EXCLUSIVE: The Story Behind the Viral Pokémon-Embroidered Barong by Santi Obcena

EXCLUSIVE: The Story Behind the Viral Pokémon-Embroidered Barong by Santi Obcena


Childhood dreams meet contemporary design as the MEGA Young Designers Competition alum Santi Obcena sparks joy in a Barong Tagalog with the help of Charmander.

Nostalgia can be the ground of creativity—a potent force that fuels our imagination and shapes our artistic endeavors. In childhood, we find ourselves drawn to worlds of fantasy and novelty, where heroes and villains collide in epic battles and dreams burn bright. One such novelty exists in fandom, a community where fans come together to share their love for beloved franchises. This community endures inspiration, guiding us back to the stories and characters that ignited our passion in youth. Santi Obcena pays homage to the nostalgic roots of our lives, circling back to adulthood where catching ’em all still holds a special place in our hearts.

With the idea of Pokémon as the central theme for the barong, the MEGA YDC alum embroiders a playful homage to childhood dreams and pop culture iconography. This icon? Charmander, of course. 

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Santi Obcena creates a Pokémon-embroidered Barong Tagalog

Roots Before Rockets

“It’s something that the groom has been interested in for the longest time,” Obcena reflects. “Since he was a kid, he’s been a big Pokémon fan. I’m also a big Pokémon fan. So I said, let’s play with this.” And play they did. With the enthusiasm of trainers, Charmander’s flame flickered to life. As the design blazed into existence, it ignited memories of childhood wonder and feelings of adulthood nostalgia. 

While not the first, Obcena acknowledges other designers who have specifically gone into embroidery of the traditional garment. RJ Santos of Randolf has practiced this method in his own ways, incorporating themes of missed connections, heartbreak, and even some 1950s diner aesthetics. The Barong tagalog is traditional, and perhaps the idea of nostalgia through embroidery is a prevalent theme. 

Obcena fused the traditional and modern with the use of Pokémon characters like Charmander

“We never anticipated it going viral,” Obcena muses with a hint of surprise. “But then with every project that we do for clients, it’s always a personal thing.” He notes that many people, including himself, continue to engage in different aspects of the Pokémon franchise, such as playing Pokémon Go, a mobile augmented reality game, or exploring other games like Pokémon Unite, Sword and Shield, or the Legends of Arceus. Despite their initial expectations, they never anticipated that the interest in Pokémon would reach such unprecedented levels, such in the case of fashion and tradition.

But don’t underestimate the power of fandom—connections can often feel fleeting, but the bond forged through shared passions is something extraordinary. The realization hit him like a bolt of lightning—this shared love for Pokémon ran deeper than imagined. “We never thought it would go this far,” he confesses. What had started as a fascination, had blossomed into a phenomenon.

From Foundations to Fireworks

It’s all about finding the right balance. Obcena still honors the foundational elements of Filipiniana, such as using classic fabrics like piña and cocoon, as he also incorporates modern techniques like hand-guided machine embroidery to encounter contemporariness. “I wanted it to be a marriage of the old and then the new. I still want it to look like a barong. I don’t want it to look like anything else,” he says.

The designer collaborates with his clients to fulfill the vision

For Obcena, his designs lie in their capability to reflect the wearer’s personality. “Basically it’s still the barong that you know and love but it has more gravity to it because the embroidery that’s featured on the barong that you’re wearing is something that you actually like, something that represents you,” he shares. He highlights the joy of incorporating pop culture references, such as Pokémon, into his designs, noting, “In this case, with Pokémon, it basically represents a lot of people’s childhood. It’s just really fun. It takes out the seriousness in it being the Filipiniana.”

Innovation with Integrity

Obcena acknowledges the challenges that arise, particularly through copyright issues. “I don’t own the characters for Pokémon because they’re basically owned by Niantic and Nintendo,” he explains candidly. Despite this hurdle, Obcena remains committed to his principle of never mass-producing his designs. Each piece is crafted as a one-of-a-kind creation, ensuring the exclusivity of his work.

“Part of our principle in doing all of these custom embroidery is that we never mass-produce anything,” he affirms. “Everything is basically hand-drawn.” In the case of his Pokémon-embroidered barong, Obcena took on the task of redrawing iconic characters like Charizard and Charmeleon, adding his unique touches to the design, including curly queues and fire aspects. 

As the Pokémon franchise is privately owned, Obcena ensures to add hand-drawn elements that uniquely identify him as the designer

Through creation, Obcena shuns the notion of finality, yearning instead for a dynamic assemblage of ideas through creative collaboration. He integrates the client’s vision with his manifestations. This approach allowed for a fluid exchange of ideas, textures, and figures, resulting in a design that was greater than the sum of its parts, and each element enhanced the other to form a cohesive whole. It’s almost like an evolved Pokémon itself.

Old Flames, New Horizons

Obcena emphasizes the importance of understanding the foundations of design before venturing into new territories. He believes that while innovation is essential, it must be grounded in a deep appreciation for the techniques and practices that have come before. However, this reverence for tradition does not equate to rigid adherence to outdated norms. He encourages new designers to push the boundaries of creativity while still paying homage to their roots. 

Obcena encourages new Filipino designers to innovate while also understanding our roots

“When you’re trying to innovate on something, you have to know where it’s coming from, why it happened that way, how people made it that way. So before stepping into the future, you have to know how it was done in the past,” Obcena explains. He adheres that as long as innovations respect the essence of tradition, there are no limits to the artistic freedom one can explore. “Because after that, you can go as crazy as you want, as far as you want with the idea. As long as it doesn’t break it to the point that you cannot recognize it anymore.”

Santi Obcena celebrates Filipino heritage with pop culture

Tradition often takes itself too seriously, and Obcena reminds us to explore the fiery side of design. With his Pokémon-embroidered barong, he celebrates Filipino heritage with a flame of whimsy and a spark of nostalgia. Nostalgia can be the root of creativity, and its execution can bring to life the acceptance of the present. And as the internet continues to buzz over his creations, Santi Obcena is a designer who knows how to catch ’em all—attention, admiration, and maybe even a Charmander or two.

Photos: OAK ST. STUDIOS (via website) and SANTI OBCENA (via X)
Featured Image: OAK ST. STUDIOS (via website)

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