PIPOL: Yes, heartbreak changes people, sometimes for the best
MANILA — Heartbreak is often said to cause a turning point in one’s life, whether through a self-imposed limit on expectations and personal attachment, or as a surge of motivation for self-improvement.
The change, in the case of shoe designer Jojo Bragais, came serendipitously. Isolating himself to heal from a failed relationship, he instead came across an opportunity that would make his name a staple in Philippine pageantry.
Bragais, who has been credited by Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray as instrumental to clinching the title, was in fact so far removed from the world of crowns and sashes at the time, as he had been set on pursuing a career as a licensed midwife and nurse.
After finishing school, the long-term plan was to work abroad where his profession was in demand, “but things change, and sometimes we end up sa isang bagay na hindi natin inaasahan.”
The catalyst of that change was heartbreak.
“Hindi ako nakapag-work kasi that time because I was lost. Sometimes when you’re younger, feeling mo ‘yung love is actually the best thing na puwede mangyari sa ‘yo, na feeling mo, pagmamay-ari mo ‘yung mundo. Feeling mo kayo lang ‘yung nag-i-exist,” he said, referring to his former girlfriend.
“Eventually ‘pag siya ‘yung ginawa mong sentro ng buhay mo, eventually ‘pag nawala, it will fail. Pati ‘yung sarili mong mundo, guguho siya. Ganu’n ‘yung nangyari sa akin,” Bragais recalled.
His dreams then were tied to his relationship. The future, in his mind, always included his partner. And they were working towards that, Bragais said. When the relationship ended, he felt he no longer had a direction.
“Feeling ko wala na akong pangarap, hindi ko na alam kung ano ‘yung gusto ko, kasi ‘yung pangarap na gusto ko ay ‘yung pangarap ko para sa kanya. Noong nawala siya, nawala rin ang lahat,” he said.
Bragais spiraled into depression. He turned to alcohol so he could sleep at night, and became reckless. He was already dead — at least that’s how he felt — and so had nothing to lose. “Lahat ng bagay na feeling ko will make me alive, I will do it,” he said.
“Dumating sa point na I tried taking my own life, kasi parang feeling ko wala nang silbing mabuhay,” Bragais said, recounting the attempt as resulting in a car accident.
His life was spared. In the hospital, Bragais woke up to his mother crying, who until that point he had kept his struggles from. There should be no fear in loving again, Bragais recounted his mother as saying, but the priority now was healing.
“‘You should start to appreciate other forms of love,’ sabi niya. Like love for family, love for friends. Kasi iyon ‘yung mga bagay na kinalimutan ko, e, kasi I tried to think na parang ‘yung mundo nandoon lang sa ex-girlfriend ko,” he said.
“Sabi niya sa akin, ‘Mag-walwal ka, magliwaliw ka, gawin mo lahat ng puwede mong gawin para lang feeling mo maka move on ka, pero do not ever try na magpakamatay ulit. Okay lang maglibing ang anak ng magulang, pero ‘yung magulang ang maglilibing ng anak, sobrang sakit nu’n,’” Bragais narrated.
Bragais sought to regain himself. He traveled to Caramoan, Camarines Sur where he would start his process of reflection and “soul-searching.” The stay lasted two months, during which he met new people and felt valued again. The mission was not without setbacks — triggers of memories would often come up — but Bragais stayed on course.
While the goal was to move on, he ended up achieving something else: becoming the owner of a shoe factory. Bragais had been touring the municipality when a friend pointed at the factory, which at that point was no longer in use. By some stroke of luck, the owners were there, too.
The exchange of pleasantries became a conversation, and later, a business transaction. The owners asked Bragais if he wanted to buy the property, and he said yes.
“Sa buong buhay ko, iyon ang isang decision na never ko pinag-isipan, pero never ko rin naman pinagsisihan,” he said.
Bragais had to sell personal items, and used up much of the money his mother had gifted him to help him with his personal recovery. Pooling money for the capital was a different undertaking, but that, too, he managed. The challenge was to make profit in order to pay the remaining balance.
