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A Tribute To Pitoy Moreno, The "Fashion Czar Of Asia"

The local fashion industry lost a legend yesterday as fashion designer and National Artist Pitoy Moreno passed away reportedly due to heart attack. Pitoy was celebrated and renowned the world over for his innovative takes on the traditional Philippine costume. His contribution to the history of Philippine fashion is unparalleled. Now, as we say farewell to an icon, here's a tribute piece that details the colorful life of this master through the eyes of his loved ones: his "ate" Virgie Moreno; one of his first models, Elena Fernando; and his dear friends Araceli Dans and Eddie Ocampo.

 

The Eternal Czar

 

"Ladies and gentlemen… Jose “Pitoy” Moreno!,” the host announces as she calls him onstage to receive an award of recognition at the 2009 Binibining Pilipinas pageant. He walks slowly, calmly, wearing an off-white barong with decidedly pronounced buttons. Many in the audience are undoubtedly aware that this is not his first award, and neither would it be the last one for the year, but he takes the transparent, flute-like trophy and raises it, with a smile that communicates genuine appreciation.

Most people remember him for the Maria Clara gowns of his various fashion shows, from the lyrics of Hotdog’s Manila sound hit “Bongga Ka ’Day,” or for the dress that Rita Moreno wore when she received an Academy Award for her performance in West Side Story. These, however, are only the slightest fragments of a greater narrative. Pitoy’s life has literally been the stuff of story and song. He has made it all the way to popular culture from the front seats of the runway. And there are none who can tell that story better than those who lived it with him. Here then is the tale of Pitoy, as revealed by the people closest to him. Having lived in very diverse times, they are not all of a feather. As we are to learn later on, Pitoy would have to lend them his feathers on occasion—mostly for their dresses. To get to that part, however, we must start at the very beginning.

Midway into a temperamental Saturday afternoon, Virginia Moreno settles into a wooden chair in her house in Manila. Being Pitoy’s older sister, Virginia is the only living person who can claim to have witnessed his earliest years, an era now lost. her memory is as sharp as a young woman’s. So sharp that she recalls the day Pitoy was born. “When he was being born, I was there,” she begins, “I even remember the doctor, supposedly the cousin of my father.”

She had been all of two years old, but already possessed a chronicling mind. Since she is both an entrepreneur and a poet with no small amount of fame, a keen recollection is probably to be expected from her.

Pitoy was born sometime in the 1920s, she says. The exact date, no one has been able (or perhaps willing) to tell. It was a time of discovery, with new music and technology being introduced to the country. It would later come to be known as the jazz age, Virginia shares. The American-occupied Philippines was enjoying the small stretch of calm before the second World War. it was a different environment altogether, one that would shape Pitoy into what we now know him to be—the man who took the world by way of needle and thread, fabric and bead. 

To understand what Pitoy would later become, a small note on his ancestry becomes essential. The Moreno family, to hear Virginia speak of it, has always been a curious one. With origins from the seaside province of Sevilla in Spain, the Morenos were largely a seafaring clan, given to traveling by boat across the waters. The members of the clan who came to the Philippines found themselves in Iloilo, the first port of call in the sea routes. Here, they laid down the oars and packed away the sails to take root in the country.

 

 Virgie moreno, Pitoy’s ‘ate,’ says Pitoy was such a successful entrepreneur even at an early age.
 

“That character… he probably got that,” Virginia surmises. “We are not the timid kind. We don’t work for other people, period. In my family, there is no such thing as eight-to-five employees. We are usually employers— adventurous, self-willed.”

“We are risk takers. We are daring. Bahala kami sa buhay namin,” she continues, “Huwag kayong makikialam, puwede ba? Mamatay o mabuhay ka diyan, buhay mo ’yun, e.

The Moreno children were raised in an antillan house in Tondo, a wide, two-storey, angular sort of structure with ornate windows and broad doorways. Back then, the family was in the business of distributing rice, and that meant that the lower floor was fashioned into a warehouse for holding their stock, while the upper areas served as their living quarters.

Even in a family as well off as theirs were, they were called to help with household chores. The mornings were always full of tasks.

Ate, magising ka na diyan tapos na ’ko,” Pitoy would yell at Virginia from the lower grounds, right after he finished his duties.

