Isabel Santos on winning Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix

Christian Jay B. Quilo
·3 min read

Artist Isabel Santos made headlines in February 2020 when she was announced as the winner of Uniqlo’s UT Grand Prix (UTGP) 2020, besting over 10,000 other entries from across the globe and becoming the first Filipino to win the fashion giant’s annual t-shirt design competition.

Launched in 2005, UTGP is an initiative of the retail brand to invite artists all over the world to express their creativity with the classic t-shirt as the medium. With the theme “Draw Your World,” last year’s competition was done in collaboration with The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Isabel’s winning design, “A Fortune in Jewels Kept in Your Safe,” features quirky retro-esque women’s hairstyles on the front and their matching faces (each one depicting a different emotion) on the back—illustrated in a style akin to old comics, which was integral resource material for her when she was just starting to sketch as a child.

“I learned how to draw using comics. With vintage comics, I like the simplicity of it and the colors. It is less realistic which I prefer,” she shared.

The image was originally a painting that was part of Santos’ 2018 exhibition called “Only What I Want To See.” In relation to the exhibition’s theme, this piece represents the artist’s attempt at creating a version of her reality, a dissection of parts to bring emphasis on what she deems essential. The title of the painting is a line lifted from the book “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez, which she associated with the work. Santos grew up in a family of artists, from her grandfather and parents to her own siblings.

According to her, quality time with the family most often involved trips to galleries and museums. It was only a matter of time before she would pick up a brush and eventually make a name for herself in the art scene.

More than a creative outlet, art is also a reflection of her state of mind and self.

“It really depends on where I am in life and mentally; what things I am exposed to and what I choose to work on. My works are a result of my experiences in life,” she said. What also drew Isabel to art is its ability to stir or evoke emotions in a spectator.

Her go-to is acrylic on canvas, occasionally experimenting with other mediums like clay, but with her latest achievement, her work finds itself on a different kind of canvas: the cotton t-shirt. “I love seeing it in a different way. It feels very tangible. I like that it is, in a way, not intimidating and can be open to many interpretations,” she says on seeing her painting on a t-shirt.

The news of her Uniqlo win came at an unexpected yet opportune time. “I really couldn’t believe it. It was a time when I got mostly rejections from things I applied to, which were nowhere as big as this contest. Maybe it was meant to be,” she reminisced.

Following her latest achievement, she is currently working on her solo show for West Gallery in Manila titled “Over and Over and Over and” slated to open next month. What’s next after that, we ask: “Hopefully another thing unbelievable.”