How Pitoy Moreno pioneered the business of fashion

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
totalITemsFound:
maxPaginationLinks: 10
maxPossiblePages:
startIndex:
endIndex:

Backstage at Mang Pitoy's “Ginintuang Moreno” show, he was decisive and calm. All options were laid out for him. Accessories, headdresses, selected gowns, backup gowns, veils, and shawls were all properly labeled and grouped in military fashion. Photo by GINO GONZALES

Editor’s note: Gino Gonzales is a scenographer and exhibition designer who has worked on stage, film, and T.V. He began as a protégé of National Artist for Theatre and Design, Salvador Bernal, then went on to become a Fulbright scholar and an Asian Cultural Council grantee at NYU’s Tisch Design Department. He is currently a part-time lecturer in Theatre Design. He co-authored “Fashionable Filipinas: An Evolution of the Philippine National Dress in Photographs 1860-1960” with Mark Higgins.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — As a youngster in the 1970s my knowledge of Mang Pitoy was limited to the Hotdog band’s song “Bongga Ka ‘Day” as the fashion designer of a fictional woman, who had supposedly gone up the social ladder: Suot mo’y gawa ni Pitoy / Di nanggaling kay Eloy / Ahh, hay! / Bongga ka, ‘Day / Bongga ka, ‘Day / Sige lang, sige lang, itaas ang kilay.

To wear a Pitoy meant to be “sosyal” and to be a cut above the rest, who could only afford clothes by the unassuming Eloy’s tailoring.

In the 1980s, I also marveled at his “close-open” gowns that were featured in a T.V. commercial about “world class” Pinoys. Models paraded in voluminous pieces that opened up to reveal far more fabulous and embellished inner garments and linings as they reached the end of the catwalk. For me, that was also that first time that the name “Pitoy” got a face. He turned out to be a diminutive man receiving a gigantic bouquet with his towering models in the background.

His name also became synonymous with the idea of “Filipiniana” dressing. Though much more senior designers such as National Artist Ramon Valera and Salvacion Lim Higgins did much to promote the use of the terno or Philippine national dress, the popular consciousness of being the worldwide promoter of Filipiniana dressing was closely associated with Mang Pitoy.

DSCN0543.JPG Mang Pitoy was the unique combination of an eye for pageantry and a drive to mount the spectacles that everyone wanted (or secretly desired). Photo by GINO GONZALES

DSCN0503.JPG Melanie Marquez was one of the models of the "Ginintuang Moreno" show, which was directed by Floy Quintos at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2004. Photo by GINO GONZALES

He had the intriguing title of “Asia’s Fashion Czar” just as Pilita Corales was “Asia’s Queen of Song” and the late Aureo Alonzo was the “Camel Awardee.” For the average Pinoy, Pitoy Moreno was a fashion legend and an aspiration for those who wanted to “belong.” His fame as a designer cut across the Philippine social strata at a time when there was no such thing as social media to amplify one’s successes.

As a designer in a period when potential clients actually sat down to watch live fashion shows, he knew exactly how to create eye-catching clothes that would certainly make a good entrance. Mang Pitoy had an eye for fabrics and surface decoration that read well from 50 to 100 feet away. It was an elusive quality that the renowned set and costume designer, Salvador Bernal, called “stage worthiness.”

Mang Pitoy was the unique combination of an eye for pageantry and a drive to mount the spectacles that everyone wanted (or secretly desired). In 2004, there was an opportunity to work with him when the Cultural Center of the Philippines decided to mount a J. Moreno retrospective in line with their fundraising efforts.

I finally got to meet the man who struck me as a candid, excitable, and occasionally cantankerous individual. He was rather straightforward with the visuals and staging scenarios that appealed to him and what he thought were non-essential components of the enormous undertaking. To a certain extent, he was also quite the control freak. He was very much concerned with content, how things will resonate with the press and the public, and how all of his loyal clients should be situated in this milieu. I thought he was a reliable designer and an assertive, marketing maverick rolled into one.

