is the lotus, inspired by her native Taiwanese culture, and represents blooming in purity. Perhaps the most unique symbols she has though is a humming bird and triceratops situated on the right side of each leg— meant to symbolize her and a former partner. The tattoos are apart but when Jesych crosses her legs in a certain way, they meet. “It represents my past long-distance relationship,” she shares.
Traveling extensively, Jessica draws on a wealth of experience to her partnership with Bonita. Willing to wear almost anything, Jesych also often serves as Bonita’s blank canvas and muse, especially for her keystone looks.
The Decision to Transition
Perhaps influenced by her being an island party girl (but romantic at heart), Bonita describes her favorite look as “a woman coming out of the sea, shiny, sexy, shimmering with water tracing her silhouette in the sunset.”
This emergence of a woman could reflect her decision to transition.
“It was scary!” Bonita recalls, journeying alone to Thailand for her operation, “there were ten of us booked that morning with a well-known surgeon.” She recalls each of them being called one by one up to the operating room. Thai, Indian, Filipino— different nationalities united by a single purpose— to become closer to the gender they felt they were. “(The anaesthesia) barely hit before the knife fell.”
Nevertheless after the procedure Bonita woke up feeling more beautiful. “It was surreal. Before, I wanted to be a woman. Now, (I make clothes that) women want. It’s empowering.” She also feels that her being an active ally helps her brand inspire others. “That trans women are women, and that we can design just as well as anyone.”
Reflecting her journey, from being worried about her job, the future, and her identity, to the empowered woman she is now, Bonita Penaranda has also transitioned her tagline. From “make the corset pambahay,” to “when in doubt, wear Bonita.” As a self-confessed ambitious woman whose eyes often gaze out towards clouds, for Bonita, the sky isn’t the limit.
It’s the starting point.
Real stories. Real people.
We believe that life isn’t about a binary of ones and zeros - but about the sum of our hopes and dreams, our struggles and heartaches, our tragedies and triumphs.
The things that unite us are far stronger than the things that divide us.
And those stories are why we are alike.