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Tami Colors It Christmas

Walking through Tami Leung's shop feels a lot like walking into a scene from The Christmas Village. Glowing lights lend sparkle to evergreens, while orbs of red, gold, pink and every color imaginable flash like jewels -- some dazzling, others as luminous as pearls. Decorated wreaths, tabletop arrangements and topiaries lay strewn across the parquet floor, while Christmas trees, decked in finery, sit in every corner of the room. It is Christmas in the Leung household, as it always has been every single day for the past 17 years since Tami's decors became such a hit during its first exhibit at the October 1987 FAME show that one buyer, an Italian, immediately placed a big order.

"I had been doing decors for friends even before I exhibited my work at FAME, but this Italian guy was so impressed with what he saw that when I told him I couldn't source enough raw materials for such a big order, he promised to supply me with the materials himself," Tami relates. A few days later, 50 boxes of raw materials arrived at Tami's house, to her surprise and delight. Since Tamilee Decors at the time had no employees, except Tami herself, the cook, nanny and driver, she had to approach some neighbors who wanted to make a few extra bucks to help. The first batch, she reveals, was completed at the family's dining table.

From these humble beginnings, Tamilee has spread her wings and shared to the world her Christmas colors. In 2000, Tami won the coveted Golden Shell Award for Overall Excellence in Export. A favorite of former president Cory Aquino, Tami once decorated the Malacanang Palace and the Arlegui presidential residence during the former's term as president. On one of her state visits, the former president also gave Tamilee Decors as gifts to top US officials, including then president Bill Clinton.

Today, Tamilee Decors employs as many as 1,000 people who work at their Pasig factory during the export season. The former Leung residence at P. Guevarra Street has been converted into a showroom for Color It Christmas, the company that distributes Tami's products in the Philippines.

"Everything just fell into place. My husband, Nelson (who takes care of the financial side of the business) and I were empty nesting at the time when we realized that we could use this big house as a boutique to showcase Tamilee Decors because it is more accessible; going to our factory and warehouse in Pasig has become difficult because of the traffic. Buyers can now come in even without an appointment. Some take pictures and put them in CDs to take home to the US to show others who might be interested in buying from us," Tami relates.

On the day of the interview, Tami is particularly proud as she leafs through the pages of the U.S. special edition catalog of Frontgate featuring Holiday Decors for 2004. A few of her tabletop creations are in the magazine together with a caption that reads: "Floral designer Tami Leung's unique Christmas creations grace the world over. Based on a life-long passion, Tami Leung lives and breathes Christmas 365 days a year - gilded florals, frost on leaves, icicles on fruit - from her home in Manila. Her gorgeous creations have been seen everywhere from Harrod's of London to the hearths and tables of fine homes all over the world."

Since 1987, Tami's products have been sold at top department stores in the U.S. like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Macy's, Dillard's, Bloomingdales and Fortunoff. Tamilee Decors is also available at David Jones in Australia and, of course, Harrod's in England.

This, says Tami, is proof what the Filipino can do, adding that so long as Tamilee has the materials, they can always come up with new and fresh ideas for their designs, guided by the belief of going beyond the usual and expected.

The global look

Tami is known for her use of indigenous materials like capiz or sinamay, but in designing her creations, she is always after what she calls "the global look." She sources from all over the world: ribbons from Belgium and fabrics and flowers from Taiwan, France and India. The fruits and berries are from here, she says, mostly from local trees like agoho, ipil, banaba, langka, talisay, even Baguio pine. Some she picked up from golf courses, like seeds, pea pods, twigs, leaves, as Tami herself is an avid golfer.

Aside from industry forecasts and design trends, guidelines from buyers and the internet, Tami gets her ideas from nature and sometimes from the stuff she sees when she travels abroad. From the wonderful texture of a lace fabric she bought from Belgium, she fashioned a ribbon. Even a single glass bead one time inspired her to do a whole line of decors, based entirely on its copper color.

