Pitoy Moreno: The Man Who Dressed Countless Muses
Considered a “rare breed ” in the world of glamour and fashion, Pitoy’s muses stand out for various reasons. Some of them were beauty queens, while most of them were debutantes from the best of families, and college students whose parents could not say no to Pitoy or the then First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, whose Bagong Anyo fashion shows were a baptism of fire for some of them. What they all shared, though, was the elan that comes with wearing a Moreno, and, most importantly, the willingness to do one’s part for one’s country.
Pitoy poses with his models in front of The Little mermaid in Copenhagen—Baboo Mondoñedo in a beige gown with a coat of handembroidered piña, Toni Serrano in pink chiffon with high-jewelled collar which “drips” from the neckline to the high hemline, Maita Gomez in a full length purple gown, and Trina Yujuico in a hand-painted organza gown bordered with pink flowerets.
From the time he started as a young couturier (barely out of the University of the Philippines) dressing the campus beauties and queens he had for classmates, to recent times, when children of his former mannequins come to him for their wedding dresses, Pitoy has constantly been inspired by these beautiful, charming, well-bred, and elegant young women who, in one fashion show after another, have elicited great applause for his fabulous creations. Through the years, these same models would “come home,” so to speak, to model once again for their discoverer and mentor, Pitoy, in his various retrospective shows. To most of them, he was no longer just a designer, but a friend, an adviser, and a father whose valuable insights and words of wisdom have consoled, inspired, and pushed them forward through life’s surprises and challenges.
“He took care of me as a young adult, as a young bride, and as a young mother... As a friend, Pitoy has no equal... Asia’s fashion czar, who is truly deserving of a tribute for his creativity and craftsmanship and bringing Filipino fabric to great heights. The man is really a great couturier!””
—Conchitina Sevilla Bernardo, who had been Pitoy’s friend for so many years, would model for him in places like Honolulu, Spain, and New York. Once, she was also dressed up by Pitoy for the santacruzan sponsored by the Manila Press Club. They’ve become so close that Pitoy even served as a sponsor at her wedding. Of course, her wedding gown was by Pitoy.
“[Pitoy is someone] who took care of us, his models, but who expected punctuality and discipline in turn. Modeling for him was a learning experience, especially for us young women.”
—Trina Yujuioc- Kalaw, who used to work with Pitoy when she was modeling for the traveling cultural show Karilagan
“Not everyone may agree that he is the best fashion designer, but to me, he is the most accomplished. He produced books and documented Philippine culture, including costumes and marriage rituals. He built beautiful homes, and he knew how to handle his finances. He has designed dresses for presidents, first ladies, queens, royalty, and world celebrities. You’ve got to give it to him. He is one of a kind.”
—Carolyn Masibay, a model who used to work with Pitoy a lot and considers him as a tatay
“Pitoy advised us to look confident on stage and to try to project the feelings appropriate to the clothes we were wearing. Like, if it was a wedding gown, we should look innocent and sweet… to be a Pitoy Moreno model during those days meant you were somewhat special.”
—Marianne dela Riva, voted one of Manila’s Five Prettiest by the Bachelor’s Club in the early 1970s and later considered one of the most beautiful actresses in Philippine cinema, met Pitoy when she was a young girl, first modeling for him at the age of 16.
“I like Pitoy particularly for his Filipiniana, the way he turns out the butterfly sleeves, the good materials he uses for his creations, and the embellishment he puts in each gown or costume. I truly admire his formal clothes…“I think of him as an icon, and a most respected couturier. The ternos he made for our first ladies are truly reflective of his creativity and originality. He stands out because he is certainly one of the best.”
—Margie Moran-Floirendo, Miss Universe 1973, also modeled for Pitoy for the Bagong Anyo series. The beauty queen would borrow his ternos for her social obligations during her reign and beyond. As Ballet Philippines president, she organized an auction of Barbie dolls wearing clothes made by couturiers, and the one dressed up by Pitoy in piña brought in the highest bid: P100,000.
“My travels with Pitoy will always be unforgettable. While we were busy and hardly had time for shopping and visiting the sights, we enjoyed the experience immensely. It was something worth sharing with our children and, when the time comes, our grandchildren. Our modeling years with Pitoy were among our proudest moments in our youth.”
