The National Artist is an inspiration for Pinoy designers to reference their identity while looking to the world. The vast archives owned by Jose “Pitoy” Moreno, arguably our most internationally renowned designer, are unassumingly tucked away in his Malate home, where he has lived for the last 30 years. Yellowed news clippings and black and white prints dating back to the 1950s give us a glimpse of his distinctly Philippine fashion aesthetic—and how he has single-handedly made the look iconic by dressing the most elegant women here and abroad.
Pitoy is a master of formal Filipiniana—stately ternos with upright butterfly sleeves, nipped waists and straight or flared hems, 19th century-inspired Maria Claras with softly flowing lines and shoulders draped by the pañuelo (a popular look for weddings), and structured formal evening wear in silk, piña, or jusi. A passion for indigenous fabrics and traditional Philippine clothing, beginning during his student days in Fine Arts at U.P. Diliman, continues to be his main design inspiration. French fashion greats Pierre Cardin and Pierre Balmain were said to have once looked in on his show staged by the Philippine embassy in Paris, and were surprised. Expecting to see native costumes, they saw high fashion instead. Paris Match effectively rounded up his Filipina models for a photo shoot all over the city.
He has been an ambassador of Philippine fashion, albeit unofficially, and has staged shows (43 and counting) in every major city from Paris, Rome, Madrid, Moscow, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Cebu, Davao, the list goes on. In 2006, he was handpicked by President Gloria Arroyo to parade his designs at the ASEAN Summit Gala dinner for the heads of state. Yet at 50 years into his craft, Pitoy maintains his old-fashioned lifestyle, continuing to receive clients daily, having no office staff, and keeping only five full-time sewers at his atelier. He still works on every stage of the design process, from the story of a collection to choosing the models. During our visit, he sat chatting with Venice Jewellers proprietor Judy So and attended to her throughout the fitting.
“I get involved with the details,” he says sternly yet softly. For shows, he tells models how to wear the dresses and how to walk the runway. “I throw tantrums [if I don’t get my way]. And come to think of it, [everyone involved in the show] followed me, even in the shows abroad. But I do get along very well with my models.” Proof is that muses from the early days—Stella Marquez-Araneta, Gloria Diaz, Aurora Pijuan, Tingting Cojuangco, Conchitina Bernardo, Toni Parsons—have become close friends and loyal clients, and so are their daughters (and granddaughters). The pretty and accomplished Dragon sisters—Mia, Patricia, and Cristina—were garbed in Pitoy for their wedding, at the instruction of their mother Yaying, whose sister was also a Pitoy muse (only Margarita got away with a sample sale dress as she was wed abroad). Meanwhile, still single Tessa, a PR manager at L’Oréal, recalls that her debutante gown was, of course, a Pitoy number.
He can certainly command a following—and a price—for his intricate beadwork (which can take up to six months to make) and hand-painted fabrics. What would he think of a request for a more contemporary design? He would gladly tweak the terno to make it modern, he says, if you requested for it.
Forward-thinking Filipino designers such as London-based 31-year old Lesley Mobo have credited Pitoy for making fabrics such as the piña competitive. The Harrods-prized designer has advocated “a return to local expertise and authentic sensations” to balance globalization, and it could be no coincidence that a terno-like silhouette showed up in the clean-lined pieces of his A/W 2008 collection for Jasmine Di Milo.
One of the nationally treasured J. Moreno designs is a Maria Clara with embroidered piña baro and a gold thread embroidered velvet saya featuring the serpentina cut, popular during the early 20th century. It piques this generation’s curiosity not just because heirloom pieces (or that must-have vintage Pitoy terno) are au courant again, but also because we are realizing that our own culture can be interesting, after all. As witnessed at Preview’s Modern Indigenous theme for the Best Dressed Ball in 2005 (when a bevy of Filipiniana elements were resurrected with current trends), and as designers like Lesley are saying, it takes visionary creativity—and it’s harder than you think—to explore what is Filipino with childlike wonder and focus. Manila’s fashionistas can thank Pitoy Moreno for paving the way.
—written by Joanna Francisco, reprinted from Preview September 2009