Inside the Ateliers of Old Manila’s Favorite Designers
In the Golden ‘50s of Manila, privileged Filipinas attended schools run either by French or German nuns and shopped at the elegant Aguinaldo’s on the Escolta. The good families in Malate and Ermita invariably attended Sunday Holy Mass at the Malate Church. There were the occasional shopping sprees with Mama in Hong Kong; summers were spent in then-elegant Baguio, or in the family’s plantations in Negros, Iloilo, Batangas, Pampanga, and Nueva Ecija. Sometimes entire families took months-long vacations in Europe and in the United States.
It was the time of corseted or girdled waists and big, full skirts, but also of the pencil-slim tubular skirt: high fashion was still heavily influenced by the postwar Renaissance started by Christian Dior’s “New Look” from 1947.
A gown designed by National Artist Ramon Valera
During those days, Manila’s best fashion designers observed the Old World standards of made-to-order clothes, as there was still the luxury of time and resources. There was a conscious effort to adopt the rigorous standards of French haute couture. Luxury items could be sourced given a reasonable amount of time and labor was not expensive. As always, Manila’s elite favored the best European textiles: silks from Lyons, France; printed silks, linens and tweeds from Italy; tweeds and other woolens from England; and cottons and Schiffli embroidery from Switzerland. Exceptional fabrics were the starting points for beautiful dresses. Cosmopolitan concepts brought them out of the ordinary. Excellent constructions in precise mathematical terms applied to the tiniest details (in the seams, pleats and the various widths and lengths that traversed the piece) actualized the outstanding dresses. After all, it was the intention of haute couture to achieve perfection. These were the masterpieces produced by the best fashion designers of postwar Manila.
Sketches by Ramon Valera
And during that Golden Era, Manila society had a whole group of lovely and affluent women of “good families” (de buena familia) with the education and taste, not to mention the poise and gestures and manners, to showcase the spectacular talents of the city’s best fashion designers.
Admittedly, it was one and the same affluent crowd that patronized the brilliant fashion designers of the time. The same names were mentioned over and over, and yet over again. However, each designer had an idea and a dress that a particular lady wanted for herself, resulting in a perfect fit. And so various, mutually nurturing relationships grew.
Two decades earlier, in 1930, a young and very talented couturier of good family named Ramon Oswalds Valera was already gaining a loyal clientele. He was simply “Ramon” to family but Manila society called him “Ramoning.”
Doña Amparo Arguelles de Villa, maternal great-grandmother of the beautiful Hong Kong socialite Audrey Puckett-Chiu, was an early Valera client in the 1930s. In those days, the young Valera would deliver her dresses personally all the way to far-off Sariaya, Quezon. she even remembered, quite comically, that Valera was still in “short pants” when she started going to him for her dresses.
Much has been said about the iconic Valera. And the fact remained that, however many women aspired to go to Valera, not everyone could. If he didn’t know you or who you were, he would not design and make a dress for you.
Valera was always the first choice of the Iloilo and Bacolod sugar heiresses for their gala gowns worn for the annual Kahirup balls. Not only were Valera’s gowns spectacular in a refined, aristocratic way, they conferred considerable cachet on the wearer (not that his affluent clients needed any more of it). The rest of the fashion designers were distant second choices for them.
All in Valera gowns, left to right: Mary Prieto, Chona Kasten, Conching Sunico, Chito Madrigal-Collantes, Sonia Lizares Corominas and Nelly Lovina.
Valera’s personal style was one of elegant simplicity.
