Fashion and Beauty

Jackie, oh!

BEEN THERE, BEEN THAT - Myrza C. Sison -

Back in the early ’80s when fashion shows were dinner-theater and models crawled onstage for drama, a bubbly college student from La Salle named Jackie Aquino would step out of his mother’s art gallery at the Hyatt Hotel and sneak into its penthouse restaurant La Concha, where he wouldn’t sit or eat but just stand on the sidelines, mesmerized by its famous luncheon fashion shows. The Hyatt vs. Hilton fashion show wars were on their last hurrah but still held the boy in thrall.

The boy’s only dream? Merely “to be a friend of a model or beauty queen.” Gloria Diaz, Aurora Pijuan and Melanie Marquez were his idols. His fascination with the glamorous life grew even more when, during disco-hopping nights with his gang of friends (which included schoolmates Katrina Ponce-Enrile and Randy Ortiz, and Tonichi Nocom), he was awed by the sight of top fashion director Gary Flores always surrounded by a coterie of models at Velvet Slum, Coco Banana, and Circuit.

The fourth child of an Air Force general and a gallery owner with eight children, Jackie grew up with his fair share of Middle Child Syndrome issues. “Naturally, in a family that big, I was KSP (Kulang sa Pansin). We all had loud voices because we had to vie for attention. It became an achiever to get noticed.” But because he grew up with full emotional security and acceptance, he never had an axe to grind with his parents and family. He has only very fond memories of those times.

“My childhood was so much fun!” he gushes. “I was accepted early on. No one made a fuss about my being ‘different.’ I never heard anything from my father or mother. I was embraced by all the neighbors.” We ask if they knew he was gay. “Oo naman! Oh, yes!” Jackie exclaims. “Our neighbors used to tell me that when I was two years old I would dance the ballet on the roof where the clothes were hung out to dry. When I was eight, my sisters convinced me I would soon get my period, so I waited, but it never came.”

From his “funnily crazy mother,” Jackie learned humor and tolerance. “She had a rough life, raising eight kids and putting up her own business because her husband’s salary was only enough for three kids,” he says. Jackie grew up very close to his mother, meanwhile idolizing his father, whom he put on a pedestal. His father was a pilot, and so became his two brothers and all his male cousins. Jackie, however, was destined to take off on a different kind of runway.

Pan De Sal, Magic, atbp.

Fast forward to the early ‘80s, when unfortunately (and fortunately for us), Jackie the literature major had to start working before he graduated to augment the family income. His dancing partner and schoolmate Katrina Ponce Enrile, who had a food venture called Pan de Sal Magic, hired him as its marketing manager. While hawking bread rolls, he found a lucrative sideline that came natural to the boy with the booming voice, dancing prowess, musical inclination and friendly vibe — directing cotillions for debuts. He also dabbled in children’s theater.

His friend Tonichi Nocom, then working in SM, spotted Jackie’s talent. “I told Jackie, with your love of music and the performing arts, a fashion show direction is the next big thing you can do.” The fashion industry was booming with local boutiques and labels. It took a lot of convincing before Jackie became confident with the idea, but in 1984, Tonichi booked Jackie to direct SM’s summer show called “Aloha Hawaii.”

Jackie’s debut was short of disastrous. Tonichi remembers, “Halfway through the show, his soundtrack (recorded on open reel or cassette tapes back then) ended. I was backstage dressing the models when I heard that the music stopped!” Jackie says. “So that the show could continue, I had to rewind the soundtrack as the audience waited in horror. Back then, shows were an exact science with precise choreography, so you really had to have the exact amount of music.” Lesson learned, and a career was born.

The Rise And Rise

People took a chance on the young newbie. In 1985, he got his first big show called “Best of 3” featuring designers Katrina Ponce Enrile who had a boutique called Options, Beau by Omen Ortiz, and Heidi Castillo, produced by Babot Aspiras, whom Jackie calls “a huge force in my growth as a director and as a person.” What Babot noticed in the young Jackie: “His talent, humor, and unassuming ways. He stood out.” She adds, “People may have opened doors for him when he first started, but he has made the finest use of all those opportunities.”

“Then, shows started coming in left and right,” Jackie recalls. Among the memorable ones were the Options and Kirei shows, the PMAP (Professional Models Association of the Philippines) and Sari-Sari Store shows, Larry Silva’s 10th year anniversary gala where the Philippine Philharmonic played live, and Mike Dizon’s Exclusively His, a menswear show with all men and only six girls, featuring two runways forming an X, with a backstage on each side of the ballroom. “Some of the girls made a mistake and exited in the wrong backstage — they had to go around the ballroom through the kitchen to get changed!” he recalls.

