9 Muses: Stephanie Gancayco, Diwata of Multimedia
9 MUSES // Created in collaboration with Jodinand Aguillon as part of his arts residency at Pineapple Lab and shot on location in Manila, PH. Inspired by the "Siyam na Diwata ng Sining/Nine Muses of the Arts" sculpture by Napoleon Abueva at UP Diliman and goddess/oracle cards, this series re-envisions modern Pilipina muses as "Diwata Cards" which can be pulled for words of advice for those seeking inspiration.
I first heard the name Stephanie Gancayco at the Filipino American National Historical Society Conference in New York back in the summer of 2016. She was one of the many Filipino-American designers who competed at the conference’s fashion show, where she was came in second for her work with Panay Bukidnon artisans for her contemporary apparel brand HALIYA. It was weeks later when I finally met her in person at a sisterhood gathering of Filipinas who worked in the creative field; it was there that she shared with us her goal of creating a platform for Pinays everywhere called Hella Pinay. Even from these first two encounters, Stephanie was already emitting the aura of a “Diwata of Multimedia” - so it made sense she would be chosen as that for the 9 Muses series. She poses like a modern-day Santo Niño, cell phone in hand replacing the globus cruciger which represented Christ's dominion over the orb of the world - which tells us something about the power technology and media hold in today's society.
Stephanie originally started Hella Pinay as an Instagram handle where she shared about pioneering Pinays, revolutionaries, pre-colonial goddesses, and self-care, amassing followers of Filipinxs globally. Currently, Hella Pinay has a stacked masthead that includes prominent writers, activists, artists, and healers in the Filipinx community from North America to the Philippines to Paris.
But even before both HALIYA and Hella Pinay came Stephanie’s own personal journey that helped shape the kind of artist and woman she is today. She was born in San Jose, California to a Filipina immigrant mother and Mexican-American father, and raised by her single mother who she says made a lot of sacrifices for her. Stephanie expresses: “I think these early experiences really shaped who I am now and how much respect I have for how strong women are; I know she did the best she could with the very little she had.” As a kid, Stephanie recalls her earliest influences being anime, R&B, and escaping into books and comics; she fondly remembers her “hella East Side San Jose Azn” days of souped up cars and pool halls, getting into trouble. Her years of studying Polynesian dance also played a huge part in her life, mentioning that was where she really bonded with her Filipino community outside of her family and close friends; her involvement in the punk and hardcore scene exposed her to DIY culture and Feminist/Riot Grrl movements as a young teenager - the spirit of which continues to be part of her work today.
Stephanie demonstrated her passion for art when she put herself through California College of the Arts in San Francisco/Oakland, where she entered as a painting/drawing major but quickly switched to fashion design. In 2009, the California girl made another switch, moving to New York to work in the fashion industry for top designers like Anne Sui and Jen Kao. Six years later, Stephanie began to reflect on the direction of her life. “In 2015, all the working crazy hours and partying hit me and I got really sick - this is when I started to turn my life around and get into health and spirituality which I think has saved me, literally,” she shares. That following year, she was diagnosed with cancer. But for Stephanie, she saw the disease as a “blessing.” The experience shifted her creative journey and gave her the courage to take the leap and finally do the work she feels she was meant to do.
Read on to learn more how Stephanie continues to do what she loves, the story behind the 9 Muses series, how she balances both of her brands, and her self-care routine.
Kristina Bustos: How did you meet Jodinand Aguillon and what inspired you both to collaborate on this 9 Muses project?
Stephanie: Jodee and I actually met in person the first day of the shoot in Manila! I fully believe that the universe led us to work together. I had been a mega fan of his and his work with HATAW for awhile, and they had used Gingee’s song “Gong Spirits” on one of their Instagram videos. At the time I had been getting ready for the FANHS fashion show and been looking for a song for the runway, and was like, This is it. I reached out to her about using her music and we became internet friends, then ended up meeting in person in New York through mutual friends very soon after the show - this was in Summer 2016. At the beginning of this year, Gingee reached out to the both of us like, we’re all going to be in the Philippines in March, let’s get together and collab on something. Originally, I was thinking we could shoot Gingee or do a music video, and then literally a week or two before it was supposed to happen Jodee’s like, hey guys I was super inspired by this 9 Muses sculpture at UP Diliman and I want to recreate our own 9 Muses at this shoot, are you down? I was like ummmm fuck is this possible? But then he like fairy godmothered that shit and it was the most amazing, inspiring, organized shoot with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. We literally met morning of the first day of the shoot and hit the ground running - we worked super well together, our aesthetics are super compatible, it was a dream. Not going to give too much away but, this is definitely not the first collab you’re going to see from us! So stay tuned.