Tapos na siyang magbunot. Tatapon niya ’yung walis. It would land on my mosquito net,” she says. That was how Virginia woke up in the mornings.

The weekends, on the other hand, were spent with their maternal grandfather, a businessman of Chinese descent, who lived in Binondo. He would take them to the street markets and vaudeville shows of those years, an experience that Virginia remembers even now. Thus the days and months would pass in that fashion, their worries limited to the things that surrounded them. But all these things would exist only in memory before too long.

In Pitoy’s adolescent years, news of bombings was heard across the country. Japanese forces began making their way into territories once held by the Americans. The Philippines was in a state of unrest, as was the rest of the world. The second World War had begun.

Early on in the war, the Morenos would lose their father, the captain of a ship that had been making its way across the waters near Hong Kong. Their mother was left to raise them herself. “We had to be close,” Virginia says, describing her relationship with Pitoy. “We are the two eldest.”

While their father, much like his venturesome ancestors, pursued a life at sea, their mother went on to manage the family affairs. But even as news of the war began to spread around them, their mother revealed her own eccentricities.

“First day of the bombing,” Virginia recounts, “She rushed us to Escolta … to a shoe store.”    

At the time there were two kinds of shoe stores in Manila. “In gandara, the Chinese side, you buy shoes for school. When you go to Escolta, you buy upscale shoes,” Virginia says. “She brought us to buy beautiful shoes.”

Virginia also recalls that her mother, who was a very tall woman, would cut her dresses in half to get more use out of the fabric, sending Pitoy over to the local seamstress, who would then fashion the extra cloth into new dresses.  “During the war, there were no clothing stores,” she says. “It was Pitoy who went to the costurera, where we got our dresses.”

“He is an expert in terno,” she continues. “My mother knew how to make a terno. He acquired that kind of taste.”

The war had been a dark time for the country, but the Morenos would weather it intact and decidedly better dressed than any other family under constant threat of gunfire. It was during these formative times that, Virginia says, Pitoy developed the beginnings of his aesthetics. but living through such an experience would also instill in Pitoy a sense of responsibility and the value of resilience, traits that would serve him well in the industry he would eventually find himself in.

“I’ll tell you one incident… about him,” Virginia confides. “During the war the women could not go out. He was the one who went to market. At first he bought the vegetables, the fish, the meat in the nearby market. Kasama ng houseboy.”

One day, Pitoy came up to his mother and said: “Ma, bili mo ko’ng calesa.” To which she replied: “Bakit? ba’t calesa?“Para bibili ako kaing na,” Pitoy answered. “Wala nang basket.”

With food so scarce, Pitoy wanted a means of transportation to buy things in bulk. Their old car had been hidden underground, safe from the Japanese who would surely have commandeered it. “Our drivers were confiscated together with the trucks,” Virginia mentions and goes on to say that some of them would never make it back.

His mother eventually acceded and gave him his calesa. Soon enough, the house was overflowing with supplies. But Pitoy, apparently, had plans for all this spare food. “He opened the door of the house. Pinatinda niya yung camote, munggo sa houseboy!” Virginia says, laughing at the memory.

A few months later, Pitoy approached his mother again, this time asking for a huge sum of money. knowing better than to question him repeatedly, she gave in once more. Pitoy did not head for the market this time—instead he went straight to the docks.

“He bought the whole boat!” Virginia says, still in disbelief. “He sold the contents of the boat himself.”

“During the war we were the ones giving out food,” Virginia adds. “People could never imagine that.”

Years later, the war ended, the Morenos came out of it largely unscathed. The old car they had concealed was restored by American military engineers. “But we didn’t need a car,” Virginia says, “We needed something to earn with.”

And so they turned one of their vehicles into something that could take in passengers. With a sharp hat, a money bag, and more than a few curious stares thrown his way, Pitoy would take his place up front—as the conductor, naturally. “Soria! Soria! Lalakad na! Pajo! Pajo!” he would yell.

“That’s Pitoy,” Virginia declares, smiling.

At this point, the afternoon is ready to give way to the evening, and Virginia excuses herself to prepare for her next meeting, which is somewhere in Makati. Outside, a light drizzle begins to fall. Right across the street is Pitoy’s house, roughly identical to this one, and the water sloughs away some of the city’s grime from the leaves of the trees—the consequences of the modern world.