Coming from the medical field, Bragais was admittedly clueless about shoe design and manufacturing. The decision to run a shoe factory, after all, came on a whim.
“Noong unang mga time na gumagawa ako ng shoes, ‘yung inspirasyon ko lang is galit. I would want to use my anger wisely. Sabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘Sa susunod na magkikita tayo, mahihiya ka talaga of the kind of person I’ve become,’” he said, referring to his ex-girlfriend.
Over the next seven months, Bragais unwittingly converted the anger to productive commitment, as he studied the craft initially by dedicating hours to YouTube tutorials, and then under the tutelage of a traditional shoemaker.
With a total of three workers, including him, Bragais started to take on clients. His inexperience as an entrepreneur ruined a promising prospect, however. Committing 3,000 pairs to a client within a strict time frame, Bragais’ group only managed 300. The deal broke down, triggering another dark episode for Bragais.
“During those times, ang lagi ko na lang sinasabi, ‘I can do this, I was born to be a winner.’ …Kino-convince ko ‘yung sarili ko na this time, I should do this again, I should get that winning spark ulit within me,” he said.
The spark turned out to be an act of kindness. A friend of Bragais, Yvethe Santiago, sought to join Binibining Pilipinas in 2014. As his way of supporting the aspiring queen, Bragais pledged to supply her with the footwear she needed for the duration of the pageant.
Santiago was eventually crowned Binibining Pilipinas-Supranational. She placed in the top 20 of the international Miss Supranational pageant in Poland.
During Santiago’s bid in Binibining Pilipinas, the pageant’s founder Stella Marquez-Araneta happened to notice the candidate’s footwear, according to Bragais.
“Sabi niya, ‘Sino’ng gumawa ng shoes mo? Parang maganda.’ Pinatawag nila ako, they said, ‘I like your shoes, but I want this kind of color for the girls… How do you like the idea of being our official shoe provider for the next year?’
“Noong una parang hindi ko siya binigyan ng atensyon, kasi akala ko joke-joke lang, akala ko parang bugso lang ng damdamin. Wala naman akong masyadong alam sa pageantry. Eventually noong ginawa ko na siya, ‘yung pagtanggap ng tao, sobrang bilis, sobrang laki,” he said.
The exposure in the succeeding national pageant yielded great opportunities for Bragais — a spate which continues today, on his fourth year as the official shoe partner of Binibining Pilipinas.
“Ang nangyari, nagkaroon ako ng kaunting name when it comes to pageantry. ‘Pag sinabi nilang pageant shoes, dapat naka-Bragais ka. Kasi ‘pag hindi ka naka-Bragais, it’s either hindi ka sosyal or baguhan ka sa pageant. Parang naging ganu’n ‘yung branding ng line ko,” Bragais said.
The main draw of his designs for beauty queens, Bragais surmised, is its comfortable fit which helps establish a candidate’s stage presence through her walk.
“‘Di ba sinasabi, ‘Philippines is a powerhouse [in pageantry],’ so marami na ring umu-order na mga taga ibang bansa. Sinasabi nila na maybe magaling maglakad ‘yung mga Filipino sa catwalk kasi comfortable ‘yung shoes nila,” he said.
At the time Bragais’ name was rising in the pageant scene, he met Catriona Gray through a mutual friend, Miss World Philippines 2014 Valerie Weignmann.
Gray, an Australia-born Filipino-Scottish model, was then a familiar face to television viewers through her various appearances in commercials. Already, Bragais saw potential in Gray as a beauty queen.
“Hindi pa sumasali si Cat ng pageants noon. Sabi ko sa kanya, ‘Alam mo ang ganda mo, you should try to join pageantry.’ Sinasabi niya pa sa akin dati, ‘I don’t see myself in pageantry, I’m modeling,’” Bragais recalled.
Two years later in 2016, Gray phoned Bragais. Her opening line was: “Hi, Kuya Jo. I decided to join a pageant.”
