A Look Back on the Life of Style Icon Inno Sotto, in His Own Words

Here, the fashion prince of Manila recounts his life’s many ups and downs and tells us about his little boy-to whom he credits his current state of happiness.
IMAGE Christian Regis

“I couldn’t have had a son at any better time. His name is Marco. I have had him since he was two-and-a-half. I took custody of him from Julie, my yaya who has been there for me ever since and through it all. She’s Marco’s biological grandmother. It’s a fantastic feeling, being a father at this age, at this time of my life. Who would have thought, right? What I like about this relationship is that there are no expectations. I mean, you have hopes for your child, I think all parents have that for their children, but I have no expectations in the dynamics of the relationship. I am just so concerned about him growing up. He calls me ‘Ahia,’ his grandmother ‘Nana.’ I don’t want him to grow up thinking that his lola is my yaya or that she should be serving me, so we try to do our own household chores.


Marco is very smart, respectful, loving. I’ve grown to love him very much as my real son, and I will do everything to raise him well and make his life good. I mean, I’m gay, it’s my choice, and I hope he doesn’t get discriminated against for that one day, somewhere. I hope he grows up responsible and brilliant. I hope he remembers all the good times he had as a child.

One thing about fatherhood struck me a couple of years back, when I attended a wedding. The father of the bride cried so much delivering his speech. He said it wasn’t so much about him losing a daughter, their only girl. It was because he couldn’t remember so much of his daughter when she was three, seven, 13, those certain young stages of her life because he was too busy. He was a doctor. That stuck to me. So now I’m so conscious about being able to note, being able to remember. I don’t want to miss anything. I take it so seriously, you know, my being there.

I make sure to spend all the holidays with him, Christmases, New Years, weekends, and hear Mass every Sunday, like normal families would. Like my own family would.

Inno with his adopted child, Marco, who calls him ahia, meaning older brother, and with whom he now spends most of his time.

I spent my growing up years in the States. My whole clan is based there to this day. I had a conservative Catholic upbringing, as my mom, would you believe, comes from a family of nuns. We would pray the rosary and the litany every day. Back then, I would just come back to Manila for annual vacations. I was still quite shy, but I knew what I wanted and I went for that. I’ve always been fascinated by art, design, architecture, so when my sister recommended me to Christian Espiritu, one of the biggest Manila designers in the ’70s, to assist him for the summer, I took the job. And so when I finished my liberal arts degree at the University of San Francisco, I immediately took fashion at the San Francisco School of Fashion and Design and eventually moved to Parsons in New York.

I would have stayed there for the rest of my life had I not met the man who changed my life the most—Richard [Tann]. I was a green card holder already at a certain point and his family was already based in Canada. We met accidentally. I was here in Manila to meet designers Auggie Cordero and the late Caloy Badidoy. Auggie had a friend who used to manage Richard’s band, and they were playing at Holiday Inn where we were invited to watch. When I first saw Richard, I thought he was kinda chubby. We really got along. We’d head to Manila Hotel’s Café Ylang-Ylang, and we’d stay out until the early morning. And we’d laugh a lot. A lot. That’s why we think, a healthy relationship or any kind of relationship, requires great friendship. We were friends. We’d argue, we’d discuss things, we’d laugh. We’d eat a lot. Everything was so good.

Until one time, we had an argument. And it didn’t end well, which was very unusual for us. We usually resolved things right away. But with that particular fight, we didn’t talk for a whole week! He knew I would always go to church in Malate in the evening, and that’s where he cornered me. We talked and we realized that we had reacted to each other in a different way because we were beginning to like each other in a different way. That sort of thing. I knew it, I was like, ‘Richard, at least now we know. But we can’t be together, that would be difficult for you and it will also change many things.’ But after over a year later we decided to be partners. And when we did, there was no turning back. I felt I didn’t need anyone else but him. He was the first I’d call for anything. When there’s a movie I want to watch, when there’s a new restaurant in town. He was my partner for the longest time, 24 years, until he passed away from a heart attack around a decade ago.

The week Richard passed away, I didn’t know he wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t say. Apparently he was having back pain. The doctor says that when you feel severe pain for more than a week, even if you take pain reliever and it comes back, it has something to do with the heart, apparently. There was a big event on that day. I remember that on the way back to our house in Pasay I passed by Palanan church. For some reason, I stayed long until after the Mass, and the church closed on me. I was very conscious of that. I was just there, praying. Perhaps God was just preparing me for the news I would receive when I got out of church.

A young Inno Sotto; Inno is photographed here with his partner of 24 years, the late Richard Tann, at a fashion show in the late ’80s.

Richard’s secretary called to inform me that he wasn’t feeling all right and that he refused to go to the doctor. He even attended an event. I had to rush to him while he was already having an attack and bring him straight to the hospital. He needed to undergo a quintuple bypass according to the doctors. While waiting for him to stabilize for the operation later that evening, he had another attack. 

The sight was terrible. It was difficult. His friends wanted him to hang on. I did, too. But I saw what he was going through, so I told him, ‘It’s okay to let go. You let go, I will be fine, don’t worry about me.’ And so he did the next day. It was the eve of my birthday.

