After spending 25 years in the sales and marketing field, Ma. Aleta “Tatah” dela Calzado decided to go back to her first love: sewing and fashion.

When Tatah had retired from her fulltime job, she tried working as an insurance agent. Despite her wealth of experience in sales and marketing, Tatah found it ironic that she was having a hard time selling insurance policies.

Tatah’s post-retirement career as an insurance agent changed while waiting for a client at a tailoring shop to present the insurance policy. During the wait, her loved for sewing was rekindled. She also realized that maybe selling insurance was not for her. “I was in sales and marketing for 25 years, but I wasn’t doing well in selling insurance policies so I decided to shift into the clothing business,” she said.

Tatah loved sewing in her youth, and she decided that this is the passion to pursue in the coming years after retirement.

Ma. Aleta “Tatah” dela Calzado, owner of ATE or Alter-to-Enhance

In 2014, she formally established ATE (Alter-to-Enhance) by Tatah in Cebu City. The rest is history, she said. ATE now has two branches in Cebu and one in Katipunan, Quezon City to cater to clients based in Metro Manila. ATE will soon open its fourth branch in Robinsons Galleria, also in Cebu.

Initially, the idea was to have a tailoring shop wherein clients could choose their preferred fabrics and design. In-house dressmakers would create and sew clothes for waiting customers.

Tatah shared that they were doing a very simple type of sewing then. “We had to do everything simple and fast—that was the concept,” Tatah said who admitted that she had no formal training in tailoring and fashion design at that time.

Series of learnings

The increase in customers after a few months in the business compelled Tatah to take a short course on Fashion Business at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City; afterwards, a short styling course in London.

“I make it a point to always invest in myself,” said Tatah.

After taking a couple of short courses abroad, she then decided to apply for the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) Kapatid Mentor ME (KMME) Program.

An employee of ATE working on a dress on a sewing kit

An employee of ATE working on a dress' hem on a sewing kit

According to Tatah, the business was actually doing well. But she felt the need to learn on how to run a successful business.

“With KMME, I learned a lot about managing the business. We were taught how to handle human resource problems, managing employees, and coming up with a company policy. I tend to be friendly with everybody, so I also learned how to separate personal from business,” Tatah shared.

Change in Concept

As ATE continued to evolve, Tatah realized that the original business concept was no longer sustainable in terms of price point. She noted that creating clothes from scratch and producing them instantly requires much time and effort, which means more costs on the part of the business. It came to a point where there were too many rejects from clients, which was affecting their profit margin.

Tatah stressed that there were several lessons learned along the way.

“We learned to choose our battles and focused on our forte. That’s why we also came up with a concept of zipper-less, buckle-less, and no buttons apparel,” she mentioned.

An employee of ATE cutting out fabric according to a pre-made pattern

It was then she thought of introducing tweaks into her venture and try ready-to-wear (RTW). While ATE started offering RTWs, it still stands out from its competitors as clients are still given the option to alter the clothes almost instantly—there is no need for them to wait for days before they could get their clothes back.

Luring Tourists

In Cebu, interestingly, ATE has become a part of many tourists’ itinerary.

“When we started, we already had a lot of clients and most of them are from Class A in Cebu and they were the ones who were also promoting us and bringing their friends in from Manila. It’s one of the reasons why we decided to open in Manila because of the demand. We always give them the sincere service and we make sure they have fun in the shop. So, these clients spread the word when we opened here in Manila,” Tatah said.

This has enabled Tatah to collaborate with other entrepreneurs from her sewers to designers, and even clients. She shared that she has met a lot of DTI mentees who sell shoes and accessories, which opened opportunities for collaboration. She shared that one of the mentors during the finance session of KMME is now ATE’s bookkeeper.

Four years into the business, Tata still believes that ATE is still a startup, with lots of opportunities and improvements in store for it.

Clothes for sale at the ATE by Tatah boutique

“If you’re getting bigger, control is another challenge. I think we need a good inventory management system to make sure that we control everything. Until we’re there, we will continue to be a startup. Hopefully, we’ll be ready to franchise or even try out other business models,” says Tatah.

Moving Forward

Until now, Tata continues to be involved in different programs of the government or agencies with DTI like the Kapatid Mentor ME (KMME) program and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

“We’re working with the Regional Tripartite Wages and Productivity Boards of DOLE. I’ve also been active in promoting the Kapatid Mentor ME program and telling startups like myself that there are a lot of offerings from the government that they don’t know about,” said Tatah.

Under KMME, Tatah has graduated from being a mentee to a mentor, advising budding entrepreneurs in becoming successful in business.

As for future plans, she is open to try franchising once they are able to standardize every aspect of their operations.

For her, getting into the business industry means being open to learning all the time.

“You have to be teachable. When you get the chance, attend seminars and trainings. Check out the programs that the government is offering. You will be amazed and it’s really very helpful. As long as you’re guided, you can move fast and focus on business and product development. But you have to be teachable, you have to open your heart and mind to learn every day from your clients,” said Tatah.

Clothes for sale at the ATE by Tatah boutique