Inside Virginia’s house, however, impressions of the old days linger. Oro de ley masks sit atop windowsills, a composite design made by Ben Cabrera clings to the leftmost wall, replicas of Rizal’s original, handwritten books rest in display cases—all tokens from a life lived in different places, different times. An intricate chandelier wrought from a metal now too old to be identified casts faint shadows in the afternoon light, making the nearly century-old piano by the door appear even more ancient. Everything in the house speaks of an olden elegance. A little worn, perhaps, but not yet tired.

“We have our own idea of what is beautiful. We have our own idea of good taste. We have arrived at a sense of quality,” Virginia says when she returns minutes later, describing the traits that both she and Pitoy inherited from their family. With this said, she prepares to leave.

The postwar years were spent rebuilding what the conflicts of the world had destroyed. Much of the innocence that existed in the times before it, though, had been lost entirely, perhaps never to be recovered. Nonetheless, it was a new beginning for everyone, especially those that survived the forces of the war. They would no longer have to live in fear and were now free to do whatever they wished in the new world. That, for Pitoy, meant pursuing the arts, though it would actually happen quite by accident. 

Pitoy had initially planned on entering the College of Law at the University of the Philippines (U.P.), but Virginia reveals that he had been late for the exams. He instead ended up enrolling at the College of Fine Arts, but even this unexpected turn would become a significant part of his life. It was in U.P. where he would develop a finer sense of the fashion world. Before being a student, he had designed mostly for classmates and their relatives, some of whom came from the more prominent families. In U.P., he met friends who would remain with him in the years to come.

“We were both newly enrolled first-year students at the U.P. College of Fine Arts on Padre Faura when I first met Pitoy Moreno,” Araceli Dans begins. “He appeared very cheerful and full of life. I don’t know why, but I liked him instantly.” 

Their friendship had somewhat curious beginnings. Dans remembers pulling Pitoy aside and telling him: “Stop waving your hands gracefully when you talk. And when you walk, don’t sway your hips. Walk rigidly like a man. People will laugh at you when you act girlish. You will be ridiculed.“

“I think that broke the ice between us,” she says. “We became close friends after that and for many years to come.”

It was a relationship that would span the decades, even as Pitoy went on to become an international designer, and Dans came to be one of the country’s most renowned artists. During these times, though, they were hardly more than teens, off to discover what they might be capable of.

“Pitoy was always in a state of excitement when university affairs like fraternity and sorority balls came about. During our college days, Pitoy was still unknown as a couturier,” she recalls, “One time... when I was invited by a suitor to a fraternity dance, I wanted to refuse the invitation because I had no gown to wear. My family was very poor. But Pitoy insisted that I accept the invitation because we could both raise the money so he could design a gown for me.”

The entrepreneurial skills Pitoy had learned from selling all that food during the war came in handy. With the date of the fraternity dance slowly approaching, Pitoy devised a plan to come up with the materials for Dans’ first ball dress.

“His idea was to raise funds by selling sacks of rice from his mother’s rice retail business,” Dans says. “To my big surprise... he arrived at my house with several sacks of rice in a caretela (a horse-drawn vehicle). He then approached several sari-sari stores in our neighborhood to sell the rice. In less than one hour he showed me the billfold he earned from selling the rice.”

“Look,” Pitoy declared happily, “We already earned the money to buy cloth, shoes, and an evening bag for you for the frat dance.”

And Dans replied: “I didn’t earn the money, Pitoy. You did. I don’t think it’s right for me to have you dress me up with money you earned.”

“He looked back at me with disdain,” she recounts. “He was almost in tears.”

Pitoy did not give up so easily. Calling Dans by her nickname, he began pleading, “Please, please naman, Cheloy. I just want to design a beautiful gown for you to wear.”

“Deep in my heart, I understood how he felt,” Dans admits. “So I nodded my ‘oh, okay.’ I think I was his first model.”

“To many of the ladies he has helped beautify, such as myself, he will always be loved and cherished for being a gallant and warm friend and a gentleman,” she continues.

Years later, when Dans was about to get married, Pitoy once again lent an imaginative hand. It was to be the first Catholic ceremony held in the U.P. Diliman campus, and Dans had planned to go through with it—with or without finances.    

“The plan was for me to just wear a plain white dress at the wedding because our budget was meager. When Pitoy heard that I was not going to wear a wedding gown, he was flabbergasted!” she reveals. “To our big surprise...Pitoy gifted me with the very first wedding gown he designed. He was still an unknown at that time.”