“He was inspired by Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, and even Valentino Garavani,” recalled Paching Valera-de la Fuente. “He was impressed—actually very impressed—with the young Joe Salazar, who had a shop a few blocks down from him. He was also very chummy with Ben Farrales.” According to Pilar Valera-Jimenez: “He may have been expensive but not unreasonably so for the final product. Those stories of exorbitant fees are not true. I remember the Junior-Senior prom dress of a prominent socialite in the mid-1950s. Her very rich industrialist father wanted a beautiful dress made for her. Tito Ramon actually agonized over what he would do with the dress. He said that if he filled it up with embellishments, it would look terrible. On the other hand, if he made it simple and elegant, the client would feel shortchanged. So he gamely carried on as best he could. The young lady did not want a long dress. she wanted it mid-calf and modern. Then she wanted to add this and that. By the time the dress—red velvet with nacre appliqués—was finished, it looked perfectly beautiful, so Tito Ramon was no longer worried.”
She added: “I would say that perfection was the trademark of a Ramon Valera gown. Tito Ramon was such a perfectionist that he would see flaws where we had not seen any, despite our having inspected those same areas repeatedly! It was during the annual Kahirup Balls that Ramon Valera’s excellence in design and workmanship was best displayed. He was very particular with workmanship.”
Valera was a perfectionist who was so determined to achieve the ideal fit of an evening gown that, unlike other couturiers, it did not matter how many times it would be fitted by a client; it would be fitted as many times as it would take to achieve the maestro’s vision.
“Tito Ramon was so meticulous,” Jimenez continued. “For example, he had several katsa muslin patterns for Mrs. Imelda Romualdez-Marcos alone. One for silk, another for chiffon, another for alaskin, and so on.
The details on Valera creations
“He also had different patterns for sleeves. He disliked big sleeves for women because he thought that it made them look disproportionate and ugly.”
Paching de la Fuente recalled: “He was really The Critic, but he could easily praise people who did good work. When his fellow designers did good work, he praised them and then studied how it was achieved.”
“Tito Ramon made many spectacular evening dresses and wedding gowns. So many! But I remember what he did through the years for Patricia ‘Patty’ Araneta, a daughter of Luis Araneta and Emma Benitez, who was his goddaughter. He presented Patty with a dress on her birthday every year. One time, he made her a dress that was an exact copy of her doll’s dress,” reminisced Jimenez.
Valera was surrounded by a coterie of the beautiful people of the era, but his Muse was undoubtedly the scintillating and gregarious Elvira Ledesma-Manahan, who could make him laugh like no one else. Manahan was to Valera what Loulou de la Falaise was to Yves Saint Laurent.
Valera’s legacy lives on quietly through his nieces—Pilar Valera-Jimenez, Maria Paz “Paching” Valera-de la Fuente, and Corazon “Aton” Valera-Pellicer.
To be sure, Salvacion “Slim” Lim-Higgins was a legendary couturier in the truest sense of the word.
It was often said that many social ladies preferred Slim Higgins to the other designers because being a woman, she understood a woman’s body (and mind) much better, how it moved and felt, and she could make a beautiful dress that could actually be comfortable.
Sandy Higgins, Slim’s daughter, recalled: “She was very artistic. she could be caught up with whatever was in her head. could be oblivious to everything else as she was very focused. Yes, she was temperamental. A vicious temper, actually. Oh yes, she tore dresses apart. There was a story of a beaded dress that took weeks to finish. She was not pleased with the result so she ripped it apart and dumped it into the trash bin. She must have been so frustrated with it because she also jumped into the trash bin!”
Slim’s salon was on Taft Avenue. Higgins said, “She was known to throw bolts of fabric to the street if they were not 100 percent right.”
Slim Higgins was a very talented, very cerebral designer, and a driven perfectionist to boot—the perfect combination that produced a Filipina fashion legend. She found inspirations, like her colleagues, in European haute couture. She adored the work of Cristobal Balenciaga for the distinct sculptural element of his gowns, and those of Madame Gres for the impeccable draping.
But while she admired European haute couture, Slim took great pride in the traditional Filipina dresses—the terno and the traje de mestiza, popularly known as the “Maria Clara.” In fact, she often incorporated elements from these into her designs. As Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil said: “She ‘married’ the two styles.”
