Inspiration
This Is How Pitoy Moreno Wants To Be Remembered
We take you back to a day spent with the legendary Filipino fashion designer after he was honored with the National Artist award.
IMAGE PREVIEW ARCHIVES/ DANIEL TAN/ COURTESY OF PITOY MORENO
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His atelier was his home. Where sideboards and tables were lined with frame after frame of first ladies, heads of state, royalty, beauty queens, and society icons wearing his creations.

"The memoir of a painted Angel"

Posted by Pitoy Moreno on Sunday, December 11, 2011

Where his collection of handmade piña fabric—his weapon of choice—was encased in antique dividers. Where paintings that serve as showpieces of Filipino culture and lifestyle hung on the walls of his living room, hangout of old Manila’s elite, holder of many secrets, and witness to the memories his ailments had made him forget.

Where rows upon rows of intricately beaded, embroidered creations filled his sewing room, a costume gallery of the golden age of Philippine fashion.

Let the clothes tell you everything your heart desires.

Posted by Pitoy Moreno on Sunday, December 11, 2011

Where after a long day of sketching and designing and attending “almost daily get-togethers with old friends,” he would take respite and reminisce about what he called the “thrilling moments” of dressing Princess Margaret of Britain, Princess Suga of Japan, the Marquesa de Villaverde, Cristina Ford, Margot Fonteyn, Nancy Reagan, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Queen Margarita of Bulgaria, and Queen Sophia of Spain, or the fashion shows he held around the globe, from Paris, London, New York, and Rome to Madrid, Copenhagen, Athens, Barcelona, Stockholm, Vienna, Moscow, Morocco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and more.



This Malate home had been busy for a week now. Journalists had been trying to get hold of him for first dibs on his reaction to the news: Finally, Jose “Pitoy” Moreno—then 83 years old—had been declared National Artist for Fashion Design. Friends and family had already thrown parties for him, he said, and he had cried in disbelief and unimaginable joy.

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"Of course, it hurt. I’m still hurt. I will not be a hypocrite about it. It was a realized dream, you know—becoming a living National Artist. I worked so hard all these years… With everything I have done, siguro naman I deserve it.”

The “Fashion Czar of Asia,” as the world press had named him in the ‘60s was back in the limelight. He couldn’t believe that his dream of being awarded with the highest national recognition for Filipino artists was happening in his lifetime. “Ramon Valera wasn’t able to experience this, you see,” he shared, pausing to wipe a tear. “He was already dead when he was awarded.” Valera, one of his contemporaries, was the country’s first National Artist for Fashion Design, proclaimed in 2006. “I never thought it was possible [to be awarded for the fashion design category] until he was honored with it,” added Moreno.


He sifted through the pile of old photographs on his desk that Mary Jane, his assistant, had just unearthed from storage. “Look, I was 17 years old here,” he said, pointing to a lithe image of himself with his U.P. classmates. “Do you want more photos of me? I’m not tired, ha. You can take as many pictures as you want.”

For the next three hours, he brought himself back to the last six decades of his life through his work, all monumentalized in photographs and frames and glossies and his two self-published books Kasalan (1990) and Philippine Costume (1995).

“I want you to see me through these things,” he said, immensely aware that times have indeed changed. He had long given way to the new guard—“It’s not a problem for me,” he said. “Instead of making 100, I will only make 14 gowns. I’m not a selfish man. But if you’ll write about me, say something about my work from what you’ll discover in these books. Then I would be accepted. Then people would remember.” 

"I know that in whatever I do, I cannot please everybody. I know there’s a price to pay for being in the limelight."

His books prove to be the portals not only into his universe of intricate textures and excessive adornments, couture costumes and reigning forms, spectacular shows and imperial associations, but into the deeper origins of Philippine fashion and fabrics.

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“These would have been all forgotten,” Moreno said, poring over each page in Philippine Costume, a compilation he had worked on for five years, of various Filipino attire through the decades. “I gathered all these—I even went to the provinces to source the fabrics and materials.”  

The designer couldn’t help but revel in the glory days of Philippine costume. “Look, look! Look at our costumes—the beading, the weaving, all the materials! They’re all so beautiful,” he exclaimed. “Tignan mo ang mga tsinelas na ito! These gold slippers were really made with gold… Look at this salakot. I started it and though it didn’t really pick up, it improved a lot… Look at the lolas noong araw, mga lola ninyo. Ang gaganda. Naka-Maria Clara. People take it for granted because many don’t know its history or see it this way…”


Only a designer deeply rooted in the rich history of Philippine fashion or “Philippine costume,” as he prefers to call it, can immortalize Maria Claras, Ternos, Barong Tagalogs, and Panuelos like the characters who wore them in Jose Rizal’s novels and Nick Joaquin’s short stories, or the people who donned them on the canvases of Damian Domingo, Botong Francisco, and Juan Luna. Among the panoply of 20th-century Filipino designers who have left an indelible mark as design icons, the vital factor was to have a trademark, and Pitoy Moreno’s was that of something genuinely Filipino—the Maria Clara, which became a spectacle with his own touches of beadwork and embroidery, draping and patterns. 


“Everything I did, I did for my country,” he said. “I had always been a loyalist to the Philippines.” His creations, from the time he began designing in 1954, speak true of this assertion.

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Since the news of his nomination had broken, the media hounded his home to take photographs, to talk to him, to present him once again to the nation, to the world. It didn’t take long, however, for controversy to arise, and Moreno found himself in a devastating situation. That year—2009—he was one of the four individuals nominated to the National Artist title via “President’s prerogative.”