Even though he was virtually untested in the field of wedding design, Pitoy already exhibited a remarkable aptitude for the craft, producing the first of the countless wedding gowns he would later be known for.

“What is striking about Pitoy’s artistry is his love and passion for his work. Every piece of cloth, every piece of embroidery and beadwork, is well thought out,” Dans says, describing his methods. “When he looks at a woman client, she instantly becomes his model.”

There was something in the way he viewed women. Dans had mentioned that Pitoy once told her to always look beautiful, to learn to use makeup well. People, he said, feel uplifted when they see beautiful women.

This was one of the ideals he would hold onto throughout his life, as Elena Fernando, one of Pitoy’s first models, reveals. The idea of dressing Fernando seemed to appeal to Pitoy much in the same way designing for Dans did.

 

Elena Fernando, one of Pitoy's first models. "It felt special," Fernando says of the experience of wearing her first Pitoy Moreno creation. "He considers me someone who carries his clothes well."

 

“It felt special,” Fernando says of the experience of wearing her first Pitoy Moreno creation. “He considers me someone who carries his clothes well.”

Pitoy appreciated Fernando’s work ethic. She had been easy to dress and had an uncomplicated demeanor.

“He was starting to design at the time,” she recalls. “From then on, we became closer; he became very fond of me. He said he liked me as a person, not as a model.”

Pitoy would continue to create dresses for Fernando—sorority dance gowns, dresses for school parades, and even her wedding gown, which she wore proudly down the aisle. Such was the way Pitoy treated those he considered his friends.

But even a man as genteel as he will still have a less-than-pleasant side, and this was something that people who took advantage of him discovered. “May mga pangit kang maririnig sa kanya. Masungit, gan’un. He’s masungit for a reason,” Fernando admits. “There are people who are users. ’Yung magpapagawa sa kanya…high society. Babaratin siya. Nagagalit siya nang ganun, parang niloloko siya. He wants everything on the table.”

Wag nila akong gawing palengke, palengkero din ako,” Pitoy once said to her.

As the years passed and Pitoy entered the fashion industry, he would look fondly to their days in U.P. 

He would even tell Fernando: “Elena, ang saya-saya natin noon, walang mga pretenses. Bihira ang mga maarte. Ang saya-saya nuong araw.”

“How we wish we could bring it back,” Fernando says, somewhat wistful.

Pitoy eventually decided to remember that period of his life by establishing the J. Moreno Foundation, an organization that offers scholarships to students who are unable to afford an education. With some help from Imelda Cojuangco, the institute has now assisted hundreds, and has also, perhaps, returned to the university a semblance of the times past. 

And so it was that Pitoy left the university and began designing clothing in earnest. It was a career that would define much of his life, as well as the entire landscape of the industry. His work started to become the standard for Philippine couture, and his name would be associated with the reinvention of the Philippine costume and a certain elegance—results, for the most part, of an unusually eventful childhood.

Pitoy could not stray, would not stay his hand from the design table. The tiny needle of inspiration that had pricked him in his early years grew even sharper, guiding the rhythm of his sewing machines and shaping the fabric of his thoughts into skirt and sleeve and seam. The means through which he could bring them from concept to creation fascinated him endlessly. Some might even say that he was consumed by his craft. One who believes this is Eddie Ocampo.

“He never talked about anything else but fashion,” Ocampo says. “He knew exactly what he wanted from the beginning. He’s up every day at seven o’ clock. Until now, he still manages and supervises the workers.” 

 

Pitoy Moreno and his dear friend Eddie Ocampo. Ocampo says that Pitoy was like a mentor to him: he adds, "Pitoy was the king and I was the crown prince."

 

Himself a designer with a storied career, Ocampo had been in awe when he first met Pitoy. His sketches had been viewed by the Philippine Couturier’s association, an organization of Manila designers co-founded by Pitoy. The group was made up of the 12 most influential people in the industry back then, all considered the royals of their field, and Pitoy was at the helm. It was in their court where the two were introduced.

“To meet Pitoy Moreno is everbody’s dream,” he says, recalling the events of that day. “I came from a small barrio, so the only person I hear is Pitoy. Anybody who’s a fashion designer… you automatically want to meet Pitoy. It was just this unbelievable feeling, to see him for the first time.”

