Under Secretary Em Aglipay-Villar grew up witnessing the inequalities of society so she made it her life’s mission to make a change in the Philippine justice system.
When we talk about poverty one is required to dig deeper into the socio-economic structures that lead to it. Many would blame the poor for being lazy despite all the stories we hear of people working night and day just to make ends meet. There’s the child who needed to skip school to sell goods just so his family can eat something for dinner. Or the mother whose hands are callused from washing so many clothes just so her children can go to school. We begin to understand this through empathy. For Em Aglipay-Villar, empathy came to her at a young age.
“When I was in high school in St. Scholastica’s College, Manila, some of our classes for social studies or religion were not in the classroom but were in the streets. I distinctly remember talking to different labor groups who were on strike and learning about their concerns and the law involved through their stories. We were also brought to a hearing in court involving a community whose houses were illegally demolished. For our religion class we had community development projects as a batch,” Em shares. She would spend weekends educating children in Pandacan and one summer she stayed at one of St. Scholastica’s adopted communities in Palayan, Nueva Ecija. “Another realization was that the law was tied up to a lot of these problems and social ills that we were exposed to. It involved the defense of the vulnerable sectors’ rights,” she says.
From then on, Em was moved to be part of the solution. She decided to take up law and use everything in her power to protect those who are vulnerable and oppressed. For her, law was a way towards justice. “More than just equality and equity, what I seek to achieve is a kind of justice which removes the causes of inequality and inequity—to eradicate the systemic barriers that continue to oppress the most vulnerable and the law is in the middle of this all. I view the rule of law as the vehicle for the promotion and protection of the human rights that allow people to live in dignity,” she shares.
She continued her journey when she became a key figure in the Democratic Independent Worker’s Association, which aimed to protect worker’s rights. The Kasambahay Law and The Magna Carta for Informal Sector Workers are just some of the measures she has authored for the Filipino worker.
In 2018 she was appointed as the Undersecretary of the Department of Justice where she has a bigger role in changing the lives of many Filipinos. “I have always advocated for the protection of the rights of workers, not just as workers but as human beings. Even the work that I do now at the DOJ involves the protection of our OFWs and seafarers against human trafficking,” she says.
When we talk about poverty we have to begin with empathy, but with Em it was never just about learning, but also paving a path to transform, not only her life, but also the people around her. They are right when they said that not all heroes wear capes. Most of the time it is ordinary people who have extraordinary courage to change the world for the better.
What is your earliest fashion memory?
Playing dress-up with my mother’s dresses with shoulder pads and her thick belts that were fashionable in the 80s. I also remember trying on my maternal grandmother’s jewelry. My maternal grandmother had some jewelry that my mother inherited from her and I was always fascinated by them. I still wear some of them until now.
Who was your fashion role model when you were growing up?
My maternal grandmother. I was just a year old when she passed away but she has many photographs and portraits of her wearing the terno and she always looked so tall and regal in every single one of them. Everything she wore in her photos looked so classic and elegant. She was enigmatic and ethereal. Even if she was just at home, she would still look so polished and put together. I wish she could have lived longer.
What is your fashion philosophy?
Fashion should be instinctive. We should not overthink it because it is an expression of who we are—our emotions, moods, personality, desires and aspirations so we naturally gravitate to pieces that convey these.
It should be effortless. It should be spontaneous.
An honest expression of the self through one’s style is always beautiful. Anything that tries too hard or expresses anything other than one’s true self may end up to be pleasing to others, but if it is not an honest expression of the self—it will not be truly beautiful.
What about fashion inspires you?
I am inspired by how—without saying a word, fashion is able to communicate an idea, an emotion, a story and how these in turn can spark change.
Coco Chanel was tired of wearing tight corsets and skirts that were utterly uncomfortable not to mention unsuitable for some activities like riding a horse. Coco decided to just take the pants that a male horse rider was wearing and to make it her own. By wearing pants, which were previously only worn by men, her fashion did not only change how women dress—it was a big step towards women empowerment and it changed the world.
Are you a shoe or bag lover? Or both? What are your favorite brands for both?