“I was directing three shows a day — luncheon, cocktails, and gala shows.” But Jackie felt stifled by how shows were staged. “All the movements were counted, models had to remember choreography and precise musical cues. It didn’t give any chance for the models to shine,” he observed.

Not until 1985, when he directed the show of designer Meg Paris, who said, “Jackie, I want my models to just walk up and down the runway.“ “She had modeled in Europe with Pitoy Moreno and probably learned that from there. She told me, ‘Shows should be a visual feast. You want to leave people hanging, so let them see the clothes for just one round. If you let them go on a second round, they look for what’s wrong with the clothes. On the third round, they look for what’s wrong with the model.’”

“This epiphany changed my style,” Jackie reveals. “I also noticed from film documentaries on fashion shows of Pat Cleveland and Anna Bayle that there was no choreography or ‘formulas,’ and the music was live. I realized the director had to capture, and not dictate the moment. I wanted there to be an interaction between model and audience, so I had to set the model free to do whatever she wanted. This allowed the models to develop their own distinctive style, and superstars were born.”

Tina Maristela was the master of this. “In one show that she opened, she entered, drop-dead gorgeous, and had to be hauled off the stage.” Jackie asked models to assume roles onstage, such as “Okay, act like you’re all drunk.” Also, when all other directors scrambled to use the theme from Star Wars, he played dance anthems like Rock Me Amadeus and Rico Mambo, which really got his models in the mood.

Then, in 1986, another turning point. A group of designers led by Mang Ben Farrales were staging a group show called “Fashion Revolution.” I remember going to the first meeting with trepidation. Being the most junior of all the directors at the time — Gary Flores, Boy Saulog, Wanda Louwallien, and Ogee Atos — I was ready to agree to be assigned backstage. But Mang Ben said, “Jackie, you do the opening.” Jackie knew at that moment that he had arrived.

The partying continued. Velvet Slum, Coco Banana and Circuit had been replaced by Subway, Zigzag, and Faces. But this time around, it was Jackie who had an entourage of models who followed him around. They had unlimited passes to these discos. “It was the decade when where models went, everyone followed. But I wanted to stay in the background.”

The Dark Years

Tailing Jackie’s newfound success and fame was the onset of what he calls The Dark Years, which started around 1987 to 1988. “I was doing a lot of shows in Cebu, which was just a fledgling market then,” he remembers. “Well, in any success story, you will encounter some form of stuggle,” Jackie begins. “I struggled with drugs.”

“You have to understand, it was an industry where everything was given on a silver platter,” he explains. Even the coke? we joke. “Sadly it wasn’t coke. Shabs (shabu) was our drug of choice. Oh my God, ang cheap! It was not yet established what the side effects were. The only thing we knew was that it could make you lose weight. Most of my friends swore by it. Models, designers, friends outside the industry — nobody knew any better. So we all started taking it. I estimate that 75 percent of the industry experimented with it. And we all lost weight, but we didn’t know it was addictive.

“Then just like any addiction, it created a life of its own. It’s a vicious cycle that makes your life go down the drain. In the beginning it was great, but it came to a point where I needed it to function. I wouldn’t sleep for days. The scary part was that my work was getting affected.” Clients were worried, and so were his family and friends.

His parents were devastated. Jackie says as is inevitable in the vivious cycle of addiction, addicts will run out of money and do what it takes to support their habit. He clears his throat when he reveals with difficulty, “I started stealing my father’s things.” He balks at the unpleasant memory, but decides to share it with the world. Jackie is grateful it didn’t escalate to pushing, the next step. “I don’t think I have the personality to push. It was worse for some people I knew. I heard stories of them selling themselves for drugs.

“Nobody knew how to handle me when I was taking drugs. Exasperated, my sister called me and said ‘Mamili ka, detox sa hospital or Bicutan?” The good child in me came out and complied. I got detoxified, but it didn’t work. There’s really nothing you can do to get out of drugs except decide to quit on your own.”

Skyrocket In Flight

Jackie desperately wanted a way out, but was mired in helplessness. In 1993, a phone call from Renee Salud would be his lifeline. “He asked if I could direct his show in LA. I grabbed the chance. So with all the money to my name, $140 in my pocket, I flew to LA. I took the opportunity and never looked back. I never even thought of doing drugs in the US. I knew that if I got caught there, I would go straight to jail.”