Protests were raised against two of the four, whom critics believed to be unqualified and only recognized on the basis of their “closeness to the President.” Naturally, the fashion designer, along with the other nominees, got inevitably entangled in what seemed to be a national outrage. A number of critics even questioned the legitimacy of Fashion Design as a category of true art. 

"If you’ll write about me, say something about my work from what you’ll discover in these books. Then I would be accepted. Then people would remember."

“I was so happy. But yesterday, when I found out about the issue, I felt heartbroken. The situation wasn’t easy. We were rechecked after we’d already been recognized. It was unfair for me and the other nominees who were clueless about what was apparently going on. Of course, it hurt. I’m still hurt. I will not be a hypocrite about it. It was a realized dream, you know—becoming a living National Artist,” he said, his voice cracking. “I worked so hard all these years… With everything I have done, siguro naman I deserve it.”

As to whether or not he deserved it, he also said he would leave the judgment to the Filipinos, although people would have to be blind to recognize that his lifework is a momentous chapter in Philippine fashion history. In the ‘60s, he introduced the words ‘jusi,’ ‘piña,’ and ‘lepanto’ into the world fashion vocabulary.


It was his sense of pageantry that paved the way for Manila shows to jet set to the world’s fashion capitals. “I’ve had 103 shows to date. Forty-three were held abroad. In all of them, I presented my country and I was proud of it,” he recalled. “I even had a fashion show on an airplane, a flight from Manila to Hong Kong and then another from Seoul to Paris. That was a first in the world.”

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For everything that he was and everything that he did, however, the legendary designer remained a man of impeccable modesty. “Well, when you stand there and everybody is standing up applauding, you take a bow. Each time is a defining moment. I do that all the time. I take the opportunity. They like my creations, they like my designs, why should I not accept? Why should I be shy? I walk straight and take a bow. Period,” he said. “Of course, the National Artist Award made me proud. But I don’t feel so high up there. I don’t feel like a god. I felt good and thrilled, that’s it. Some people will try to push it on you and you will enjoy it, but then you realize that you’re creating an enemy, which is yourself. As much as possible, I try not to let things get to my head.”



Moreno's illustrious career spanned six decades. But he, like many of the designers then, had never gone to fashion school. He learned the fundamentals through passion and practice. “I got inspired during the war when I was still a kid. I remember scrubbing our floor in the morning with a bunot. Then I would take a shower and immediately go to the neighbors’, where two brothers lived. They were sewers. I watched them every day as they made clothes. They’d even let me handle little tasks. They were my first inspiration,” he recalled.

In college, Moreno took up Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, where, he said, through painting, he developed his love for art and fashion. “Girls would let me enter their dormitories so I could fit them,” he recalled. “It really started with my friends.”

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Corazon Aquino and Ninoy Aquino in Pitoy Moreno

Moreno always had a solid circle, whom he kept throughout his life and whom he had always credited for helping him build his fashion career. “I had the best opportunities. I was blessed with the right people, the right crowd, the right friends. I had a good group right away,” he said. “I became friends with people who, at that time, I didn’t know would become the icons of society today. I was with Ninoy [Aquino] in the fraternity Upsilon Sigma Phi. The friends that surrounded me became politicians and First Ladies and lawyers. That’s why I didn’t immediately become close to the designer crowd. Most of my friends are those I’ve been friends with since the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m friends with their sons and daughters, too.”

In the glamorous and controversial world of fashion then, of course, designers didn’t just make friends, but competitors. In the case of Moreno, he was pitted against industry giants Ramon Valera and Joe Salazar, among others. The designers themselves weren’t necessarily the ones who perpetuated rumors or ignited controversies, but this nevertheless affected relationships.

Among the panoply of 20th-century Filipino designers who have left an indelible mark as design icons, the vital factor was to have a trademark, and Pitoy Moreno’s was that of something genuinely Filipino—the Maria Clara, which became a spectacle with his own touches of beadwork and embroidery, draping and patterns.

“Like now, there have been many who tried to hit me,” Moreno said. “I don’t hit back because if I get angry, I hit myself. For what? So I ignore. That’s why they think I’m a little snooty. But they don’t understand that I’d just rather not get involved. I know that in whatever I do, I cannot please everybody. I know there’s a price to pay for being in the limelight.”

This was the astute yet simple perspective of the learned, making sense of the honor bestowed upon him and the brouhaha that followed it. But this also wasn’t what an icon of Philippine fashion deserved, he who had sketched, designed, and sewn magnificent creations up to the last moments his physical and mental capacities had allowed. Moreno was worthy of the recognition in all its glory.

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Four years later, in 2013, the Philippine Supreme Court officially stripped the conferment of National Artist on the four individuals involved in the 2009 controversy, which sadly included Moreno. Perhaps he was made aware. Perhaps, despite his waning health, he understood. Or perhaps, he never learned of what had occurred. If he did, however, perhaps like before, he would have been as tolerant and at peace: “With what happened, the protests and everything, well, I leave the judgment to [the people]. You know, they already sent me the paper saying ‘You’re a National Artist.’ But of course, I’m not the type who’d go, ‘I’ll sue all of you.’ It’s not that it’s not worth it. It is worth it because I am in the industry and this has been a lifelong dream. But I also believe I am here to be both criticized and honored.”

Pitoy Moreno passed away on January 15, 2018. He was 92 years old.

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About The Author
Nicole Limos
Managing Editor
Nicole’s career in publishing began in 2006. Before becoming Town&Country online’s managing editor, she moved from features editor to beauty editor of the title’s print edition. “The lessons in publishing are countless,” she says. “The most crucial ones for me? That to write best about life, you need to live your life. And another I still struggle to live by: ‘Brevity is a virtue; verbosity is a vice.’”
View Other Articles From Nicole
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