Posts in Retail
Novus Vetus in the Place with Style and Grace

I moved to the Bay Area from New York as a kid, and started hanging out with a lot more Filipino folks -- they were always the best-dressed, to me.

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Aries and Carren Nuñez, the team behind Novus Vetus, have always been into fashion and dressing well, inspired by Hip-Hop culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But it was the event of their wedding that turned their eye and taste for cool clothes into a business venture.

“Novus Vetus is vintage clothing from the 80s and 90s, all curated and thrifted items by myself and my wife, Carren. We've been thrifting and collecting vintage for a pretty long time, but just started selling in the past couple of years. We just started doing it as a little side business to help pay for our wedding a couple years ago, and since then we just kept going,” Aries says.

I moved to the Bay Area from New York as a kid, and started hanging out with a lot more Filipino folks — they were always the best-dressed, to me.

Aries recognizes how the category of vintage clothing has crept into the realms of Hip-Hop culture, and cites the crossover of cultures as the critical point where Novus Vetus operates.

“It's definitely a Hip-Hop aesthetic, and it's interesting because I have seen how Hip-Hop style has evolved, and now people in that culture are wearing vintage clothes -- and not just vintage Hip-Hop clothes, but stuff that rockers wore back then is now considered part of Hip-Hop style. So an old band T-shirt that sells like crazy now, say Metallica or Guns N’ Roses, would have been the farthest thing from Hip-Hop style back in the day. So it's really interesting how vintage fashion and vintage clothing in general have become a part of Hip- Hop fashion.”

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Exploring the nuances of Hip-Hop fashion, which is both ubiquitous and scene-driven, is also a primary preoccupation of the Nuñez’s project.

“I am half Filipino and half Dominican. In New York, the Dominican community likes to dress very well, it’s a very East Coast Hip-Hop style. Growing up in the Bay Area, I started hanging out with a lot more Filipino folks, and they dressed the most like my cousins and family in New York. Everyone was active in arts and Hip-Hop culture -- b-boys, DJs, graff writers, and even MCs -- they all looked the part, and they had that style that I was into through my connections from New York. But after a while, it wasn't about me trying to be like New York's artists, and I felt more of a connection to the styles in the Bay Area, like, "This is our style,'” Aries says.

And for Aries and Carren, the personal connections that their family shares with the styles and fashions that they hunt down and curate for Novus Vetus are the most valuable parts of the project.

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“The funnest thing is when we get to work our booth together at the events. We have a three year old daughter too, she will come sometimes and it's cool hang-out time. As far as hitting thrift stores together, we don't do that as much anymore. The most fun for me is just having a business together. We get to share our personal histories with these clothes -- I tend to like more late '80s and early '90s stuff, and she's really into personal histories with these clothes -- I tend to like more late '80s and early '90s stuff, and she's really into more late '90s, and even the early 2000s stuff. So its just fun seeing both of our styles together in one shop," Aries says.

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For Aries, this reflects the reality that more and more Filipino-Americans are assuming roles as tastemakers and creators in a variety of industries, including fashion.

Filipino people have always been involved in the Hip-Hop scene. So it makes sense that as industries evolved, we take on bigger roles in different games.

“Filipino folks love to look good and dress well, and you can really see it in streetwear fashion. It makes sense because a lot of us grew up in it and love it. My twin brother is also really into fashion and clothing, and he is currently working on a documentary about Filipino-American history. He’s talked to some people involved in fashion and streetwear, and they all mention how they were influenced by 90s Hip-Hop culture via Polo, and Tommy Hill, and stuff like that. Filipino people have always been involved in the Hip-Hop scene. So it makes sense that as industries evolved, we take on bigger roles in different games.”

Aries sees Undiscovered SF — where Novus Vetus will be a regular vendor — as a perfect example of an evolving cultural space that Filipinos have carved out for themselves through their influences in Hip-Hop, as well as in the cultural arts that preserve Filipino heritage.

“You can catch us at Undiscovered SF every month. It’s fun being part of the community. Being surrounded by a bunch of Filipino vendors and businesses, showing off their products, it makes me proud not just being around fellow business owners, but watching the performances, the cultural dances, the history of Filipino people. I'm always proud to see the massive range of what Bay Area Filipino folks can do.” 

 

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Asmbly Hall: Deep Roots, Strong Branches

“When we first opened up the shop, it was just a business to us. But we think it's evolved into something much greater than that.”