Best friend Randy Ortiz was his biggest supporter. “Randy never stoped nagging me to quit drugs. He never held back and told me straight to my face exactly what he thought. That I was an addict, that I needed help. ‘You look like a dried prune!’ he’d admonish me. I am very grateful that he never backed down.”

He doesn’t know how he did it, but in LA, Jackie was able to quit cold turkey. He recalls, “I left to put my life in order. That was hard. I stayed in LA for nine months and worked as a secretary. In 1994, my other best friend from New York called and said, ‘I’m giving up my apartment, why don’t you come?’ Coincidentally, Randy Ortiz had a show in Miami and wanted me to direct it. I took advantage. Again, with nothing saved from LA but $150 and with two big balikbayan boxes, I flew to Miami, then to New York and never looked back.”

New York State Of Mind

In New York, Jackie worked as a travel agent. But his true calling found a way to come back to him. His friend from Manila, former male model and budding fashion designer Antonio “Jan” Garcia,who had joined the CFDA and whose clothes were being sold in Saks Fifth Avenue, decided to join New York Fashion Week. He asked Jackie to direct his show. It was another life-changing experience for Jackie, one that would prepare and train him for the better things that were to come. “I learned so many things there,” he says. “I was humbled by their work ethic and professionalism: you’re paid by the hour, so when you show up for work, you should know exactly what you’re going to do.”

In 1996, Randy Ortiz would once again be instrumental in helping change the course of Jackie’s career. “One night, Randy just called me and said, ‘Umuwi ka na. I have something for you — a series of shows in Limits.’ My mother didn’t want me to come home, saying ‘What will you do here?’ I was still not in good graces with my family because there was still so much hurt. But I took a chance and called my three eldest siblings to ask their permission. Surprisingly, they all said yes, so I came home.”

When Jackie came home, he was brought face-to-face with his demons. Manila, with all its bad influences, still proved to be a slippery slope. He fought the urge to take drugs again, but in a few days, succumbed and tried shabu again. “Sooner or later I knew I was going to try it again. I just wanted to see if it still had the same effect.” It didn’t. “That’s when I realized I didn’t want to anymore. Ayoko na talaga. I had become so used to sleeping regularly and keeping normal hours in the US. The most basic thing that made me stop for good: I wanted to be sane. I wanted to have full and complete control of my life. It was good that I finally realized at that point that that phase of my life was over.”

Making amends was foremost on his list. “From my father I learned forgiveness,” he relates. “After all that I had done to him, he never said anything. So I just knelt before him and all was forgiven. I made up for everything by being a really good son; my mission in life is be there for them now no matter what, like when they get sick or need me in any way.” The Prodigal Son had returned, reborn.

The Comeback Kid

Jackie’s career resumed smoothly as if he had never been gone for three years. “Gratefully, Manila didn’t forget me,” says Jackie. “I left before I ruined my name — thank God!” Directing the “Within Limits” series of three shows, those of Randy Ortiz, Vittorio Barba-Joji Aguilar-Edgar Madamba, and Gerry Katigbak-Clarence Mata, was his first chance to apply everything he had learned in New York. But what made it special, Jackie says, was that the entire fashion industry came in full attendance to see his shows. “It was so nice to be back,” Jackie remembers.

“Then, everything just took off,” he says. “I did shows again for Rustan’s, and Stores Specialists, Inc., then dere-derecho na.” He had great timing. The late ‘90s boom in international fashion brands in Manila was perfect for Jackie’s style. It was where he would find his niche. “For these shows, global standards had to be met,” he explains. “Everything was predetermined and approved. No productions, just straight runway shows where clothes are meant to be photographed. The highlight of the show is the collection and nothing else. The technical aspects are just secondary to everything.

“The hardest thing is to simplify. People think being simple is nothing great,” he clarifies. “From the lines of the stage, to the music, to the type and arrangement of the food served, to the lighting of the entire set-up. No wonder designers are very protective of their brand. Everything you do should complement everything else. Unlike before, you just put on a stage, show na. A show is dictated by the philosophy and psychology of the brand. Of course at the end of the day, it’s still a party. Thematic presentation na lang ang difference,” he adds.

