When the BPO company she was working for closed at the peak of the pandemic in 2020, Lesley Anne Pino had nothing else to do.
Apart from her full-time, work-from-home (WFH) job, her world revolved around her family – her husband and a two-year old kid.
Months before the Telstra main site in Cebu closed shop, Pino decided to return to painting to ward off boredom. Painting has been a big part of her life since childhood, albeit without professional training. But despite that, her works were marvelous, claimed her Mom, she said.
“I stopped painting when I stepped into college. I’m a nursing graduate and I have a master’s degree that I wasn’t really able to take advantage of. Nevertheless, I believe everything has a purpose. And mine, I realized, came at just at the perfect timing,” she said.
From the plain, durable, woven canvass, Pino transitioned to using woven mats of Pandan leaves as her canvass, the very material she used for her handcrafted, hand painted native bags.
That was not long before she posted a photo of a hand painted bag she gifted to the former dean at the College of Nursing from where she graduated. That post rained orders from very interested clients, she recalled.
To formalize her entry into the world of entrepreneurs, she registered her business as sole proprietorship and organized her crafts under the Casa de Pinta brand. Since February 2021, her day was not complete without new queries, more orders and increasing interest for customized painted bags.
“At first, I thought I can handle all by myself. I was expecting about 30 orders a week but it became 40 and more. And given how a bag is painstakingly crafted, I created a team of 7, including me and my driver as my core designers and artists. I have 5 artists who does the draft and I do the polishing. But for difficult and customized It’s interesting how I came to meet and allow them to be part of my crew,” she said.
Her motley crew of artists include a cancer survivor who does the letters of Casa de Pinta’s best selling bag—the ‘Dior-inspired bayong”—a well-loved woven bag preferred by older buyers. Another is an artist who just came out from a drug rehabilitation facility, a 14-year old student, and 2 of the most accessible talents she found in Cebu.
She also supports a community of weavers up the mountains of Negros Occidental and a group of skilled sewers. The weavers gather and dry the leaves, then weave the leaves through a process called matting. The sewers cut the matted leaves and put the parts together following a designated frame for every style. The final act is the painting of the chosen design where a replicate or customized design th owner.
“Seventy percent of my customers have no idea what they like. The just go for what they see in my (FB) page. But some have their own ideas they want me to capture for them. I remember a client who insisted I draw a moment in her life when she first met her husband back in her college days. The scene is a set of lovers in the Sunken Garden in UP Diliman. I’ve never been there. But when I finished the commissioned piece, she was teary-eyed. Apparently her husband died the year before. That moved me and made me want to create more unique and touching pieces,” Pino said.
There are several commemorative pieces that Casa de Pinta have worked on, including a batch of bags commissioned by the family of President BongBong Marcos, Jr. as tokens during the campaign.
She admits that her bags are a bit pricey compared to other brands. The long process from the which the product is crafted and the ingenuity that comes with every piece makes for an exquisite piece of art that is priceless, she said.
As orders poured and Casa de Pinta gained more popularity, Pino said she was struck by the thought of having to care for his workers like an extended family, given their dire circumstances.
“I’ve never been responsible for anybody except my self and my family. But having my team onboard and the differing circumstance of their existence boosted my faith. Before all of this, I have never had this much faith in God. I don’t know for certain if this is because I was abandoned by my father as a child. I never knew him and there was not an iota of longing for him.I grew up not expecting anything from anybody. I learned to be self-sustaining and independent,” she said.
Pino still does some commissioned paintings but her focus right now is her bag, from which she gained popularity among the political circles in Cebu.
Governor Gwen Garcia of Cebu has been her most active and loyal supporter, who introduced her to many local and well-known politicians from Manila. She’s dealt with many commissioned pieces from Congressmen and Senators and did a couple of pieces for celebrities like Jinky Pacquiao and Andie Eigenman.
