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Sunday Lifestyle

Techie Bilbao: A life of glamour, serenity & strength

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre -

The year was 1951. The famous business scion Johnny Ysmael was in Europe with his wife,the beauteous Chona Recto Ysmael.

“What do want as your gift from me — the Balenciaga outfit and a chinchilla fur coat? Or the diamond-studded Vacheron Constantin?

“Both,” Chona simply answered.

Of course Johnny gave her both.

Johnny himself had a passion for beautiful clothes. And horses. And cars —custom-made cars. He would ride horses with his close friends, who included Benny Toda, Neling Nieto and Enrique Zobel around New Manila, which was the enclave of the rich that time.

Once at Brooks Brothers in San Francisco, Johnny and Benny walked in and asked the salesperson: “How much is that suit?” The snooty salesperson, thinking the young men could not afford the linen suits on the mannequin, told them the price, his eyes focused elsewhere. His jaw dropped when the two guys bought a dozen suits each.

In Los Angeles, Johnny and Chona doubledated with the famous glamour stars Tyrone Power and Linda Christian.

Chona Recto Ysmael Kasten and Techie Ysmael Bilbao,model mother and daughter: “Nobody could imitate her, not even me. She was inimitable.”

Back in Europe with Chona, Johnny wanted to test-drive a convertible sports car he had just ordered from Milan. He drove, top-down, in the wintry cold, from Saint Jean-de-Luz to Madrid, while Chona covered herself with fur.

Johnny’s life in the fast lane abruptly came to an end when he fell ill with pneumonia and was bedridden for months in Manila, where he came home to die. It wasn’t pneumonia, but tuberculosis that claimed his life.

He left behind four children: Techie Ysmael (now Bilbao) who was four years old then, and three sons Johnny, Ramoncito (who has passed away) and Louie, now better known as Manila’s iconic nightlife host.

The rest is social history: Chona Kasten Ysmael married Hans Kasten, who society wags say used the Ysmael children’s inheritance money and Chona’s trust fund from the Rectos to build a house in Forbes.It was a story of love, greed and cruelty, as poignant sagas go.

How Chona and her children coped with this chapter in their life tells of refinement, breeding and strength  of character. In an interview with Chona’s only daughter, Techie Ysmael Bilbao, who demonstrates resiliency, grace and serenity, we ask Techie about her charmed life and how she faced her subsequent trials, from her mother’s terminal illness to her husband-basketball star Mike Bilbao’s near-death accident.

Clad in glam Missoni from Adora in Greenbelt 5 and wearing natural-looking Becca makeup, Techie herself is a style icon. “I love it when people call me a style scion and not style icon,” Techie humbly says. “Because it means I am not giving myself credit for it. Instead, I inherited it from my mother. It was ingrained in me.”

Excerpts:

What are your best memories of your dad and mom?

I have pictures of my dad always in a car or on a horse.  He was very dapper. 

My mom was gorgeous and also very well dressed. They were a good match.  

 Mom’s parents would tell me they would dance the rhumba and tango very, very well.  That perhaps explains my penchant for the Argentine tango now.  I am crazy about it.   I am taking lessons from Cecile Go, who is one of the known tango coaches.  They are masters, not DIs.  Her partner is Edna Ledesma.  It is one of the most difficult dances.  

That street in New Manila, Doña Magdalena Hemady, was named after your grandmother?

She is my great grandmother.  She was married to Johnny Ysmael the First.  She was Magdalena Hashim and she was married to Lolo Juan, the first Juan Ysmael.  He passed away, so she married a Hemady.  

She is pure Lebanese.  She was self-made.  She planted all those mango trees in New Manila.   Remember, she developed New Manila.

Where is your brother Johnny? He is keeping a low profile.

He is around.  He is Johnny the Third.  He inherited  the vintage car collection of my dad and he still has it.   And no matter how much anybody offers to buy them, he won’t sell them.

You grew up breathing fashion.  

 From the time I was a baby to the time I was 13, I wore El Bebe Ingles  (The English Baby) clothes.    It was a beautiful boutique in Spain.  My dad would buy various sizes so I could wear them when I outgrew the smaller sizes.  

For my first communion I wore a Ramon Valera.   My mother brought me to him.  I think it was organdy.   No embroidery, but big pleats.  Then, I had a skullcap with a net and then a big ribbon.  Slim’s made my prom dress. 

 How were you in school?

Life in the fast lane: “My father, Johnny Ysmael, loved fast cars, horses,and beautiful clothes. He and and my mom were a perfect match.”

I remember I had the highest grade in high school, but I failed to make it to the honor roll because I was traveling all the time.  But at the end, during the commencement exercises, it was mentioned that I had the highest grade.  I was too vain.  I wore above-the-knee dresses, there were no miniskirts yet.  Even if teasing one’s hair was not allowed, I would fix my hair like that of Natalie Wood.