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Posted at the register of their Fillmore Street storefront, its walls lined with local accolades, Tricia and Ron Benitez of Asmbly Hall (located at 1850 Fillmore Street) speak with a quiet confidence that reflects their steady approach to retail, and also helps maintain a mellow energy for their toddler daughter, Harlow. After six years in the upscale Fillmore shopping district, they’ve learned the importance of striking a balance between keeping it real and keeping it cool.

“This area of Fillmore Street has been kind of high-end and affluent. And I think we knew what kind of business that we wanted to open: something that was accessible, a little bit easier on the price point, somewhere we could see ourselves shopping, and we didn't see that in this neighborhood. So I think it was also trying to fill in a little niche that was missing. We felt like, 'We're young and we're hip and we don't want to break the bank, and we don't feel like there's a shop for us in this neighborhood, so why don't we just put one there?’” Tricia says.

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With years of combined retail expertise between them, Ron and Tricia’s brainchild quickly blossomed into the space that is Asmbly Hall — a space specially curated to present local brands and rare, artisan-made products at prices that are friendly to everyone in the neighborhood. In this way, Asmbly Hall is a continuation of the legacy of small business ownership in Tricia’s family, former grocers in Vallejo and the South of Market.

“My grandparents owned a Filipino grocery store — Evangelista Grocery — in Vallejo, and then they expanded into South City and San Francisco, in the SOMA on 8th and Howard, which my dad took over in the '70s. We were one of the first Asian-American grocery stores here in the Bay Area, and we imported fish, fruit, and treats from The Philippines. So from a young age, when i was a child, my brother and I would be brought to the store -- we were shop kids. But I think the nice thing about that grocery store that we also see here at Asmbly Hall is that we see return customers, and then a lot of people who are customers become friends,” Tricia says

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Continuing the legacy of business ownership is something that Ron and Tricia both feel is important not just for their own family, but for the Filipino-American community at large — especially as younger generations look more and more to less traditional career routes.

“My father was in the Navy and my mom was a nurse, so I had a pretty traditional upbringing, and that's probably what a lot of people might think of when they think of a Filipino family. And so being a small business owner is I think very empowering for this generation of Filipino-Americans to step out of the comfort zone and take risks and know that there are other career opportunities out there to help make a positive impact on your community and your neighborhood,” Ron says.

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For Ron and Tricia, this means supporting an ever-growing roster of local vendors and Filipino-owned operations, reinforcing the values of community and cooperative competition that Asmbly Hall stands for.

“We’re proud to sell locally-made knits, neckties, and bow ties by Ronnie Escalante, accessories and textiles ranging from laptop cases and bags to rugs and footwear by Ilano, and of course, our own Asmbly Hall locally-made and printed tees and sweatshirts and cut & sew jackets. We’re also proud to present the work of local artists like Lee Queza and Jeramie Tolentino and Gem Mateo. It’s a diverse range of styles and we’re happy to be the spot where all these ideas can gather.”

With six years firmly under their belts, Asmbly Hall is doubling down on positively impacting their community, and they see Undiscovered SF as a key site for fostering the community and culture that will sustain future Filipino-American generations.

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“I think Undiscovered is a great way for people of our generation and younger to see what kinds of avenues are out there for them to touch. So it's really a community, cultural experience -- we've met Filipino people from all over the Bay Area, from Canada, from Chicago, all parts of the United States, and it’s really encouraging to connect with them and see how inspired they are and enthusiastic they are about their own projects. Now that we have Harlow, to see a Filipino-American cultural district that's growing and will be there for the next generation, for her generation to have something and somewhere to feel her roots and see her identity, and go somewhere it's a distinct space for her culture, I think that's important for us to be a part of and help grow,” Tricia says.

The Art of Warriors

“We don’t do interviews.”

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Seated around a shady, cutty picnic table on the southern edge of Lake Merritt in their hometown of Oakland, Aaron Jurell Sarmiento and Joe Aquilizan of Bayani Art — the East Bay collective that exclusively produces and promotes work documenting Filipino resistance — discuss why it’s so difficult to find media coverage of their project, which has grown into a relative phenomenon in Filipino communities across the globe, from Daly City to Saudi Arabia to Canada. They feel that every articulation and movement of Bayani Art should be intentional and purposeful, like a warrior in battle, and Joe and Aaron Jurell don’t see interviews — or recognition of any kind, for that matter — as a functional part of their work.