The piece she crafted for Pacquiao was an intense, intricate design with only only 8 pieces crafted, rendering the bag a precious find. The last and final piece went to an OFW fan of Pacquiao based in Australia, who paid a premium for the bag. Pino, then decommissioned the design to keep the exclusivity of commissioned designs. She also plans to decommission earlier designs particularly the intricate ones and limit the production to 5 pieces for every design.
The bag bought by Eigenman was a medium sized-backpack for her daughter Ellie. The design is a fresh take of the seas, meant to be more of millennial vibe for a younger market.
The idea of creating hand painted bags for a younger set of clients has not occurred to Pino until the backpack piece. She thought the handmade pieces she designs and paints are befitting only of mothers and mature clients. The realization pushed her to widen the styles and crafted more colorful and lively designs that will interest the younger crowd.
Majority of her clients are from Luzon whom she never met, since transactions were made online. But having had a taste of the physical market when she joined an exhibit organized by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Cebu in November 2022, Pino’s outgoing nature was piqued and she intends to join more trade fairs while raising her bar of expectation to conquer the international stage once opportunity beckons.
One thing about her business was that, it was global before it was local, she shared.
“Before, my focus was to serve the demands of my distributors abroad. I have been catering to 9 markets since I officially started the business. They communicated with me after they saw my bags on FaceBook. But now that I only have 4 remaining international clients, I took it as a signal to saturate the local market since domestic demand is growing rapidly, as we speak,” Pino said.
Casa de Pinta used to export to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, UAE and 2 states in the US. Sales was good but the pandemic must have adversely affected the wearable and fashion sector, Pino mused, after she lost more than half of her international base.
Two states in the US – Maryland and Texas – continue to buy from her, as well as Norway and France. Paris is her biggest distributor where a client rented out a small boutique in Paris Square for her unique bags.
“It is my biggest dream to escort my bags to an international exhibit, where people can see and experience the beauty of my craft. My bags have actually been used in fashion shows in Norway but sadly, I’m not there to witness this,” she said.
Casa de Pinta regretted not having answered a call from Center for International Trade and Exhibit (CITEM) for an offer to have her bags join the prestigious, high-profile trade fairs that CITEM is known for. Pino said the brand never got to it since December is busiest month for the business. The gifting month had workers working double time to fill in inventories while many OFWs who are returning to work overseas were also pressed to demand for faster delivery.
This 2023, as her brand turns two, she vows to endeavor to set-up a showroom where her works will be open to the public, where she can meet clients and transact business, not breaking away from the virtual platform but expanding the brand’s grasp of the physical market.
She now dabbles into painting shoes which she launched at the November exhibit in Cebu. She has a contract with a Marikina shoemaker to craft the shoes under her brand, all flats and doll shoes.
Pino has also started a few pieces of hand painted straw hats for her discerning high-profile buyers. She’s still drafting some new designs before she introduces them as part of her hand painted collection, while still in the pipeline are plans to produce hand painted apparels. All her wearable collections will be part of her Casa de Pinta brand.
While her products are recognized for their craftsmanship, beauty and utility, Pino has agreed to do some commissioned works of painting luxury bags with customized designs for uppity market.
She considers all her products as precious artworks, same for her luxury painting, as she calls them, which is a passion she has recently discovered. In 2022, Pino has finished 5 luxury paintings for owners of Louis Vuitton and Hermes bags.
“I was truly amazed by the confidence the owners have in me. I mean, just to touch their expensive bags gives me the shivers. What if I damage them or make a mistake beyond salvage. I’m really very careful when painting over their bags. I takes me at least a month to 2 months before I finalize a painting,” she said.
Right now, the brand is struggling to meet the demand, but Pino is happily worried. She may expand her staff soon.
“The measure of success for me is when I see people happy. People may find it a cliche that my goal is to find everyone’s happiness through my bags. But as long as I make my clients happy and my workers happier, I knew I have found my purpose,” she said.