Jackie became a favorite of many international brands. Malu Francisco, marketing manager for SSI, explains why Jackie is a favorite. “Because he is so easy to work with. He is flexible, calm, and cool. His infectious sense of humor can de-stress any situation!” And never underestimate punctuality, which can be hard to come by in this country. “His promptness surely connotes discipline.  He habitually arrives at least half an hour before any appointment!” Bulgari’s Mario Katigbak agrees. “Jackie is the easiest person to work with. No tantrums, comes early, always understands the concept of the brand, and is totally professional.”

Jackie has also been called a “Model’s Director.” Says good friend Tweetie de Leon Gonzalez, former president of the PMAP, “Jackie delivers. He is organized, dependable, and well-loved, especially by models. He gives models the respect they deserve, which is why working with him is always a delight.” Rissa Samson, also a former president of the PMAP, says “Jackie directs the kind of show that motivates models to perform not just for the audience but for him. His shows are always timeless masterpieces. He knows what works without the need for distracting and fancy showmanship. After all, it’s not the stage, the lights, the music or the director who are the stars of the show. He knows that the star of the show is the client, the designer and his clothes, and not him.”

“The same reasons that make him a standout in his field have also made him endure throughout the years,” observes his friend of 31 years, Katrina Ponce Enrile. “Jackie always puts his whole being into his creations, almost to the point of being ‘in love’ with them. In other words, pulido siya gumawa ng show. But despite being meticulous, he is very easy to work with.”

He proves that nice guys do finish first. Long-time client, events producer Marilen Nuñez says “Jackie has always been a very easy person to deal with. Not a mean bone in his body. He never says anything bad about anybody or a situation. His most common comment is ‘Hayaan mo na lang.’”

And What of the Youth?

Which is not to say Jackie is complacent about everything. On the contrary, he almost feels obligated to always give back to the industry that nurtured him. His dedication to and concern for the industry is remarkable. Guiding the younger generation as much as he can is something that he tries to do, albeit not really consciously. In fact, it’s one of the reasons he chose to be so candid about the ups and downs of his life in the interview. “I hope people can learn from my experiences,” he says. When he has an inkling that some young people he works with are living excessive, dangerous lives, he speaks up. “I make parinig, I talk about my story, but nobody ever thinks it’s true,” he laughs.

Many who have worked with him will remember what Jackie always says backstage before a show: “Talent will get you a foot in the door, but the only way to last long in this industry is for you to have passion, a community spirit, and to give back — to inspire others the way you were once inspired by others.”

“Unahin ang galing bago ang dating” is another mantra he likes to impart. “It’s what happens after the award or accolade that matters. There are so many talents out there, but success is fleeting. How many really survive? Only those true to their craft and to themselves. Just do your work well, deliver, and be good to others.”

As for divas, he says, “Di na uso ang diva ngayon! It’s okay to be a diva when it comes to protecting your craft, demanding excellence, but there’s a thin line between that and wala lang magawa but whine. Maybe because of all these reality shows, some younger people have this notion that being a bitch can get them press. Yes, but for all the wrong reasons!”

Fashion is an industry that thrives on the young. As younger and younger players emerge, how does Jackie, now 48, cope with the threat of being someday replaced by fresher talent? “Well, I’m still here!” he exclaims. “By all means, everyone is welcome! There’s room for everyone — we all have our own specialties and attract different clients. The secret is to know what your clients want. That’s the key, if you’ll listen. Never be afraid that there will always be somebody better than you,” he says. Has he ever been afraid? “I have, but I know my strengths. Know who you are and you’ll be fine. There will always be competition, but make it healthy.”

Outlasting his contemporaries wasn’t easy, but Jackie offers a simple clue to what has made him last for 25 years: “I love what I do and I never got tired of loving it. Each show is a new show for me. I want to work ’til the day I die, maybe I can work through other people, but I’ll be doing the same thing.”

And it’s not Jackie without a funny ending to drive home his point:“I hope that at 60, I can look 50. Doctor, here I come!”

* * *

Myrza Sison was a runway, print and commercial model in Manila from 1989 to 1996. She started her writing career with The Philippine Star in 1994, concentrating on fashion coverage. She proceeded to become fashion editor of Preview from 1995 to 1997, Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief from 1997 to 2005, and Marie Claire editor-in-chief from 2005 to 2009. She is currently the editorial director of Summit Media as well as the editor-in-chief of Spot.ph. Summit’s newly relaunched online city guide to Manila.








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