A design trademark of Slim’s was her draping. In her own words: “The less seams there are on a couture dress, the less you cut the fabric, the better the design is.” There was a strong sculptural element in her creations. She was very inventive, and her dresses took on many unusual shapes. “There must always be a balance between the top and the bottom of the dress. Like a great painting or story, you should know how to edit a dress design properly.”
Slim was insufferably particular with details and everything about the dress had to be 100 percent right for her to consider it finished.
Her various gowns, through the years, were masterpieces of haute couture. But Slim occasionally remembered, with much amusement, the 1950s wedding gown of presidential daughter Linda Garcia-Campos and its 16-meter-long embroidered train. That was something, even to her.
As much as her clients were the most fashionable ladies of the time, Slim really liked those who were intrepid enough to wear her boldly conceived gowns.
The legacy of Slim Higgins lives on in the school she founded—the Slim’s Fashion and Art School in Makati.
ROBERTA TABLANTE PARAS
Meanwhile, R.T. Paras began in 1902 with the feisty Roberta “Belta” Tablante Paras in Angeles, Pampanga. The reins were taken over by her elegant daughter, Jose na “Inang” Paras Gonzales, in the early 1950s. And the venerable, 100-year-old fashion house continues today with Inang Paras’s very talented son, Roy Gonzales, who has mastered the art of haute couture in Paris with his extensive work as the head designer of Jean Patou, and Lecoanet-Hemant after his first years with the innovative Pierre Cardin in the mid-1960s.
Manila’s elite favored the best European textiles: silks from Lyons, France; printed silks, linens and tweeds from Italy; tweeds and other woolens from England; and cottons and Schiffli embroidery from Switzerland.
Journalist Doreen G. Yu recalled: “You go into one of two fitting rooms with the folding mirrors and a wide-topped stool [for standing on if you’re short, or when the hem of a long dress had to be adjusted]. An assistant brings in the semi-finished dress on a hanger, and you gingerly get into it, mindful of pins and maybe a collar made of paper attached. when you were thus ready, Tita Inang–Mom always referred to her as ‘Mrs. Gonzales’–came in, glanced at your reflection in the mirror for a first overall look, then with an expert eye checked out every inch of the dress, with Vicky and the costurera in attendance. They spoke in clipped Kapampangan, and Tita Inang would begin tugging and pinning, sometimes with a huge pair of seamstress’ scissors begin cutting. You raised your arms, made quarter and a half turns, otherwise trying not to move [or even breathe]. Sometimes the adjustments would be the minutest take-ins or let-outs, and you wonder why even bother [who would notice one millimeter let out at the shoulder?]. But to the perfectionist eye of Tita Inang, it couldn’t be any other way.”
First, one did not bring inferior or ordinary fabric to Inang Paras for a dress—she simply refused it, and she did so many, many times to the clients’ discomfiture. She reasoned flatly that such fabrics never cut, sewed, and draped properly. She added that good fabric inevitably told her what to do. Then there was the legendary Paras fit, which was consistently perfect. She expertly took the front of the dress, and she took the back of it. The fabric was cut along the “grain.” Dresses cut on the bias had centers that never wavered.
R.T. Paras had trademark strength of technique allied with meticulous execution. In fact, it was widely known in discriminating circles that an R.T. Paras dress had such meticulous workmanship that it could be worn inside out!
Clarita Paras, the right hand of Inang Paras, remembered that one of the most memorable wedding gowns produced by the atelier was for the 1952 Vistan-Lopa wedding.
Manila society had a whole group of lovely and affluent women of “good families” (de buena familia) with the education and taste, not to mention the poise and gestures and manners, to showcase the spectacular talents of the city’s best fashion designers.
Pining Tayag, a longtime supervisor of the atelier, recalled that the wedding dress was basically a terno in bridal satin with a full skirt entirely appliquéd with handmade, realistic roses, buds, leaves and stems. It took several women more than a month to painstakingly craft the lifelike flowers—70 blooming roses, 40 buds and over 100 leaves and stems were carefully, invisibly hand-stitched on to the gown. The veil of illusion tulle, with a headdress of a few roses, was eight meters long and spanned much of the length of the church aisle. It was memorable because it was difficult to produce and really required a concerted effort to see fruition.