In October that year, Gray, wearing a Bragais pair, was crowned Miss World Philippines. She also sported shoes from her designer-collaborator two months later in the US, as she vied for the Miss World crown.
“Noong hindi siya pinalad na manalo, sobrang masakit ‘yun sa amin na mga tropa niya,” Bragais recalled. “Isa ako sa mga tinawagan niya. She was crying. Alam ko na she deserved it. Pero alam mo minsan, iyon nga ‘yung sinasabi ko — na may mga bagay na it’s either not for you, or hindi mo pa oras.”
Gray’s time came a couple of years later in 2018, when she was crowned Binibining Pilipinas-Universe, then Miss Universe. Time and again, she has individually credited her collaborators, now popularly known as Team Catriona, for the country’s triumph. They after all assembled an unforgettable pageant bid that teemed with national pride, imbibed effortlessly by Gray.
Aside from providing Gray’s shoes, Bragais helped finance certain requirements, and co-directed her pre-pageant videos showcasing destinations in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.
“Ang naging role ko talaga, una, maging mabuting kaibigan, and pangalawa, I will be there [para] sa kanya sa time na kailangan niya ako,” he said.
“Noong mga time na tinutulungan ko siya, never ko siya naisip na… I don’t see her as a moneymaking person or machine, kasi para sa ‘kin, gusto ko lang talaga siya tulungan,” Bragais added.
But just as his act of kindness towards Yvethe Santiago in 2014 led to his brand becoming a pageant-favorite, Bragais once again saw his deed returning exponentially.
“Na-realize ko, sometimes when you do good, babalik din talaga siya nang maganda. ‘Pag naramdaman ng isang tao na you’re very honest in what you do and you’re very genuine, ibabalik niya rin ‘yun sa best possible way na kaya niya. Feeling ko, iyon ‘yung ginawa ni Cat for me,” he said.
After Gray’s Miss Universe win, even bigger doors opened for Bragais. National directors of foreign pageants, for instance, have inquired about having Bragais supply their official shoes for candidates. His clientele now includes international celebrties, with the likes of pop stars Mel B, Bebe Rexha, and Dua Lipa wearing his creations.
His showroom in Quezon City was at one point also “overwhelmed” with foot traffic, immediately following the release of a video of Gray giving a tour of the Bragais collection.
Bragais, the brand, is now no longer just shoes. The label has expanded to include menswear, bags, fragrance, and makeup.
“‘Yung dream ko naman sa Bragais is actually to be a brand Filipinos can be proud of. There’s LV, there’s Gucci from other countries. Gusto ko, meron ding Bragais mula Pilipinas na everyone could be proud of, na talagang gawang Pinoy because everything is just made here,” he said.
A new dream, something he once thought impossible. A new direction, which he makes strides toward every day.
“Everything happens for a reason,” so goes the adage which Bragais now firmly believes. His heartbreak, his survival, his chance tour leading to the doorstep of an abandoned shoe factory — all of which led to Bragais, the brand, making it to the world stage.
“Maraming beses na umiiyak na ako, I even questioned myself na, ‘Is it worth it? May pupuntahan pa ba ‘to?’ Siguro kung hindi ko ‘to na-experience, kung hindi ko na-experience ‘yung ganu’ng heartbreak, I will never be as strong, I will never be as open-minded kung ano ako ngayon,” he said.
Addressing those who may have grappled, or is grappling with a similar struggle, Bragais went on: “If you’re heartbroken and feeling mo wala ka nang chance or nawalan ka ng direksyon sa mundo, or at some point parehas ko na you’re planning to take your own life — it’s not the end for you.
“Every ending has a new beginning. Sikapin mo lang mabuhay on a daily basis, kasi lahat ng bagay magiging okay. Walang bagay na nangyayari na not for a reason. You just need to be patient and just hang tight. Everything will be fine. Lakasan mo lang ‘yung loob mo. Kung nagawa ko siya, I’m pretty sure you will make it, too.”