The work you do - Hella Pinay and your clothing line, HALIYA - are based in the U.S., but this 9 Muses project was shot in Manila. What did it mean to be doing this project in the Philippines - the birthplace of our cultural heritage?
It was surreal. I found through interviewing these different women, that a lot of the concerns we have are very similar, we care about a lot of the same things. There’s a community there of very like-minded people who also really support the work I’m doing which was amazing and humbling. I had so many people telling me "welcome home" and that I can always move back home - "home" being the Philippines. It was mind-blowing to me as someone who never felt "enough" in my Filipino-ness with my family, to have near strangers welcoming me so openly. The synchronicities that happened in the short time I was there were unbelievable too. Just being able to create a beautiful project in the city my mother was raised in on my own, as an adult, was dope. Being there, I feel more like myself than I’ve ever been while at the same time feeling like a complete outsider - if that makes any sense at all. I just know there’s SO much to learn and explore there if I’m going to be able to do this work to the best of my ability.
Growing up as a Filipina in California, did you ever imagine you would be where you are now in your career?
Honestly, I didn’t really have some kind of a vision for what my career was going to be like. I just wanted to be an anime character or something haha...or like a monk in a temple on a mountain somewhere. I really wanted to travel, do something useful, be creative, have freedom. I was always super into reading and writing and history and being crafty, so I guess it all kinda does make sense actually. But I definitely never foresaw myself doing like hella Filipino things. Although my dad was from New Mexico, my parents split when I was a baby and I was raised by my mom so I always identified as Filipina and always repped it - but at the same time I really didn’t know my culture growing up. I think that because I’m mixed and because I didn’t speak Tagalog and got sort of put down or mocked for these things growing up (like my pronunciation getting made fun of, or being told that I was “too American” or too light-skinned), I felt really self-conscious about not being “Filipina enough” with my family. So I think at a young age I was like, well I guess I’m not good at that, why would I bother learning more about my culture if I’m just going to get made fun of? So I didn’t get into my own culture until I was an adult, when I realized that I need to know it to better understand who I am.
For your 9 Muses word, you choose "trust". Why?
Because trust for me is a major challenge, but something that I believe is truly necessary to have a fully actualized life. Trust in divine timing, trust in yourself, trust in others. Trust that the universe and your ancestors always have your back. Nowadays we’re being super conditioned to not trust, to not catch feelings, that everyone is sus or is gonna ghost on you, and I feel like that’s causing a lot of emotional distress and abandonment issues in like, everyone. Learning to get over a deeply ingrained fear of abandonment is definitely something I’ve been working on the past couple of years. Trust is what makes it possible for you to achieve anything because you believe that it’s possible; you trust that forces are working in your favor, you trust in your abilities and decisions.
What came first: Hella Pinay or HALIYA?
I think in a way, HALIYA is what started me on everything I’m doing now, although I didn’t come up with a name for the brand until pretty recently. I had been wanting to have my own clothing line for years and years and years, talked about it, took half-assed stabs at it, but nothing stuck. I realized that while I might have skill and expertise in it, I’m not passionate about just like, designing clothes for people to buy. My work has to have meaning to me and I have to be involved in the craft and making - I’m a huge hand-knitter.. In the beginning of 2015, I finally had my like, I don’t know shit about actual Filipino culture moment. This was at the start of me getting sick and I had been opening up a lot spiritually. I was going to a lot of sister circles and my friends at these gatherings were mostly Afro-Latina and Black women who were connected to the healing methods and spiritual traditions from their own cultures, and I was like ok I know we obviously must have these traditions as well. I mean, duh. But I had never been to the Philippines. I had always been very connected to the spirit world since I was little, but being raised Catholic made me really not into religion. So I started to research and as I was learning about Indigenous healing methods and spiritual practices, I of course started to learn about Indigenous peoples and their struggles and was horrified at the attitudes a lot of Filipinos (some of my family included) had towards them. I wanted to figure out how I could use my skills and background to help bring attention to these cultures and while it seems hella shallow, my background is fashion so I was like, lemme build these relationships and see how I can help preserve these traditional art forms by creating work and bringing them to a wider audience. Besides paying generously for the work, we also donate back to the community to help with passing down these traditions to the next generation. For example, with the Panay Bukidnon embroiderers who I've been working with for the past couple of years, we donate to their Schools of Living Tradition which pass on epic chanting, oral history, embroidery, and dance and aim to inspire both students and parents to continue the advocacy and learning of Indigenous Peoples.
