When Arner Ang arrived in Singapore with a balikbayan box full of Shibui products designed by wife Melissa Pabilona-Ang, he muttered one prayer.
“Lord, pag makabenta ako, 1 or 2, ok na masaya na ako.”
[Lord, if I get to sell 1 or 2 items, I’ll be happy.]
It was the Singapore Pen show at the Marina Mandarin Hotel in July 2019. Shibui’s leather goods were on display: from pen cases to journal covers and organizers. Yet for the first few hours, their table barely had visitors.
“Marami akong hesitation papunta doon. Di naman kami kilala roon,” he told Pen Noob in an interview. “Sino ba kami? Philippines is not known for leather. Hindi naman tayo Italy.”
Come noontime, the hall started to fill up. After a couple of inquiries and his first sale of the day, someone came up and told Arner, “I’ve been waiting for you!” She bought around five items and arranged for two special orders.
“Alam mo yun parang di mo ma-expect na someone sa ibang bansa will have that excitement.”
[You don’t usually expect someone in a different country will have that excitement]
By the end of the event, his box was already half empty, with a local shop getting what was left of the stock.
Related story: Filipino brands for fountain pen folks in the Philippines
Creating Shibui’s first idea
Melissa was managing fundraising for her goddaughter Caitlin – also known as Courageous Catie – when she first encountered calligraphy among works donated by artists. After the child succumbed to a rare form of leukemia in 2016, she wanted to do something that was connected to that experience. Dip pen lessons from one of the donor artists helped her through grief.
Soon, her new hobby led her to the “rabbit hole” of fountain pens.
“Habang dumadami yung (fountain pen) collection mo, maghahanap ka ng magandang lalagyan,” she said. “Without a doubt, in my mind, gusto ko talaga leather case.”
[As your fountain pen collection grows, you’d look for a good case. Without a doubt, in my mind, I really wanted a leather case.]
While there were zipped leather pen cases available on the market, they were mostly using elastic bands to keep the pen secure. None of them worked with what Melissa had in mind.
“Eventually di siya magla-last kasi nasisira yung garter or yung elasticity niya,“ she argued. “Sayang naman. You have a nice patinaed pen case pero yung loob niya is useless na as time goes by.”
[Eventually, it won’t last because the garter would lose its elasticity. That’s a waste. You have a nice patinaed pen case but the interior would be useless as time goes by.]
Since the right pen case for her didn’t exist, she decided to design one.
First, the zipped case has to be leather. Second, whatever keeps the pens secure should “also grow old with you.” Third, it should still accommodate different pen widths, a main feature of elastic bands but with much less likelihood of breaking.
Melissa’s need for such a feature gave birth to their trademarked leather pull-tag pen holder: an adjustable strip that makes sure that each pen is snug fit, varying thickness notwithstanding.
Besides, as she pointed out, “leather complements better with the pens.”
From designer to manufacturer
When things didn’t work out with their first supplier, Melissa and Arner set out to look for a new production partner. But instead of getting a case manufacturer, they ended up buying machinery from factory owner who was migrating to Australia. They also hired the same workers.
That meant everyone in their new team had to study. The workers were more familiar with shoe-making. Arner and Melissa had little manufacturing experience. From pattern-making to product assembly, there was a “huge learning curve” to streamline their leather case production.
“Dati sa IT, everything you do is like zeroes and ones,” said Arner, recalling his days at Hewlett-Packard where he met Melissa. “Now you’re doing something very tangible… from the idea conceptualization to putting it on paper and then it comes to life.”
A worker also confided with the Angs that she didn’t expect to gain new skills at her age, an experience that everyone was thankful for.
His perfect timing
“If you’re asking if everything panned out as we expected, we couldn’t have expected this eh,” said Arner. “
“It is God’s hand,” added Melissa.
Melissa leaving Hewlett-Packard to be a full-time mom freed her up to manage fundraising efforts for Courageous Catie. Aside from leading her to fountain pens, that campaign led her to Shibui’s first pen case producer, a referral from someone she met while working on her goddaughter’s cause.
When Arner also left corporate, he found himself gaining sales and marketing experience through UV care products. “God was providing but also preparing me.”
But for the couple, it felt that God had been preparing them since their youth.
“For Cattleya Notebooks, my grandfather was the one who made the plastic covers,” recalled Melissa. “I remember being there as a teenager, working during summer at the factory.
From feeding machines with film for plastic notebook covers to creating leather covers in her own factory years later, the poetry isn’t lost on Melissa.
“God created an avenue for me to continue with stationery work,” said Melissa. Even if the plastic cover business died with her grandfather, her leather covers are now its successors.
As for Arner, working with rolls of leather reminded him of his father’s old wholesale textile business in Divisoria.
“Somehow, God restores the loose ends,” he said. Things that didn’t quite fly before have now taken a new form in Shibui.
But the perfect timing didn’t stop there. When their factory reopened after COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed back in June, they were wondering if there would be still enough demand for their products.
Surprisingly, Veronica of Pierre Cardin contacted them for orders “right when we needed it.” In a few days, they got orders from Endless Pens and from a Canada-based client.
“God is always on time,” said Melissa. For Arner, “if you dedicate a business to God, He’s the one who opens things.
Keeping Filipino craftsmanship alive
Since both Arner and Melissa use planners and fountain pens, user experience has always been their priority. “Parang may wish list din kami,” said Arner.
“For the A6 passport holder, alam mo kung sino ang iniisip ko [do you know who I had on my mind] when I was designing that? Si Arner,” revealed Melissa. “What can I design that will be convenient for him when we travel?”
There had to be a strap so it won’t fall easily from the hands. Zipper and pockets too to make everything inside secure. The pull-tag pen holder and usual leather cover then completes the planned organizer’s trademark Shibui character.
Their products also had to “fit in their owners’ day-to-day lives,” said Arner. The passport holder for example, he pointed out, can also fit cellphones. There’s always more than one use for every feature, and sharing these discoveries motivate the couple to turn their ideas into products.
“If it adds value to our experience, maybe we can also add it to the experience of others,” he added.
“One of the things that we noticed, second-generation of artisans are no longer interested,” lamented Melissa. Most would prefer desk jobs, at the cost of losing crafting skills nobody would bother learning.
“We want our workers here in the Philippines to be proud of something that they created,” she added. “We really envisioned from the very beginning that we are going to go global. ”
For God and country
While Shibui is Japanese for unobtrusive beauty, their products are proudly Filipino. “We want the craftsmanship of the Filipino people to be known.”
Like most fountain pen collectors, Melissa would buy related products from abroad and ship it back here. But as she kept on buying from other countries, she started to ask: “Why aren’t we throwing something out there naman from the Philippines?”
Quality doesn’t have to be overpriced, said the couple, noting how other foreign products seem to be excessively expensive “yet we throw our money at them.” They want Shibui to be affordable yet better.
Armed with a prayer in every step, Shibui’s next moves can only be greater.
“The main vision is to have a big company, a big factory,” said Melissa, “where we can support and help the livelihood of a lot of workers.”
“To make the brand known to all the ends of the earth,” added Arner. ”And to glorify God in that way also.”
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