"Amber and copper is the main theme among jewelry and fashion in the U.S. now," Tami shares, as she points us to the direction of the a 7-ft. Christmas tree, one of her favorites, at the far corner of the room. The tree glows as it stands proud, resplendent in copper, amber and bronze. Adjacent to it is a tabletop arrangement, a topiary and an inverted pot done in the red, orange and gold combination mimicking the colors of the harvest season. "One time, in one of my trips to Hong Kong, I saw a rose done in antique colors, which at that time was not the usual color for a rose, so I decorated a tree with roses and gold. The tree now holds a special place near the main staircase, in all its 12-ft glory.

And the color combinations? "I have a gift for color, really. And the things that I put together almost always comes out nice in the end," says Tami, as she reaches for a berry, a leaf and a twig and holds it side by side to see how the colors would come together. "This is what we call the sample spray. This will decide what the motif will be.

So I'm thinking, hmmm, ano pa kaya ang puwede isama dito sa berry na ito? These are the components that will go with this design," she says. After making the spray, she hands it over to her sample makers. "I tell them: O, here is the spray. I want you to express it in different ways - a topiary, a single tree décor, a tabletop arrangement, a candelabra, on metal, whatever. Show me. Use your imagination. That's how I challenge them."

Tami's sample makers undergo training here and sometimes abroad. Just recently, they attended a flower arrangement seminar sponsored by the Dutch government from which they got fresh ideas.

Year-round business

"When you visit our factory, you will see how the workers are segregated like for instance, kung metalwork, dun ka lang talaga, because that's your specialty. I also employ basketweavers and others who do nothing but sort the raw materials, like pinecones, based on size, shape, etc. These are some of the details that you need to look after, to maintain quality control, otherwise, the end result would be hindi magkakapareho ang size, like, for example, a tree, which would have to fit into a pre-ordered box made especially for shipping the products abroad," says Tami.

There is an 18-month cycle from the inception of design to the actual use of the product. For example, by June of 2004, the sourcing of new raw materials, experimentations with color combinations and finishing techniques begin and continue until showrooms are set up and new lines are displayed in October.

Buyers are presented the new styles, make initial choices and finalize orders by January and March. The products are then shipped by April to distribution centers in the US, at the latest by September. At about the same time, every year, the Pasig factory holds a sample sale where styles for the current year are sold at half price. Overruns, if any, are disposed of during the sale, as are the trims and ornaments used from the previous year.

"All the stuff you see here are brand new items. When we opened this showroom two years ago, it was mainly for the purpose of showcasing our designs to foreign buyers who come here," Tami says. (Later after the interview, Tami excused herself to greet buyers from Bloomingdale's).

Most of her clients buy two whole lines in one visit. "I usually have 12 different design from which my clients can choose, but one will always become the runaway theme. For this year, it's copper and bronze in the US, but I believe that roses will be the 'in' thing for the year 2005." When it comes to decorating a Christmas tree, Tami is definitely on top of it.

Aside from running the business, she manages to squeeze in a few requests from friends to decorate their homes in the season's styles. Baguio, where she grew, is particularly special. She has a house there where they usually celebrate Christmas.
She recalls that when she was a little girl, she would save 25 cents from her allowance as early as June so she could buy gifts for family and friends. The search for the fresh pine tree has always been a tradition in their home. Tami's father would bring all his eight children to the mountains where the giant pine trees were found. When they saw one with the most perfect top, it would be cut and hauled home. "Our father taught us that it would be nice to have a fresh Christmas tree at home, but this can be achieved without having to kill a tree."

Her favorite part was when she would take out all the ornaments from storage and arrange them on the tree. During those days, ornaments were usually imported from Europe and were made of fragile glass.

Tami used to put exquisite crystal balls from Germany on her Christmas tree at the showroom until one day, a little girl accidentally broke one ball. "The child was so scared while the mother was so upset. From then on, I decided not to put fragile ornaments," Tami recounts. Kids can now freely touch everything they see in the showroom. Christmas, after all, should be enjoyed by everyone.

"I love Christmas! It's the best legacy my parents gave. I want to spread it around."

Tamilee Decors can be found at No. 325-A P. Guevarra Street, San Juan, Metro Manila. For details, you may call 724-9110 and 726-7609.

 


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