Seeing in Ocampo a kindred spirit, and perhaps a little of himself, Pitoy took a liking to him and placed him under his wing. The group, apparently, had found their 13th member. This inevitably propelled Ocampo onto the front lines of the fashion world.

“He was kind of a mentor to me,” Ocampo says. “Pitoy was the king. I was the crown prince. When I had fashion shows and I couldn’t afford them, he would give me fabrics, feathers.”

“During those times you didn’t have anybody to learn the craft from,” he adds. “I was learning from them. He didn’t learn it from anybody. He had to experiment.”

Ocampo would end up being one of Pitoy’s closest friends, and he would be at Pitoy’s side at the full height of the latter’s career.

“He always brought me along, wherever he went. We went to Switzerland, Paris, all over Europe,” Ocampo says. “He did fashion shows almost every year. He did almost 50 shows around the world. To prepare a fashion show is no mean feat.”

From Tokyo to Tehran, Moscow to Madrid, and many other cities besides, Pitoy brought his creations to the runway. His work was seen in Harper’s Bazaar, featured in the British Network, BBC, and spread across the pages of Vogue. His ternos graced the Seattle World’s Fair and the New York World’s Fair. Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Queen Margarite of Bulgaria, Princess Sofia of Greece, Princess Margaret of Britain, Princess Suga of Japan—women of noble blood would ask for his designs. Pitoy himself became royalty, and the French tabloid Le Figaro would grant him his title—the Fashion Czar of Asia—an honorific that people still use to refer to him.

But even as all these came his way, Pitoy always tempered his success with the same sense of humility he had possessed from childhood. One of his former models, who prefers to remain anonymous, recalls that the gentler side of Pitoy would always surface in the unlikeliest of situations.

The model was being fitted for a dress when an “owner-type” jeep parked in front of Pitoy’s atelier. The passengers of the jeep did not appear to be the types who would even venture into the area, dressed as they were in worn clothing. With no small measure of courage, the man who had been driving the jeep went inside Pitoy’s office.

Kayo po ba si Mr. Moreno?” the man asked.

Pitoy nodded.

Kasi po, galing po kami sa probinsiya,” the man began explaining. “Ikakasal po ang anak ko. Pinag-ipunan po namin. Gusto po naming malaman kung kaya po naming magpagawa sa inyo.”

Asan ang anak mo?” Pitoy asked.

Nandiyan po sa jeep.”

Pababain mo.

Upon seeing the girl, Pitoy asked, “Gusto mo bang magsuot ng damit ko?”

Hindi ko po alam kung kaya namin,” she replied, her head lowered.

O sige, igagawa ko siya,” Pitoy said, looking at the father. “Magkano ba naipon mo?”

The man could not answer readily.

Huwag ka mag-alala, igagawa ko ang anak mo,” Pitoy reassured him. “Sisingilin ko lang ang kaya mong bayaran.”

“I don’t know if other people can match that,” the former model says, and over the uncertain crackle of the cordless phone, she begins to get emotional.

In more recent times, it would be far too difficult to find anyone in the industry who has never heard of Pitoy Moreno. With all that he has achieved and become, Pitoy has left an indelible mark on the country’s collective memory. His efforts were rewarded in 2009, when former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo named him National Artist for Fashion Design, a distinction that had previously been conferred only on Ramon Valera.

In an interview for the Winter 2010 issue of Roots and Wings, a quarterly magazine for Filipinos in Europe, Pitoy was asked what it takes to become a National Artist. He answered, “Talent is not the only key. It’s a culmination of one’s dedication to your craft. The endless struggle and the passion for one’s chosen career…I went around the world to show what I do, to make my country proud. However European my clothes were, I never betrayed my roots…remember this: a Filipino who acknowledges being a Filipino is a successful Filipino.”

“All the struggles, the sleepless nights, and my undying love and dedication have been rewarded,” he admitted.

With a unique legacy behind him, Pitoy appears to have very few regrets. Once, Ocampo asked him if he actually felt fulfilled with what he has accomplished. Pitoy does not hesitate. He looks to Ocampo and answers, “more…more than that.”

 

This story originally appeared in Metro Society’s November 2011 issue

Photo reproduction from Kasalan and Philippine Costume, both by Jose Moreno