Jay Aldeguer: Tall T-Shirt Tales


From souvenir shirts to tourist taxis, Jay Aldeguer has etched his name as one of the most creative and innovative entrepreneurs in the Philippines. His life story is as colorful as his popular and much loved T-shirts carrying the Islands Souvenir brand.

Jay started out his business in a cart in a mall. Then he opened his first branch in Cebu, making three times his investment in the first year. On his third year, he was already invited to set up an outlet in SM. Today, Jay has 70 outlets in the country, including stores and kiosks. The business has expanded globally; Island Souvenirs is in Japan, USA, Singapore and Macau. His souvenir store concept has evolved into Islands Banca Cruises, Islands Stay Hotels and now Islands Taxi Service. Aldguer has also ventured into media and entertainment. His Escape is the leading events company in Cebu; and his CeBu! TV Channel 28 is a 24-hour regional channel featuring the city and its people.
Jay was 27 and the youngest to be awarded “The Outstanding Young Men” for Business Entrepreneur by then President Fidel Ramos in 1992. He received the Agora Award for Business Entrepreneur, and the Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year.” He is part of the first batch of the prestigious PLDT Bossing Awardees.
When Vision Petron added a new T-shirt Art Design category in 2011, Jay was invited to lend his expertise in this new but very popular expressive medium of the youth. We asked him a few questions about t-shirts and how a frustrated artist like him can be a successful businessman – while still having fun: and pursuing his passion:

Q. Your success story mainly involves a company can make it big even if it is far from Manila. Can you tell us how your company, Islands Souvenirs started? Can you walk us through your struggle to inspire others?

A. When I was 21, immediately after college, I went backpacking to Europe as a graduation present from my parents.  I’d collect souvenirs in every place I’d visit.  Initially, I bought figurines and books and other items until I realized I wasn’t going to last the rest of the trip if I continued buying heavy items and stuffing them in my bag.  So after my second leg, I decided to stick to souvenir shirts which not only turned out to be great souvenirs but also a great change of clothes.  When you’re backpacking, you don’t have the luxury of doing your laundry all the time.  I ended my travel with a couple of dozen shirts from different places.

But it was my travel around the Philippines after Europe that gave me the idea of a potential business. I remember I was in Baguio at Mines View Park when I asked the sales lady for their top-selling shirt.  To my amazement, she pulled out a shirt with the exact same design as the souvenir shirt my parents bought for me when I was ten years old. 

Baguio, the top destination in the Philippines then, did not even have a decent souvenir shirt to offer.  That, I recall, was a “light bulb” moment that inspired me to look into this business.  While there were handicrafts and woodworks souvenirs galore, I felt there was a big potential for “practical” souvenirs.  Furthermore, the souvenir industry had been perceived as a cottage industry, one that never evolved not only in the Philippines but even in the most sophisticated international destinations.

Having gone back to my hometown in Cebu was also timely since the airport had just been converted into an international airport and the world-renowned Shangri-la Resort had just opened which was the beginning of Cebu’s climb as the country’s top travel destination.

Being a Cebu-based company is actually very strategic especially because of the industry we are in and the fact that the top destinations such as Bohol, Boracay, and Palawan are nearer to Cebu than they are to Manila. 

Q. From where can you trace its continuing success? What is your definition of its success?

A. Success in the realm of business is able to execute one’s dream or imagination and make it sustainable and profitable.  Aside from that, we find great fulfillment in creating an impact in the community and the country.  For instance, the destination shirts we produced in the early 90s helped change the Filipino’s colonial mentality of constantly wearing destination shirts of foreign places that has “California” or “Hawaii” on them.  Because of our exciting and colorful designs which projected the true fun character of the Philippine islands, Filipinos started wearing them a lot and the shirts became “mini billboards” to promote the different places in the country. 

Our formula of “tweaking” an existing but thriving business has worked for us in all our other subsidiaries starting with Islands Souvenirs to Islands Banca Cruises, Islands Pasalubong, Islands Stay Hotels, and Islands Pinoy Deli.

Q. What is in a T-shirt that makes it still an effective marketing or branding tool in promoting values or an advocacy?

A. A T-shirt is about self-expression – a way for the wearer to express his beliefs, likes, dislikes, and other personal details in a cool and hip way. Most people underestimate its importance but the marketing power of a T-shirt is simple and very effective. It is a wearable medium of communication. Regardless of what kind of design, message, or statement is on the shirt, the wearer immediately becomes a brand ambassador and a human billboard, relaying the brand or design to others. The T-shirt empowers the wearer. In a way, he represents the brand or whatever statement the shirt projects. This in turn transforms the shirt into an inspirational symbol.  Also, a T-shirt evokes a sense of tribe among the wearers, creating an exclusive clique where individuals bond over a shared concept. The T-shirt can be a vehicle for these people to express shared ideals.  

Q. What for you makes a good t-shirt design?

A. A good design can be as simple as one having a strong visual and aesthetic impact.  But some designs become more than just a visual expression; some convey a strong message and a projection of one’s character and feelings.  For instance, our customized “i heart” series was very simple but captured the imagination of millions professing their love for their place. Another recent example was the #Bangon T-shirt series during the calamity-laden Visayas in 2013. The shirt and campaign was an instant hit and allowed us to raise funds to contribute to the rehabilitation of the Yolanda and Bohol quake victims.  The shirt design was simple but the message touched a nerve especially at a time of despair. 

Q. Can you provide tips on how to come up with a winning entry?

A.  Differentiate. As a very fluid medium, the design is very critical in terms of its ability to stand out, to capture the imagination, to relay the message, and to create an immediate impact without being too outrageous. It is all too easy to follow a current trend in aesthetic especially if there is a common design concept. The challenge is how to be different yet remain strongly relevant. 
Simplify. Avoid being too many things at once. Have a single-minded focus. This strengthens and solidifies the concept, making it more credible and believable. 

Q. You have been our judge in the T-shirt art design category since we introduced it in 2011. Can you remember what your expectations were then? What do you expect from students now? Or what do you still want to see the competition evolve into?

A. The fact that Vision Petron added a T-shirt design category signifies Petron’s commitment to continue being relevant especially to the youth.  This is a very strong statement that Vision Petron is going to great lengths in helping the youth express themselves through art.  In 2011 during its first year, the entries were rather overwhelming both in number and in quality.  There was an immediate interest among students to participate as it was a less daunting medium and something most students could relate to.  I feel, though, that there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of style and rendition.  There seems to be a prevalent trend of executing the same look and style. So the ones that won really stood out from the rest.  And those that stood out are few and far between. I’m confident though to see more variety in style in the coming years as there has been a steady progression since the category’s inception in 2011.

(Reprinted from Vision Petron Folio October 2014)