Philippines, Part 9: “Sexy Chic” at the Playboy Fashion Show (Field Study Research)

In case you were worried, this post is planning to be strictly G-rated. Last week we had front-row seats for a dramatic tropical storm and met an ex-Navy Seal named Tiny (or was he an ex-Marine? They both sound vaguely nautical, and I’m so bad at these distinctions), who took us on the wildest scuba diving adventure of our lives. If you’d like to catch up, here are the previous episodes in the series:

Philippines, Part 1: Have Baby, Will Travel
Philippines, Part 2: Do You Know How to XOOM?
Philippines, Part 3: Confessions of a Carseatless Baby (Vigan)

Philippines, Part 4: Strawberries and Cotton Candy (Baguio)

Philippines, Part 5: Hanging Coffins! (Sagada)

Philippines, Part 6: Voyage of the Icebox (Banauae & Batad)

Philippines, Part 7: Revenge of the Cockroaches (Manila)
Philippines, Part 8: Please Don’t Feed the Sharks (Anilao)
Philippines, Part 9: “Sexy Chic” at the Playboy Fashion Show (Field Study Research)
Philippines, Part 10: Luxury Travel, Filipino Style (Cebu)
Philippines, Part 11: Nuts to the Huts (Bohol)
Philippines, Part 12: If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island . . . (Panglao)
Philippines, Part 13: The Chocolate Hills (Bohol Again)
Philippines, Part 14: Trouble in Paradise (Malapascua)

Now that we were back in Manila, we really had no excuse to not start work on the field study research that was paying for our trip to the Philippines. At the time, Tony was a student at the Brigham Young University Marriott School of Management, and we had applied for some grants to study small to mid-sized manufacturing companies in the Philippines. We thought we might also make some headway on finding suppliers for the import business we were planning to start when we returned home. This was our first time to arrive in a new country with virtually no contacts and somehow network around until we got things done. It would not be the last. Bizarre talent to develop, I know. But in our crazy life it is actually fairly useful.

We had arrived in the Philippines with one lone contact named Elmer. He was a paper-pusher for PEZA, which was basically a large business park with tax benefits for manufacturing companies. Elmer gave us a list of companies and promised to put a good word in for us with the high-level executives we wanted to interview. We took a bus out from Manila, and arrived at PEZA with high hopes. After a stop at the Chow King located conveniently outside the entrance (for my daily halo halo fix), we proceeded inside. But it soon became apparent that PEZA was not the gold mine we had anticipated. Besides manufacturing disappointingly prosaic products like cardboard boxes and parts for windshield wipers, they weren’t actually Filipino companies. Mostly they were owned by absentee Chinese and Koreans savvy enough to take advantage of the tax-advantageous zoning while firing and rehiring their employees every six months to avoid giving them benefits. The Filipino administrators we spoke with were more of mid-level managers, and not very informed or interested in the grand vision of the company. Some of them would not even let us in, so we spent quite a bit of time wandering around in the heat, ringing useless buzzers and sweating. We returned home dusty and discouraged. It was evident that official contacts had failed. We were going to have to use some guerilla networking tactics.

We heard through the grapevine about an Entrepreneur Night at a night club on the other side of town. For the purchase of the Filipino edition of Entrepreneur magazine, we got dinner and the chance to meet with the up-and-coming entrepreneurs of Manila. The directions we had obtained for taking the light rail transport system also involved what turned out to be a very long walk through some if the scarier parts of Manila. But we finally made it to the event, albeit quite late. As we ascended the winding staircase into the upstairs venue where it was being held, the M.C. was just announcing the end of the open-mike portion that allowed people to promote their businesses. Tony lost no time in jumping up on the stage, taking the mike, and announcing the opportunity for business owners to be interviewed for a study by an American university. So all night we were assailed by interested parties. He conducted one interview on the spot, and scheduled several more.

Our business card collection was growing, but many of the “entrepreneurs” we had met at the night club were still just starry-eyed dreamers like us, and not yet even in business. Luckily, we had already met one of those indispensable people who make the world go round. Claire, the Filipina contact for BYU’s travel office, was a lifesaver. She it was who helped us find our apartment (which to her credit, was the nicest we could really have found in Metro Manila for our budget). She also gave us a tour of Glorietta, Manila’s most prestigious mall, provided us with hangers, a garbage can, and various other necessities, and introduced us to six other BYU students whom she had installed down the hall from us in our pink apartment building. As well as real estate, Claire’s numerous talents ranged from interior decorating to massage. She even offered to watch Axa for us while we visited the Manila Temple.

