I come from a small island in the Philippines called Palawan, but I'm currently living in Los Angeles where it’s warm but the water is always cold.

Palawan is one of the top tourist destinations in the Philippines. It’s got a lot of insane lagoons, waterfalls, underground rivers—stuff like that. My family, they're all still there. They think I'm crazy for living out here.

In Palawan, life is very different. It’s very relaxed. Everybody meets up for a drink almost every day. Here, it's like, “Sorry, I can't meet you. I have some other thing.” Everything needs to be an appointment, you know?

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I remember really wanting a pair of red wide-leg pants because I was obsessed with Gwen Stefani, so I asked my mom if I could learn how to sew.

I grew up being outdoors all the time. My parents have this thing where they want to live as far away from the city center as possible. So we basically lived on a hill and our “next door neighbor” was over a mile away. We didn’t have cable or TV or internet, so it was a lot of playing with my four brothers outside and trying to think of things to do. We didn't even have a phone line until I was 14 or 15. We weren't backwards in any way, it was just that my parents were like, “We're going to live here in the middle of nowhere.”

I was always very particular about my clothes, but I think I was around 15 when I got into fashion. I was a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of person, but I was very particular about the fabrics I would let touch my skin. And living in Palawan, which is humid and hot, I always wanted to wear natural fabrics. But in the ‘90s and early 2000s, there was basically nowhere to shop. You had to fly out to Manila. I remember really wanting a pair of red wide-leg pants because I was obsessed with Gwen Stefani, so I asked my mom if I could learn how to sew. I wanted to make my own clothes.

The Philippines is a very conservative society. It’s changing a lot now, but when I lived there, it was very patriarchal. A woman was supposed to act and dress and do things in a certain way. So I started college in the Philippines but, long story short, I got kicked out. Then I went to fashion school, but that didn’t feel like it was enough of an education for what I wanted. So I was just like, I'm gonna try living in another country, and the easiest one to get to was the United States because my aunt was living in San Francisco.

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I would see someone wearing assless chaps at nine o’clock in the morning.

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I moved right before the tech boom happened, so it was still extremely raw and cool. I was half culture-shocked and half-amazed. I loved how people were really crazy and weird. I mean, I would see someone wearing assless chaps at nine o’clock in the morning. It was really cool. I could dress how I wanted, do whatever I wanted, and nobody would give a shit.

I finished my degree there and met my husband there, but I left when everybody started dressing the same and it came more fleece-y. At that point I also was so sick of the weather that I was like, “Alright, I need a change.” It was either L.A. or New York, but I didn’t think I could handle winter.

Everybody in San Francisco talks shit about L.A. but the one time I came out here to visit, I was just like, “I don't know what everybody's talking about because this place is cool.” You have the beach, you can go hiking, and it's warm all the time. And there’s more of a fashion industry here than in San Francisco.

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I worked at an off-price retailer in the handbag division. We made the crappiest bags ever. Not just design-wise, but how they were made, too. They would pay somebody in China five dollars, and then after three or six months, it would start disintegrating. Or they would find out that somebody else was going out of business and swoop in with the lowest ball offer for all the merchandise. I was disgusted with the whole thing, and I just wasn’t very proud of what I was doing. I was getting paid really well, but I was ashamed to tell people what I did for a living. After two and a half years of getting promoted and promoted, I was just like, “You know what? If they promote me one more time, I'm probably never going to quit.” I would be too comfortable. I thought, I need to do this now.

So I quit my job. I'd always wanted to have a clothing line, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. There's a lot of noise in the fashion industry, so I decided I’d take my time and figure out what my message would be. I started selling vintage and then realized that I was always veering towards the essentials, like sweatshirts and T-shirts. So I was like, yes, I’m going to do this, but how do I make it special? How do I not be the same as everybody else?

I thought about what I liked and the people that I admired in the industry and came to the conclusion that I wanted to do lower-impact clothing that hit all the spots for me: accessible price points, ethically made fabrics, and good design that’s not really granola-y. So I started BackBeatRags.

People always ask me about the name. A “backbeat” is an offbeat note, but it kind of makes the whole song. There’s no deep meaning there—I just thought it was cool, honestly.

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I started selling my line at outdoor markets. I did Melrose Trading Post for a while, and then I started doing craft fairs, and from that I met store owners who started placing orders.

One of the other girls at these craft fairs bought a shirt from me. She wore it to a store in Berkeley called Neeko, and they were like, "Oh my god, where did you get that?" That was my first order. So the growth of the company has been pretty organic, I feel.