—Loli Imperial, a model who was discovered by Pitoy, adds that to him, modeling was all about serving one’s country.
“…because really, who is as accomplished as he is? Who among the talented, creative couturiers met and dressed more celebrities, more royals, and dignitaries than he did? He was legend in his own time. And, yes I feel truly blessed that at one point in my life I was touched by a person such as Pitoy.”
—Maria Cristina “Maricris” Cardenas-Zobel, who first met Pitoy when she was 16 years old, modeled for him for three years. When she got married to Inigo Zobel, Pitoy made her wedding gown.
"My parents allowed me to model abroad only because it was for Pitoy I was modeling. I respect him a lot and he is like a father to me. He was very strict during those travels. But he was also fun to be with, and he would joke once in a while. And sometimes he would get mad, like that time he told the ice cream vendor who didn’t want to give him a bigger scoop, ‘You should be working in a funeral.’”
—Crispy Santamaria, who donned her first Pitoy Moreno gown as a flower girl in the wedding of her cousin, Bettina Kahn-Legarda. An old family friend, Pitoy also did the wedding gown of Crispy’s mother, Ingrid, as well her ternos for her piano concerts through the years. When Crispy got married to Arsenic Laurel, Pitoy did her wedding gown, aside from being their principal sponsor. Years later, after a succession of sons, they had their daughter Mia, and Pitoy served as her baptismal godfather.
“I left the design entirely up to him. He was such a perfectionist, and he really paid close attention to every detail of the gown. It was such a beautiful one.”
—Cathy Santamaria, who started modeling for Pitoy at 15. Following the family tradition, Cathy’s wedding gown was also made by Pitoy. When Pitoy published Kasalan, a coffee table-book on Philippine weddings, Cathy was the "cover bride."
"Before the royals and the public, Pitoy was calm and collected, but backstage, he was hyper and excitable. Pitoy was authoritative; he reined us in and took no nonsense. He was a taskmaster and was a 'little Caesar.' He was focused and aloof, tolerating no mediocrity. He always wanted us to be dressed well and forbade us to wear denim."
—Baboo Mondoñedo, whose first trip to Europe was to serve as one of Pitoy’s models that went on a fashion tour to the capital cities
“He was a unique combination of talent, determination, and shrewdness who was very proud of Filipino fabrics and craftsmanship.”
—Maita Gomez, who also had a wonderful experience modeling for Pitoy in Europe
"This is and was the magic of Jose 'Pitoy' Moreno. In an industry that is usually thought of as frivolous and superficial, this man from the Philippines brought the Philippines and its beauty into the international consciousness, even before the term 'Pinoy pride' was coined. He has been at the forefront of fashion design in the Philippines and in Asia in the last century. This is a physically diminutive man, who conquered an industry in the most nationalistic way possible. Pitoy Moreno’s name and work have become synonymous with legend. He is a fashion pioneer on the world’s stage. How does one even begin to tell the man from the legend?"
—Imee Marcos, whose mother, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, wore Pitoy's ternos everywhere
“I’m very sad. It’s hard to accept that he’s no longer with us. We were very, very close for many, many, many years. I love that man. He was very kind. He was an unbelievable designer [who] made a name in Europe, in the United States, making gowns for First Ladies. He was a big man, and he was a very humble person, but he did well in everything that he touched.”
—Stella Marquez-Araneta, chairperson of Binibining Pilipinas Charities, Inc. who worked very closely with Pitoy, told ABS-CBN News upon learning that he passed away
Pitoy Moreno was not only a designer who selected the most beautiful and the best models generation after generation to showcase his creations. To reiterate, he was, to them, a mentor, friend, older brother, and father. That his special relationship with them has transcended the various phases of his career only proves that Pitoy is a good man, one who cares about his models, and one who has inspired them to be the best they can be, both in the world of fashion and the life beyond the limelight.
These are excerpts from the stories that were originally published in Metro Society's November 2011 issue: "Pitoy's Parade of Muses" by Jojo Silvestre, "He Came, He Sewed, and He Conquered" by Baboo Mondoñedo, and "The Legend of Pitoy" by Imee Marcos
Photo reproduction courtesy of Baboo Mondoñedo (thumbnail and cover photo)