Roy Gonzales spent many years working as a successful designer in Paris. When he was invited to join Jean Patou in 1973, he was second only to the Italian designer Angelo Tarlazzi, who in 1972 became the artistic director for Jean Patou couture.
Gonzales has made sure that R.T. Paras runs in exactly the same disciplined way as it did during the times of his mother. As proof positive of continuing excellence, “R.T. Paras” still makes, albeit quietly, the day dresses and evening gowns of the capital’s fashionable ladies.
Yet another fashion by-line was New Yorker, established in 1935 by the stylish, glamorous, and expansive entrepreneur Pilar Ver-Romack. A very pretty lady, she was one of those extraordinary women, quite like Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, whose visceral sense of High Style propelled her to success. According to her daughter, Liz Romack-Lirag: “She was a Spanish mestiza, petite at 4’11”, but she always felt six feet tall and carried herself beautifully, all the while wearing the most fashionable clothes.”
She had leonine star quality and a megawatt smile, and it catapulted her to the top of the fashion world. And she was definitely not one for understatement. She liked flash, glamour, and glitter—the works.
Romack’s glamorous dress sense was much influenced by the Hollywood of Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. Romack actually became the doyenne of “ready to wear” in the Philippines when she decided to share her innate taste and expertise on fashion with her friends by importing the latest dresses and other clothes from the United States and Europe. Since the imported dresses required minor alterations to suit their wearers, her selling business naturally segued into made-to-order, where she became equally successful. Thus the legend that is “New Yorker” was born.
Even World War II could not put a damper on her style. With characteristic chutzpah, she cheerfully sailed through the war still selling dresses, jewelry, real estate, and anything else she could derive income from.
In those days, one traveled elegantly onboard luxurious ships. Romack cherished every minute of those trips, as she had to dress stylishly for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She relished shopping for the most wonderful dresses in all the best places. She tirelessly sought the suppliers and impressed them with her style and candor, and in no time she was filling her trunks with gorgeous dresses to bring back to Manila.
Even World War II could not put a damper on her style. With characteristic chutzpah, she cheerfully sailed through the war still selling dresses, jewelry, real estate, and anything else she could derive income from. She remembered how, one evening during the war, a Japanese soldier had shot at her lighted, pretty window display through the wood boards, thinking that someone was moving inside. But despite all the difficulties of the time, Romack had an indomitable, enterprising spirit and not even the horrors of the war could diminish it.
It could be said that Romack had serendipity: Throughout her life, she was always at the right place at the right time.
She was so exacting in the workrooms: a real disciplinarian. Perfection was the rule of thumb, nothing less. There were many instances when the seamstresses had to repeat work that they thought had been well done but which their boss inexplicably found plainly unsatisfactory.
Romack presided over New Yorker from the 1950s to the 1970s. Everything bore the mark of her impeccable taste: high quality, elegant, chic, and au courant. Clients vied with one another in acquiring her newest arrivals. And if they chose to order a dress, they could be sure that it was in the latest fashion, of great fabric, and exceedingly well made with an impeccable fit. Those were the marks of New Yorker.
It could be said that Romack had serendipity: Throughout her life, she was always at the right place at the right time.
Lirag now presides over New Yorker and has effectively brought a new life to it all the while maintaining that indefinable edge—all the style, elegance, panache and the stringent standards of workmanship—for which the salon has always been known.
New Yorker is still the place for discriminating and well-heeled ladies who want singular, distinctive, and beautifully crafted dresses. It has found new adherents among today’s trendsetters with innovative, cutting-edge, but well-executed fashions, the next creation more interesting than the last.
This story was originally published in the April 2008 issue of Town&Country Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.