“I see us as ghostwriters. We're not concerned with image. We only care about creating a vehicle that takes people to a different awareness about themselves and their history. And the people that see the work, it's up to them to decide what direction they pilot that vehicle. We don't want to force anything on anyone. We're just sharing these histories and artworks because of the liberation and sense of self they’ve given us,” Aaron Jurell says.

Joe nods in agreement, then segues into a brief anecdote about their latest design featuring Rajah Sulayman, who led a revolt against Spanish invaders in 1574. For Joe and Aaron Jurell, Bayani Art should always reflect a secure and empowered sense of Filipino identity, based around a vast store of knowledge of the history of the islands that the pair have cultivated through serious study. Their proficiency in the narrative of the Filipino people has been strengthened over seven intensive years at Bayani Art, but for both Joe and Aaron Jurell — like many Filipino-Americans — the search for identity has certainly been much longer.

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“Before we started Bayani Art, someone asked me about Filipino history, and I couldn't answer. I was so embarrassed that I could recite the history of another country, but I didn't know my own country's history. I felt like, “I need to know who I am.” And I realized it was almost impossible to find any accurate histories of our people — and that I wanted to find them. I think it's time for our people to realize that we have made major contributions to world history, and I feel like it's partly our responsibility to bring those stories to light. We need to know the stories of our warriors, the Bayanis who defended our people. Just the opportunity itself to learn about our true history is a huge motivator for why we do what we do,” Joe says.

Aaron Jurell continues, explaining how the pain and struggle associated with much of Filipino history requires him to constantly let down his guard in order for the lessons of history to be fully expressed in the work.

“We are just two brown men trying to do the right thing. What makes Bayani Art special is that we use our people’s history, our struggle, our flaws, to our advantage. Everything that has ‘Bad,’ written all over it, we’ve learned to use that to our advantage. Learning to be vulnerable and explore the struggle and resistance of our people, and sharing what that did for us, is what makes the project meaningful. The simple exchange of giving someone a shirt, you don't know how much joy that gives me to share our history. All people deserve to feel that joy,” he says.

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And as pupils of history, Bayani Art’s major preoccupation is to properly honor the stories of the heroes and heroines of the Philippines. Each design is essentially an academic exercise, requiring exhaustive research and dialogue with the artists as well as expert historians and elders, ensuring that each piece produced by Bayani Art is an artifact consistent with the long legacy of Filipino power.

“The Katipunan hat -- which is sold out already -- took half a year to create. That's a long damn time. Designs like that don’t just come out of thin air. We meet with the artists, discuss what’s possible. And once it's completed and approved from a visual standpoint, we send it to the historians and my historian friends will look at it and tell me, "No, fix this, this isn't accurate," so it goes back and forth, back and forth. That's how a design can take six months,” Joe says.

“And sometimes, six months might not even be enough time. There are designs we've released that we could have spent 10 years refining and perfecting. When you're dealing with the material we are dealing with, taking that time and being delicate with the histories is absolutely necessary. Absolutely,” Aaron Jurell says.

Both Joe and Aaron Jurell understand the stories that Bayani Art tells as part of a lineage of Filipino resistance that extends to the present day — the ongoing legacy of a warrior people, expressed through art that preserves the beauty and honor of their struggle. 

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“Doing this project has helped me understand myself more. I've become a better human being because of Bayani Art. I’ve become a better father. Bayani Art has taught me so much about who I am and where I come from. We're just trying to communicate with our people, and inspire our people. That's what our people need, from generation to generation. Our children need to always learn more about who they are,” Joe says.

And they feel that Undiscovered SF is a perfect platform for that learning to continue growing and flourishing in the Filipino community.

“Our people need to find a way back to ourselves, and knowing our true history is a big first step to getting to where we need to be. The new generation is really doing it. Doing Undiscovered SF, it's something amazing and different, where you’re seeing such an emphasis and pride around the simple fact of being Filipino — just being Filipino. We're honored to be a part of it. Seven years is a long time to be doing this, and we've never seen an event like Undiscovered SF,” Aaron Jurell says.

Arkipelago Books - Keeping The Filipino Narrative Going

“Other than Arkipelago, there is only one other Filipino bookstore in the United States -- and there are so many Filipinos in the country, and our population is going to double or triple in the coming years. It’s unbelievable that there are only two bookstores in the whole country to serve our community. So we are here to make sure that our people have access to the books and information and histories that reflect their experiences.”