The wake took a while because his mom flew in from Canada. Richard and I had this agreement that if anything happened to us, we’d just call a priest then order for a cremation immediately after. But I couldn’t do that. His mom of course wanted to see him whole. Everyone was there, his friends from La Salle, people in the music industry. Suddenly all these names he had mentioned to me before suddenly had faces. It was a strange feeling.

Of course I had to write a eulogy. I approached one of Richard’s friends from school who’s fluent in Mandarin and I asked him to translate it, write it phonetically in Mandarin. I was able to memorize it when I cannot speak Mandarin at all.

I had to arrange for flowers, and so I called Mabolo and requested for the most special they had for Richard’s casket. On the third day of the wake, Gaita Forés told me that those flowers on his casket were the flowers Richard had ordered for me prior to his attack for my birthday.

How strange.

Now it’s really his company that I miss. The most difficult thing about it is that I don’t hear his stories anymore. I won’t ever hear his stories anymore. That was difficult to accept. The first three years were the most difficult. Retelling you this story brings back so much memories. Wow. That’s what I went through nga pala. He was the face I’d see at night, the first face I’d see in the morning, that was difficult for me to bear. I had to shake it off. Work. Travel. Be with friends.

We had a lot of good times together. But those weren’t enough. I guess that’s why I’m like this with my little boy, I want to enjoy every moment with him. And my friends as well. I’m more concerned about quality time. The most time you can get with someone. Even with my son now, at his age, he would just come to me and say, ‘Ahia, I love you.’ He says that because he sees me do it as well.

Inno in his early 20s, taken when he was on vacation in Manila; and costumes he designed in the ’80s for singing group New Minstrels.

I’m not looking forward to having another partner. I think that was my quota. I mean, I’m not looking for one or out to have fun. I’m fine. I have a son. I’m happy with that. And it’s also because of him. He’s growing up. If another person comes to my life, it may be difficult for him. I want things to be normal for him also.

I’m usually up at seven in morning. I work quietly, until my son wakes up and we’d all have breakfast together. I sleep late at around 2:30 in the morning. I like those hours. I doodle a lot. In the morning that’s when I make calls. 

I also regularly meet up with some friends, usually Pepito Albert, Patrick Rosas, Gaita Forés, Bea Valdes when she’s here. The best thing about their company are the conversations. We just talk. When I’m with Pepito or Jojie, we don’t talk about clothes. We rarely talk about fashion. And I like that. I also like eating out. I like drinking ocassionally. And we laugh and laugh and laugh about anything and everything. With them, everything comes out naturally.

Apart from sleep, which I consider my greatest luxury, I still indulge in my ability to create and design. I think that I’m fortunate to have been in the business for the last 800 years; that I’ve been able to move along as a designer, and in a certain way as an artist. I have found myself being tapped to be involved in so many other aspects of design and expression, mostly artistic and mostly because it is an appreciation of my taste. And being given all these opportunities at this time of my life, I think it is absolute joy, it is a terrific indulgence.          

The designer at work in his office at Rustan's Makati.

I think that more than any other country, ours has an amazing onslaught of talent in design. Well, it’s better for the designers now than in my time. It’s easier to start now with more glossies, broadsheets. There is always that lifestyle page. There is always an event that has a fashion angle to it, whether legitimate or otherwise, there is always a fashion angle to it. You launch a telephone, there is fashion to it. You launch anything, there is always fashion. But in a way it has also sort of gone off hand, with the series of shows that’s been going on, there are very few designers now who are truly, truly knowledgeable of their craft and I can tell. They’re a lot but only a few really know what to do. Very few would actually stay much, much longer. I think the most difficult thing is to be able actually sustain the interest.

Now everything has to make a statement. It’s not so much to capture the clientele. Usually, all these are targeted to the press, which is unfortunate. That’s why I produced Fashion Watch, the annual fashion gala of select designers. It is geared toward these designers. I would never compromise my profession or my peers to be used to promote something else other than their work. They are here not because they want attention or to show who they are but they have a cause, not self-serving. From the list of 20, about only one-fourth of them have had one-man shows in the spans of their careers. They’ve been part of group shows. That I think is unfortunate. And that’s not because they’re short of talent but because nobody recognized them for what they are.

It is for the same reason that we brought Filipino designers for the ASEAN design during the Ramos administration, Filipino designers would actually participate in exclusive shows with Indonesian, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Thai designers and they have a reason to show because they were good. That was, for me a proud moment in Philippine fashion, this is something I am most proud about. I hope to work on more projects to promote the Filipino artist.

I don’t really need a certain ambience to work. I always have a working mind. I think ‘now’ is really another chapter, where every page is like a day in my life that opens up to new discoveries, interests, and dreams. It completely awes me because I find that there is always something to discover again and again and again, whether big or small. It’s not just about what I physically see or do or acquire. It’s about discovering more of myself— what else I am capable of doing, what else I want to do, how I can contribute.”

As told to Nicole Limos

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