Grad is Founder of PINAYSPHERE Filipina Youth Arts Organization
Merchandise Product Development Graduate Jen Benitez, who also has a Bachelor’s degree in Art History with an emphasis in Women’s Studies & Multicultural Art from California State University of Channel Islands, has worked in fashion showrooms, as an assistant for designers, and as a photojournalist for Women’s Wear Daily in New York. Today, she’s the founder of PINAYSPHERE, a nonprofit youth arts organization providing mentorship, education, and art to Filipino girls using a decolonial framework. In honor of FIlipino American History Month, PINAYSPHERE is hosting a mixer fundraiser, “Sampaguita In My Pocket,” for their art programs on October 21, 2021 at Herzog Wine Cellars x Tierra Sur in Oxnard, California, where Jen was raised. We chatted with the 2004 graduate to learn more.
What was your path to FIDM like? I remember a guest speaker coming into my high school Economics class my senior year and I was so fascinated. I had never heard of FIDM before, but I was always into fashion. I’d draw my own prom dresses, style friends for their homecoming, et cetera; It was my passion. The following week, I called to make an appointment and I begged my mom to drive me to LA for a tour. When I arrived, I felt like Emma Stone in Cruella when she first stepped foot in the Baroness’ mansion, witnessing her first ever fashion show. One of my fondest memories was the second floor; I went to the restroom and almost dropped dead when I saw all of Dior’s original designs collaged all across the walls.
Even when witnessing all the students with their patterns, tool boxes, and oversized FIDM bags — there was no way anyone was telling me I couldn't go there after that visit! My mom spoke to my dad when we got home, but he wasn’t a big fan of going the vocational school route, especially because I’d get free education from his VA benefits as a military dependent. It took a lot of persuading, but we finally got him to support my decision. I ended up balancing out my commute by train and sometimes by car. It was a brutal commute for such an intense program, but it was worth it and I loved every single minute!
Tell us about your industry experience after graduation? I didn’t have time to intern like the other students because of my commute and because I was a young mom. I worked in showrooms and for a couple designers for a few years as an assistant then ended up moving to New York for better opportunities. Once I arrived in New York, I met so many amazing people. I ended up interning with Women’s Wear Daily and worked for a photojournalist for Fashion Week. I also started teaching fashion classes to youth in Brooklyn, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Working with women or children is always something I've loved. It's why I often choose projects or positions that allow me to work closely with them.
What led you to found PINAYSPHERE? My grandmother. She never got to tell her story as a healer and a matriarch, so I wanted to inspire others like me in the arts and within the Filipino diaspora to make sure they have that opportunity. To be their voice and create a platform where youth can become empowered by their ancestors, elders, and culture, because without that knowledge, you lose sight of it. True identity and real knowing of who you are is by the makeup of what your entire lineage has left behind for you. My curriculum developer, Gigi Bio, created our fashion program called, Design by DNA, where it is broken down into modules. To name a few, Module 1 is Unlearn to Remember; Module 2 is Art Meditation & Visioning; Module 3 is Channeling Intuition and Divine Creation.
'Roots' by Reina Quinonez, 18, fashion designer from Brooklyn, New York and PINAYSPHERE mentee
It makes me proud that programs like this are created within my organization and that I have the power to educate the Filipino girls (pinays) with it. It gives me hope that we can keep our narratives alive. At first, I wanted to curate an exhibition with all Filipina-American artists surrounding themes of the pre-colonial era, colorism, culture, et cetera, however, the universe had something bigger in mind!
How did FIDM help prepare you for your career? In so many ways, but some of the takeaways that I’d like to mention is that it was awesome to work with teachers who worked in the industry. They’d give you the inside scoop about how you can get your foot in the door and always gave us the best advice. It helped me with a lot of my fashion jobs after graduating, especially in the ways I've learned how to network. One teacher always told me, "Networking will be your key to everything. Your skills come second, but the power of how you build relationships with those in this business will always be a priority." I never forgot that and still live with that mindset to this day!
Anything else you'd like to share? PINAYSPHERE is always looking for local and remote volunteers, youth leaders, and more artists to get involved!
For more information about the “Sampaguita In My Pocket” mixer event on October 21, 2021, visit PINAYSPHERE.eventbrite.com. RSVP is required due to COVID protocols.
Learn more online at PINAYSPHERE.org and on Instagram @pinaysphere.
Photography | Lichiban @lichiban