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Lily Prijoles and her partners Golda Sargento and Ley Ebrada are stacking papers and replacing them with plates of tacos from Señor Sisig, finishing a marking meeting in the Arkipelago Books storefront at the corner of Mission and Sixth. Their shelves are packed with colorful, beautifully-bound books, all curated to exclusively present Filipino art, history, and narrative from perspectives outside the influence of mainstream media. This isn’t a simple hipster move to sell cooler-books-than-thou: it’s a critical step in unpacking Filipino identity and challenging the colonial structures that continue to shape the lives of Filipino people.

“Run a Google search for Filipino history, and it can spit out some results, but a key part of our history as Filipinos is that our history has been messed with — so the media and histories that are more readily accessible might not be the real haps. So as a people, we are constantly looking at hijacked literatures and narratives. The books we sell at Arkipelago, they aren't going to be found on Kindle, because Kindle is pushed by popularity-based sales. Our books are not those books: they are more vital to our community than simple Kindle sales can measure. At the same time, these books don't have to follow industry trends. They can take risks that might seem unpopular to a certain set of publishers, but to another set, might be exactly what the Filipino community needs,” Golda says.

Understanding what the community needs isn’t something that happens overnight — even for a project as entrenched in Filipino-American life in the City as Arkipelago — and the current team is quick to credit their predecessors and emphasize the importance of lineage and history at Arkipelago as a guiding force for the bookstore’s future.

“The three of us came from different places, but we had all reconnected with [former owner] Marie Romero. We have all always known about Arkipelago and its importance in the Filipino community, and Marie has graciously let us continue that journey. It’s time for us to put our own personalities in it and try to figure out how we can work alongside and empower other Filipino-American vendors, and also have connections with publishers and book artists in the Philippines. The idea now is to go from Arkipelago Books to Arkipelago Goods, and showcase all of the beautiful and diverse artisanship that our people produce,” Ley says.

It’s a transition that the team is particularly proud of, and something they say represents the hard work of both the current group as well as Marie Romero, who operated the bookstore for almost two decades before finding the right set of young Filipina minds to carry on the project.

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“There was a chance that Arkipelago — and I’ve known it since it was called Sulu Books — was going to close. And this was when SOMA Pilipinas was just starting to become a state-funded Filipino Cultural District. Marie was looking for someone to purchase Arkipelago and fight for it. Arkipelago is one of the only Filipino-owned businesses on this stretch of Mission, in the middle of a newly-minted Filipino Cultural District, so its critical from a lot of perspectives. And I was just going to help with her website, and through that work Marie and I found that we were both really interested in having me, Golda, and Ley take over,” Lily says.

The nature of the changeover from Ms. Romero to the current Arkipelago team reflects the growth of the Filipino-American community itself. As younger generations step into leadership roles in the community — holding down decades-old institutions, like Arkipelago, while creating new ones, like Undiscovered SF — new approaches are needed to respond to the business landscape. For the Arkipelago team, this meant invoking the concept of a heart-centered business.

“The beautiful part about us is that we have three women that came to the table, and we all have strengths, weaknesses, and by way of those traits there are opportunities created. So we bring our personalities together, we talk through ideas, and we create a thriving business structure for Arkipelago that’s based around who we are as people. And we also are very clear about how we need to support each other -- we know that in order for the bookstore to thrive, we have to thrive, and I think that's an important level to the heart-centered business,” Ley says.

It’s a philosophy of success that extends far beyond the bottom line, positing that commercial success will come out of a deep understanding of what Arkipelago can mean to people. A sentiment echoed by all three women throughout the conversation is that: “Books are the vegetables of media: people know they should eat them, but they don’t.” But by their own dogged efforts and dedication to the Arkipelago mission — and, recently, through the community and commerce created by Undiscovered SF — Lily says that they’re finding success fighting that current.

“To see that there's a huge community of Filipino-owned businesses, and to see us all under one roof, people of our generation sharing their culture, Filipino restaurants selling our food done in new ways — and done really well — it makes us feel like we know each other, we're all the Night Market crowd. And it's cool to know they're going to be fixtures at the night market, to bring those people in and let them see themselves in the SOMA, and feel like they’re going to have a thriving business here one day -- next door to a bunch of other Filipino-owned businesses, like a tax office, or a leather goods store, or an art gallery.” 

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