We started hanging out with the BYU students, who were great fun, and unlike the cold corporate researchers/lazy vacationers (us), were doing socially responsible work with various NGO’s. I did yoga with them in the mornings up on the roof of our building, right next to the pool that looked sparklingly clean but gave you a strange rash if you tried to swim in it. We also shared dinner potlucks and hit them up for baby-sitting on occasion. Since they were all single, they were still in the habit of actually going out and making friends. One of those friends turned out to be Christine, an aspiring entrepreneur who just happened to have a lot of contacts in the textiles industry, our biggest area of interest. She took us around to visit several clothing manufacturers in the area. Although things got a bit awkward at times when she kept trying to snap unauthorized photographs of cutting edge prototype products, we were able to connect with quite a few interesting business owners.

One of the largest and most prestigious manufacturing facilities we visited was one that had previously contracted with Walmart, but given it up because the profit margin was so razor-thin. It was owned by an Indian family, who as we left presented Axa with a couple of adorable fluffy dresses, hot off the assembly line. Another company manufactured bicycles. The bottom on their market had recently dropped out, due to a gigantic influx of cheap Chinese-made bicycles. They were trying to recover by appealing to national pride and advertising their own bicycles as “Made in the Philippines.” Judging from the Filipino fascination with imported goods, I’m afraid their campaign probably turned out somewhat less than successful.

Meeting with all these business owners was an eye-opening experience for us, since we had never even personally seen the president or CEO of a company, let alone had an exclusive interview with one. As we considered their challenges and strategies, we entered a world where we had never been before, and began to feel that perhaps we really might make good business owners ourselves. Our delusions of grandeur were further boosted when one of those business owners presented us with a private invitation to the Playboy Fashion Show, to be held the following week at the exclusive Manila Sports Club. At first, we were a little leery about attending a Fashion Show sponsored by Playboy. Exactly what types of fashions were they planning to showcase? We learned that in the Philippines at least, Playboy is a respectable clothing line, and this fashion show was designed to roll out their new collection of designer pajamas. They really meant pajamas, Christine assured us, not kinky lingerie.

So that was settled. We decided we would make an appearance, baby and all. The only problem left was the dress code, which was specified on the invitation as “sexy chic.” What were we going to do about that? Due to our fictitious perception of ourselves as intrepid backpackers, we had packed a very limited wardrobe for this trip. When we went home to contemplate it in light of our anticipated debut into high society, things did not look promising. Besides our standard attire of shorts and T-shirts, I had one of those awful nylon skirts with a drawstring at the bottom that I usually wore to Church, and Tony had a couple of checkered short-sleeved almost-dress shirts he got away with wearing at research interviews. The one bright spot was our baby, who had a whole suitcase full of cute clothes. Maybe everyone would just look at her. In the end, at least we left the Birkenstocks at home, but despite our best efforts, I’m afraid our appearance was nowhere near either “sexy” or “chic.”

Still, on the evening of the show we caught a taxi to the Sports Club (we thought it just wouldn’t do to arrive by jeepney). As we walked into the luxurious lobby where cocktails were being served, I’m sure we stuck out like a sore thumb, and not just because we were from California. The little white baby was a massive hit, though, and we were introduced to various people (who really did look sexy chic) without any major social catastrophes. The newspaper photographer there to cover the event took a dozen shots of Axa. When the models came out, they really were wearing pajamas, although we had to cover the baby’s eyes once when a male model came out wearing only a towel, and then started taking it off. Luckily, it turned out that he had boxers in a flashy bunny ear pattern on underneath, so all was well. In our one brush with fame, a tall imposing model with a head shaved as bare as our baby’s smiled, bent down, and patted his head and then hers.

That pretty much finished up our research. But we still had two months left to kill on various exotic islands. Next week we leave the island of Luzon and head south in Philippines, Part 10: Luxury Travel, Filipino Style.