And that, in hindsight, wasn’t bad at all. I was an essential tool in his day and an even more necessary combination for this day and age. To Mang Pitoy’s credit, he was unconsciously the forerunner of public relations and fashion marketing in the country. His predecessor and nemesis, the great Ramon Valera concentrated on dressing the alta sociedad and presumably saw no need to be in the general public’s consciousness. Salvacion Lim, who also began a career ahead of Mang Pitoy had her own niche and a thriving design school to keep her busy. There was the crop of young, talented designers that debuted in the late 1950s, such as Aureo Alonzo and Ben Farrales. They all did their own fashion shows, too. But no one in the 1960s and ‘70s pushed for what we now call “product placement” and “brand consciousness” more than Pitoy Moreno.

DSCN0259 copy.jpg Backstage at the CCP’s main theater, he orchestrated throngs of models, society figures, “beauticians” (as they were once called) and manangs from the atelier. Photo by GINO GONZALES

DSCN0454.JPG J. Moreno, in spite of all the criticisms hurled at him, inspired real loyalty. He had loyal clients and loyal workers, who stayed on for decades. Photo by GINO GONZALES

J. Moreno was a brand that came with international shows that promoted tourism in the Philippines. It proudly showcased Filipiniana in numerous trunk shows abroad. For some reason it was the only name I remembered for the look of the Philippine Airlines’ flight attendants, even if other designers also worked on it way after he designed it in the early ‘70s. It was the name that was closely associated with the Binibining Pilipinas pageant and consequently our candidates for Miss Universe. J. Moreno had instant recall, and it was not limited to people who could afford couture. And that I thought was genius especially for his time.

The man also delivered. He didn’t take down notes as far as I recall. But he remembered every single assignment that was given to him by the production team and a huge bevy of deliverables, which would drive most contemporary designers to a meltdown. He certainly had a host of seamstresses that could churn out the gowns and do the necessary repairs from the “baul” collections, but one still had to be extremely organized to run such an enormous operation. In short, he was a real pro at these high-pressure situations.

Backstage at the CCP’s main theater he orchestrated throngs of models, society figures, “beauticians” (as they were once called) and manangs from the atelier. For the most part, Mang Pitoy was decisive and calm. All options were laid out for him. Accessories, headdresses, selected gowns, backup gowns, veils, and shawls were all properly labeled and grouped in military fashion. Sometimes he would yell at the younger models and exclaim his frustration at their inability to glide effortlessly with trains. I stood in awe as he demonstrated the gesture that would allow the audience to see the model’s face and the terno underneath a voluminous wedding veil in one swoop of the hands. I initially thought it was camp. The castigated models were visibly irked but nonetheless followed the marching orders of the czar when they got onstage and it worked — “period” gestures for “period” clothes. He knew the way they would work in a show and he will only do it in that tried and tested manner.

DSCN0028 copy.jpg Mang Pitoy had an eye for fabrics and surface decoration that read well from 50 to 100 feet away. It was an elusive quality that the renowned set and costume designer, Salvador Bernal, called “stage worthiness.” Photo by GINO GONZALES

DSCN0690.JPG Mang Pitoy with his muses (Bessie Badilla, Menchu Menchaca, and Margie Moran, among others) after the “Ginintuang Moreno” show. Photo by GINO GONZALES

At the finale of the show entitled “Ginintuang Moreno,” directed by Floy Quintos, all the models assembled onstage as a young Hayden Kho escorted the bride in a pale watermelon terno. The great models of the period such as Bessie Badilla, Menchu Menchaca, and Melanie Marquez joined the society ladies in their dazzling J. Moreno ternos. A young Bianca Zobel escorted Mang Pitoy onstage. And then we saw a phalanx of the gray-haired, little ladies, and tailors dressed in white work coats. The final gesture was an homage patterned after the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent a few years earlier. But it was made more poignant with the obvious age of everyone involved in the atelier.

J. Moreno, in spite of all the criticisms hurled at him, inspired real loyalty. He had loyal clients and loyal workers, who stayed on for decades. In a contemporary setting where the turn over for cutters and sewers is as fast and fleeting as the attention span of millennials, having dozens of gray-haired artisans who have been with you since day one is an unparalleled feat. That, too, was a real talent.