Now, though, we’re thinking beyond T-shirts and sweatshirts and really focusing on essentials. That could be a jacket, a T-shirt, or a pair of pants. Nothing too crazy—not some special, frilly dress. I’m trying to to make things that you can just wear every single day, and show people that it can be done using better fabrics.

I'm not gonna lie: it's hard to get any line off the ground, period. And then to box yourself in to using exclusively ethically sourced fabrics and not being able to compromise? Somebody will come up to me and say, "I have this great fabric. It's 40% recycled cotton and 60% regular cotton.” And I'm just like, “No, I'm sorry I can't do that.” That’s a lot of my hardship when it comes to designing. It’s also hard because not a lot people use these fabrics, which means they’re not well-stocked. So at the start of the year, I have to be really mindful of what I'm going to be doing for the whole year because the fabric buys have such large minimums that I need to make sure that I'm able to use them.

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I started off using organic cotton, but hemp was always my dream fabric. It's very expensive, but I started using hemp in my second collection and now I think we're at 50%.

I was really inspired by Jungmaven. He uses 100% hemp, and that is my goal because it's such a wonder crop. I feel like hemp doesn't get as much attention as other natural fabrics because it's not as easily accessible and it's a little bit more expensive. But people are using it more and more. Just in the past two years, even, I’ve seen a lot of independent labels that are now using better fabrics, which is great because hopefully all these mills will start stocking them instead of asking us to order so much in advance, which kills our cash-flow.

Hemp is just really cool because it uses fewer natural resources, like water, and it doesn't damage the soil as much as conventional cotton or other crops. You can basically use the hemp plant for everything: construction, paper, and the oil can be turned into body products. The amount of stuff that you can make from that single plant is insane. From a fabric standpoint, it really wears well: the more you wash it and the longer you have it, the more it softens. And it's moisture-wicking, so if you're sweating a lot, it kind of just dissipates it and then it doesn't hold odor like cotton does.

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When I moved to L.A., I started to smoke weed to smoke weed, but also smoke weed to go to sleep.

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I first tried smoking weed when I was a teenager in the Philippines. I don't know what they do with the weed out there but it's dry as fuck. Basically, they don't trim it very well. You still get seeds—it cracks and pops. Hash is also popular there, so I used to smoke that.

When I moved to L.A., I started to smoke weed to smoke weed, but also smoke weed to go to sleep. I suffer from anxiety and depression, so I can barely sleep sometimes and it helps. It’s funny, I said to my doctor, “You know, I can't sleep well at night but I'm trying not to smoke too much weed because I don't know if it’s healthy for me." And she was like, "Honestly, I'd rather have you smoke weed than give you an Ambien prescription." So I was like, "Alright, I'm going to keep smoking weed then.” But we can have weed basically anytime and anywhere at this point, so it’s not something I’m trying to do all the time.

I smoked a joint last night that came from MedMen. It knocked me out and I really appreciated that. It's cool to go in once and show people, like, “This is a thing here that you can just go and shop at an Apple store for weed." But I feel like it’s very impersonal. I'm getting older, so I also appreciate a more home-grown experience and, like, going your neighborhood dispensary. I honestly still use delivery.

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In my downtime, I sleep and I go to the beach. My husband and I have a Doberman and a Chihuahua mix so we just take them on a lot of walks. And I travel a lot, because that's the only time I can really separate myself from the business. Recently I went to Mexico City, that was the bomb. And we’re huge fans of Japan. If I could go there every single year, I would. There’s a direct flight from here to the Philippines, so it's pretty easy to get home. I think that’s one of the reasons why I never left the West Coast. I go at least once a year.

It's funny, I love my life in L.A., but I also feel the way a lot of people who have lived in two very different countries do: It’s this feeling of being half-there and half-here. I lived in the Philippines until I was 23 and everybody in my family is still out there. There's always this question of whether I should stay here or go back. I could be sitting on a beach right now and drinking and not schlepping five rolls of fabric.

I’ve been here 10 years, so the way I think now is essentially more American than Filipino at this point. And my husband is white as fuck. He’s from Kentucky. I refuse to live in a city in the Philippines: if I’m moving back home, I’m living on the beach. So I don’t know how he would fair living there. Who knows, maybe he'll like it more than I do.

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Isadora Alvarez photographed by Brian Guido at her home in Los Angeles. This Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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