With Hella Pinay, I would be having all these conversations about identity and our experiences as Filipinas with friends and kept being like, why aren't people talking about this in like a mainstream accessible platform? And kept hearing back, why don't you just do it tho? I felt like I didn't have the right to do it because I'm "only" half and was like, who am I to represent Pinay women and their experiences? I'm not an academic or an expert on anything Filipino culture-related. But I just got the fuck over it and try to use my privilege to create a platform for all kinds of Pinays' voices to be heard, hopefully. Knowing myself and my culture more and more has been super good for my mental health and if we're able to help even one other person in the same way I feel like we've accomplished something.
What were the inspirations behind each name?
Hella Pinay was inspired by Hella Pinoy, the Rex Navarrete stand up cuz, when I was younger I used to lol at that all day - it just came to me one day and was like, it's perfect. I’m from the Bay and I still say hella like every other word so, ya know. Also I feel like Pinay is a word we use within our own community so it’s definitely speaking directly to the people I want to reach. HALIYA is named after the Bikolano goddess of the moon. My family heritage has ties to the region, my grandfather was murdered there, and I've always connected strongly with moon goddesses. I love that she’s a warrior goddess and her followers are mainly women, so it seemed to fit as a line that represents the strength and resilience of the women artisans who have fought to protect their cultural traditions alive through centuries of colonization and westernization.
Hella Pinay and HALIYA are two separate mediums or avenues for your artistry and creativity. What challenges do you face in handling multiple projects?
Just really having enough time and bandwidth to do everything, as well as juggling two jobs. I’m just hella tired haha. And it’s challenging because I don’t know a lot of things, so I’ve had to learn along the way. I’ve been fortunate to have found an amazing team of people who wanna help Hella Pinay grow, so I'm just trying to figure out how to bring some income streams to the site so I can pay everyone and be sustainable.
How do you maintain each brand and their visions?
Honestly, both are really extensions of myself and my personal style and aesthetic, so as far as having like “branding” and stuff, I haven’t really done that consciously. I don’t have a background in marketing etc. but I do really know my own taste and what I like - which, if you know me, is very specific. So it hasn’t really been like a "Hella Pinay looks like this, separate from HALIYA which looks like this.” It’s probably something I need to work on haha
What is your self-care routine in dealing the stress that comes with working on multiple brands?
Sleep! No matter how much work I have, I definitely don’t pull all-nighters. Fuck that. When I got sick, I know a lot of it had to do with getting like 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night for like 10 years...so I don’t do that anymore. Also people can call it “boring” but I definitely don’t party like I used to. I miss going out and hella dancing all the time, but I am so happy to rarely if ever waste time being hungover or making stupid decisions that just bring drama. Just being way more moderate in general. Staying drama free! Haha. I meditate every morning, and work out when I can, if I don't I go crazy. I definitely need to get back into a dance practice that’s right for me. And get back to surfing! In this fast-paced world and especially in New York, it's hard to stay healthy but I try to make the time for it as much as possible.
As a "muse", what advice do you have for other creatives looking for inspiration?
Be confident. Know that you are the embodiment of generations upon ancient generations of DNA that joined to create the person who you are. All of the trauma, all of the wisdom, all of that spiritual energy is in you so be proud of who you are and those who came before you. I’ve spent so much time struggling being like, why do I look this way and not that way, I’m not talented enough to show my work to the public, I’m not experienced enough to build a brand alone - and in the end it’s just not productive. It’s wishing for something else instead of accepting what actually is. So many factors came together to put you here now for a purpose. Figure out what it is and how you can use your gifts to serve.
Head to haliya.co to check out their latest lookbook and shop their collections which support Indigenous women artisans in the Philippines
Kristina Bustos is a freelance journalist with a decade of experience covering fashion, entertainment, food, wellness and women of color narratives. She also has worked with older adults for more than four years, currently creating and teaching educational programming such as Filipino American Studies and Women’s Activism in the U.S. You can see more of her writing in The Riveter, Paste Magazine and Essence Magazine.