Design
This Fashion Designer Built a Huge Forest Home and It Is Fabulous
Former chief designer of the Shanghai Tang global clothing chain, Cesar Gaupo has explored home design, fashioning himself a personal Balinese retreat away from the buzzing city.
IMAGE WILLIAM ONG
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Cesar Gaupo had always dreamed of having a space of his own. Where the sound of birds would wake him up in time for sunrise and the chilly breeze and chirping of crickets would lull him to sleep. Where his sketchpads and pencils, magazines and books could rest on a large wooden table next to a flowing river, from where he could while away many hours thinking, drawing, creating. Where he could wander about in a sphere big enough to get lost and tranquil enough to feel found. Where away from the city he could play the recluse and find solace in a shelter he fashioned himself. And now he has.

“I love beautiful homes, architecture, accessories. They complete a designer. It’s no surprise many fashion designers delve into home design,” quips Cesar, the former chief designer of the French-owned Shanghai Tang clothing chain. “One cannot be a designer if his home looks like a failure.”


Cesar moved back to Manila from Hong Kong over a decade ago—opened an atelier, put up a major gala, delved into shoe design, launched his own label, and built a vast personal retreat on a land that used to be overrun by hundreds of coconut trees. “a ‘mountain resort,’” he says of the property, a river running through it. As with his couture pieces, this house began with a drawing. He closed his eyes and imagined it. “I’ve always known what I wanted for a house. I used to draw a lot when I was a child. Those fascinations led me to what this place has come to be,” he says.

I am happy to be as enthusiastic as when I was younger, to be always yearning and dreaming to create and design and find new things, to still be in pursuit of the greater life.

About three hours away from Manila, in between shrouded lots of bush, trees, and grass, past steep winding rough roads, atop a verdant hill with a view of Mount Banahaw, is an enthralling Balinese-style abode in Majayjay, Laguna, Cesar’s most massive masterpiece to date. “I have always gone for elegant, comfortable, sophisticated designs. The same philosophy guided me in putting this place together,” he says.


Behind its hefty and towering wooden entrance door on an all-white concrete wall welcomes a glass-encased, cogon-roofed living area, elevated by some three feet and set as a separate structure on the whole property. A rustic wooden Buddha head, an antique plate, and a retro monochromatic lamp—sourced from his travels abroad—serve as accents to the room’s large custom-made sofa bed and smaller divans. Nipa seedpods, handwoven throws, and mustard-colored ceramic vases are conversation pieces.

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I’ve always known what I wanted for a house. I used to draw a lot when I was a child. Those fascinations led me to what this place has come to be.

The structure is an open design that looks out to the gardens and the two pavilions behind it, with glass walls that give it a great feeling of airiness and space. Large stone steps serve as pathways throughout the property, in between a variety of flowers and plants that Cesar picked out and planted on manicured lawns—from gerberas and carnations to yellow belles and begonias.


From the living area, a courtyard leads to the dining house, where he has spent long hours entertaining guests and his closest friends, some of whom he has been dressing for years—doyennes of high society, wives of business tycoons, and celebrities controlling the social weather. The dining hall’s setup is simple with an antique wooden buffet table, tea trolley, and Raj-style chairs that stand out on the white marble flooring. Here is where conversations are best, says Cesar. “We can go on and on catching up, laughing, and even talking serious.” Musings on life, politics, the fashion industry, even spirituality are recurring topics.

“People come here to either remember or forget,” he says, “and to let go while collecting themselves. To take a breather—even literally.” This is how most of life has turned into for the designer whose career now spans almost four decades. “When you’re young everything seems too important—fame, fortune, material things… oh, did I mention fame?” he muses. “Many young artists and designers fall prey to that. But as you get wiser through the years, many of those ‘important’ things will turn into inanities. At the end of the day, you find beauty and significance when you anchor everything that you do and everything you are about on something greater, like a higher purpose.”

As you get wiser through the years, many of those ‘important’ things will turn into inanities.

Indeed many have come to visit Cesar here, for his words of wisdom—from friends to business partners. It has become a real home more than a vacation house now, he admits, and he is here four days a week. And because he knows a day trip may not be enough for friends, he recently built a guest house, situated just across the dining hall, also enclosed by glass walls and sealed by canvas curtains. A work in progress, the vast room is filled with Filipino elements such as mother-of-pearl lamps and abaca décor.  


A huge white wall with an antique wooden door, which opens to a stream, separates the first complex of the estate from the master bedroom and another lounge area. Ferns and cycads sprout along the bank, along with edible plants Cesar usually picks when he’s in the mood for an organic salad. “Some of them were planted, some just grew naturally,” he says. Boulders were set on key areas of the stream where he likes spending time in meditation, allowing the “sound of the water rushing to permeate the senses. This spot is relaxing, inspiring,” he adds, sitting on a rock and dipping his feet in the flowing spring.

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I love beautiful homes, architecture, accessories. They complete a designer.

Another series of stone steps, made by Igorot workers, leads to his private sanctuary, enclosed by various kinds of bamboo. The master bedroom was the first structure to be built on the property, right beside the Maimpis river, which has been dammed on one end to control flooding and the water flow into Cesar’s estate.

The four-poster bed Cesar designed is the room’s focal point, from where every waking day is “always, always cinematic,” he says. “It’s great to hear and see the river at sunrise. People can even swim there.”


His plate is full with many other things he has always dreamed of doing—from collaborating with retail giants and planning a new project on international fashion to designing home accessories. “Building this house really brought new creative endeavors into my life—and at this age! Who would have thought?” he beams. “I am happy to be as enthusiastic as when I was younger, to be always yearning and dreaming to create and design and find new things, to still be in pursuit of the greater life.”

This story was originally published in the April 2013 of Town&Country.

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