On one bright morning in Surftown (aka La Union), we met up with Nikki dela Paz-Libarnes, surfer architect and co-founder of Vessel Hostel. The agenda? A photo shoot with her as the subject, of course. She welcomes us in Vessel and we make our way into their cozy, surf-inspired pad built from repurposed shipping containers stacked on top of each other. She leads us to one of the rooms with bunk beds, and we turn it into our dressing room for the day.
No stranger to shoots, Nikki coyly but gamely poses and changes into the outfits we brought for her. When asked about what cuts or styles she likes to avoid, she says she's open to try any—save for some skirts and too revealing swimwear. She gushes over the pieces she says she'd wear herself and looks forward to some shopping. In shooting her around the hostel, she also shares with us stories behind each area, the vintage knick knacks in the corners, and even the coffee mugs they use for the guests. We pause for coffee and Nikki excuses herself to check on the real star of the shoot: her adorable son, Pancho (already 2 years old as of this writing). He's finally awake and we decide on including him in his mom's last layout. While waiting, he watches (and points at Nikki) as we snap his mom in a pink frock.
Nikki says she and her husband, Buji, always keep a watchful eye on the waves if it's a good day to surf or not. They show us their boards by Vessel's parking, and this is where we shoot Nikki for her last look. The Libarnes' also gave us a peek into their zen-dustrial home (just below the hostel) and Vessel's newest rooms. We take a few more shots of Nikki and her toddler, have a few laughs, and wrap up just before lunch. We can't wait to be back, hopefully as one of Vessel's guests!
Get to know the surf champ, architect, and new momma a little better as you read through her words of wisdom in our interview below. Also, seek some style inspiration while you're at it!
How are you and what's a day in your life like in this "new normal"?
[I'm] still learning to navigate life in this new normal, but doing alright. My son Pancho normally wakes me up in the morning. We spend a few playful minutes still in bed and then we get up. After he eats his breakfast, I have my coffee while checking the surf for the day while he plays with his wonderful Yaya Grace. If the waves are good, I go for a surf. If not, I would do a home workout. Then, I would read or play with Pancho before we both eat lunch, and then I give him a bath and put him down for a nap. This is when I get to do some design and drafting work.
In the afternoon, we bring Pancho either to the beach or to the park until sunset. After dinner, once we've put the baby to sleep, Buji (my husband) and I would do some more work or watch a movie at home on weekends.That's basically my typical day, but I also find time to go on bike rides with my husband and friends. And of course it's a different story when the waves are good the whole day!
We learned that you moved to La Union before the pandemic hit. What made you decide on this?
My husband and I have been coming to La Union for almost 20 years already. We both fell in love with surfing in the early 2000s—this is how we met by the way!—and since then, we've always had that goal to move here and start a life/family here. La Union is a beautiful place with beautiful waves, and a great community. We are very lucky that we had the opportunity to move here and start a business as well.
Nikki is a surfing champ who has won several longboard and shortboard titles. (Photo by Jeff Ganuelas)
From champion surfer, you are now a surfer architect, entrepreneur, and a new mom. How did you transition to your new roles and what helped you “champion” them?
I think the transition came naturally since all these roles are rooted around surfing and making a life by the sea, among nature. Vessel's main target customers are travelers and specifically surfers so we knew what they needed and what we needed to provide.
In terms of architecture, since being a surfer has made me more connected with nature, our designs are always influenced by the landscape and letting the outdoors in and working with the environment. So in a sense, being a surfer firsthand became the base for progression into these new roles.
Share with us three valuable lessons you’ve learned in building your career.
Put the same amount of effort and thought into every project, whether it be big or small. Stay true to your design principles. Your best project is always your next one. Keep striving to do better.
For our Seeker moms and moms-to-be, can you also share three valuable lessons you’ve learned when you became a mom?
Taking care of yourself is part of taking care of your family. You can plan all you want but you most likely will end up winging it a lot of times. Accept that you will have good days and bad days, but that the good will always make up for the bad.
The nostalgic vibe in Vessel stems from Nikki's husband's love for anything vintage. The surfer architect lounges in our Malviya handblock print dress.
How would you rate yourself in terms of time management? Any tips that you can share to those who are struggling with having a work-life balance, especially to working moms like yourself?
I've come to realize that it won't always be equal parts work, equal parts time for myself, equal parts family in a day. There will be days that it is mostly work that was done, and that's OK because there will also be days that are focused on myself and my family.
I do list things that need to be accomplished and I do set goals, but I try to not be too hard on myself on the little things and just go with the flow. I know it's easier said than done. I'm still learning, still adjusting. Learn how to delegate and don't be afraid to ask for help.
How do you keep yourself motivated in these uncertain times?
I remind myself to be thankful. Thankful for my beautiful son and husband, and that we get to live our life doing what we love and to be so close to nature.
Nikki switches from fierce to feminine by simply throwing the Penola wrap skirt over her swimsuit.
"I remind myself to be thankful. Thankful for my beautiful son and husband, and that we get to live our life doing what we love..." Who wore it better? Sorry Nikki, we gotta give it to Pancho. :p The super mom looking oh-so-chic in the Iwa maillot and the Petrosani pants.
Describe your personal style. What inspires you to dress up the way you do?
Lounge-y yet put-together. My style has evolved to prioritize comfort. But I also agree that dressing well is a form of good manners (I think Tom Ford said this?) so comfort does not mean sloppy.
Any style icons you look up to or relate to?
Nikki by the stairs leading up to Vessel's newest rooms. She's pretty in pink in the Cosenza set.
What is a “so Nikki” uniform/outfit formula?
A camisole or a relaxed top, with high waisted shorts or loose pants, and sandals. And a chunky pullover for chilly days.
Any fashion do’s or don’ts for moms with young kids in tow?
Wear something you can chase your kid/s in!
Top three fashion items you can’t live without?
Swimsuits, sunglasses, [and] comfortable shoes!