I love them both. For bags I have always liked Aranáz for being a pioneer in the use of natural and local materials that truly showcase our Filipino culture. The designs of Aranaz are never boring, and even though they are unique they are not limited to a particular time. I am still able to use my bags from decades ago until today.
My favorite shoe brand is Tish—made by a local designer, Tish Sevilla. They are comfortable yet very stylish. I wear them almost daily to work and are excellent travel companions. Also, they are customized so it is made to fit your feet perfectly. If it doesn’t, then Tish will take it back and tweak it until it fits you perfectly. The shoes are also padded so they are very soft and comfortable.
Do you also love to accessorize? Which designers/brands do you go to for that statement accessory?
I am never without my pieces from Riqueza by Erica Concepcion Reyes. She is my favorite jewelry designer. Her pieces are elegant, classic and simply beautiful. I am drawn to her feminine designs like flowers, butterflies or sea shells. Riqueza’s vintage fine jewelry pieces will make you swoon and sweep you off your feet.
I also love Joyce Makitalo. Her pieces are like no other in the world and her designs are truly exceptional. Everytime I wear her pieces someone compliments it and asks me where I got it. I say proudly that it is by Joyce and that it is Philippine designed and made.
Aiyu Uy’s WH Jewels is also where I get some essential fine jewelry pieces like studs or a tennis bracelet, a cocktail ring, a gold bangle, a chain bracelet, or hoop earrings.
Who are your favorite designers, both local and international?
I have too many favorite local designers. I find though that Joey Samson’s and Ivarluski Aseron’s designs resonate with my mood and tastes more frequently. Both of them make distinctive tailored pieces that reflect my exacting attitude towards many things. Inno Sotto is also a favorite. He is in a league of his own. All my dresses by him are timeless and elegant pieces. Wearing his pieces never fails to make one feel more beautiful. I like JC Buendia’s feminine and classic designs with clean silhouettes. Boom Sason is also a favorite because she is able to make a woman feel more empowered and unapologetically sexy through her designs. I also like Martin Bautista’s unique, fun and colorful designs. One who wears his designs is bound to be the life of the party. Randy Ortiz is my go-to designer for my Filipiniana pieces. The embroidery and the quality of the materials he uses are exquisite. Randy, JC and Boom made the dresses that I wore to my wedding reception and civil wedding ceremony.
For more casual attire, I like designers that have built their design identity on the promotion of our local weaves and embroidery. I always wear Kaayo by Marga Norgrales, Filipinna by Len Cabili, Linea Etnika by Looie Lobregat and Mayor Joy Belmonte, and Ninabel by Nina Corpuz. I also like the easy and relaxed feel of the brands Anika by Anika Martirez, and Alegra by Techie Hagedorn. During lockdown, their pieces are on heavy rotation.
What is your opinion on today’s fashion?
Today’s fashion is becoming more integrated into other industries that have a large role in shaping society—like science and technology, medicine, sports and politics. Because it is an expression of the self, our political inclinations and opinions on issues can be communicated through fashion. For instance, we can choose to only support clothing that have been made by workers who are paid correctly and who are given the proper benefits. We can choose to support brands that employ green methods in making their clothes. Thus one’s fashion statement can be a political statement or an advocacy—like supporting local or promoting our local weaves.
Technology figures in fashion as we now have “smart shoes” that are digitally connected and are able to record biometric data or vibrate when the smart phone has notifications, among others. As industries merge, fashion is becoming a powerful medium to change the world, as much as the other industries are.
What changes happened in your mindset because of the pandemic?
I shifted to a more mindful way of living. Letting go of the unnecessary and slowing down. What is necessary is our family, good health and our faith.
What makes you smile?
My daughter Emma; my husband Mark; animals—dogs, cats, turtles, etc.; food in general—tortang talong and pinakbet (my favorites), hakaw, cakes, cookies and chocolates; babies and children; a new day; nature—a cool breeze, sunset walks, morning meditation, flowers, trees, the beach, the mountains, etc.; a cup of coffee; a good workout; making others smile and seeing others happy; finishing my work; looking at old photos; Mark’s corny jokes; scented candles; lying down after a long day. A lot of things actually. I guess I smile and laugh easily.
What is the most defining moment of your life thus far?
Becoming a mother.
What do you think is the secret to a happy life?