 Tell me about college.

That was when I went to Spain, in the University of Madrid.   I had a few summers in  Poggio Imperiale.  And went to France as an exchange student. Then, I was  also sent to Ducal in Spain at the School of Sta. Teresa de Avila where I enrolled in courses on international studies and advanced Spanish.  Anyway, I ended up finishing the two years in the University of Madrid which would be equivalent to Associate in Arts.  I was taking up Filosofia y Letras, and majored in the Latin Language.  And I got the award for the Best in Foreign Language.

Where did you go for high school?

When my dad passed away, I was still going to Assumption, but then, my mom wanted me to experience Saint Scho.  So I went to Saint Scho and I was always in the honor roll. You see,  Lolo Claro said that for every grade of 100, he would give me a reward. 

 What do you remember of the nationalist Senator Claro M. Recto?

He always smelled of soap.  He was very neat and very clean.  And he was always testing us, always throwing questions, if we knew something.  And then he said he was going to author a bill in the Senate that would make Tagalog the medium of instruction. “Ay naku, Lolo Claro,” I would tell him, “that is so hard.  How do you teach Math in Tagalog?” And he would answer, “You will see.”

He made me memorize  Bajo Los Cocoteros, the collection of poetry he wrote.  He made me recite the Mi Ultimo Adios in three languages. 

He died when I was in seventh grade.  My mom told me, “Just make sure your Lolo Claro would be proud of you.”  And I am sure he was.  I remember always wanting to excel in everything I did.   Any of my jobs, starting with Karilagan.

Was he strict?

Dancing prince: “My brother Louie would escort my mother to parties even as a college student.”

My mom’s story about him was that he was very strict.   But she was his favorite. He called her Pichona.  He always said that I should be a journalist or a lawyer or a writer.  He thought that I was good enough for it.  But then, I said, “ I love fashion, Lolo Claro.”   “Ay, you are like your mother,” he said.  “But it doesn’t mean to say that you can’t be a writer, or you can’t be a lawyer.  How about being a politician?”  “Oh, no, thanks,” I said emphatically.  He said I was very funny.

Did you go through a debut?

When I turned 18, Pitoy Moreno, who had a new home in Forbes, hosted this party, which he called “Think Pink with Techie.”   And I remember Gilbert Perez put it all together, and all the couturiers of the Philippine Couture Association dressed me up like I was a toy or a doll to them.   My mom came with Tito Jaime Zobel and Tita Bea.  My mother was wearing a pink Pucci, the first time I saw a Pucci pajama.  

Each of the designers gave me a pink dress.  So, I had to change 13 times.  Eddie del Rosario made paper flowers.  Ronnie Laing sent pink flowers for the table.   Even the men came in pink.  I remember it was all done by them and it wasn’t a normal debut where you had a cotillion.   No escorts. 

 You must have had a magical youth.

I had a disobedient phase, which disappointed my mother.   She sent me abroad.  That was 1964.   I studied again.  I went to the University of Madrid.   And then I went to Poggio Imperiale in Florence.   At that time, it was a finishing school.

What happened after you came back from Spain?

When I came back, I started modeling like crazy.   My first job was with the Karilagan Finishing School, with Conchitina Sevilla.   I was one of the instructresses for modeling, charm, social behavior.  

Conchitina just offered the job to me.   With Pearlie Arcache and Baby Santiago.   And my mom was also one of the resource speakers.   And Marilou Mabilangan.   I remember, we were coaching the beauty queens, all of them.  From Elsa Payumo, Aurora Patricio, all the Miss Caltex tilt winners.   And then, Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran.  When Stella (Marquez Araneta) would call us, we would teach the beauty queens.   Also Minnie Cagatao.

 Is it true that to develop good posture one  puts a book on one’s head?

Yes, that’s true.  (picks up the menu and shows how). That’s how you walk without bobbing your head up and down.   It’s like tango, too.  You  have to be straight. 

Were classes every day? 

Simultaneously with my Karilagan job, I was a consultant of Beautifont, the cosmetic line.  So I would go there now and then to give tips to the sales people.  My mom and I endorsed the line.

You were one of the top models.

 I remember I was modeling with Emma Ruth Yulo and Melissa Liboro Esteban.  We were modeling for Conching (Sunico) every day at the Top of the Hilton.  

You were on the best-dressed list, too.

Yes, but it was my mom who was in the Hall of Fame along with Celine Heras, Elvira Manahan and Meldy Cojuangco, too.  And Baby Fores.

Tell me about that group.

Them? So different from the best- dressed breed today.

In what way?

In the past, they were more understated.  No jewelry in your face.   Their manner of behavior was sedate.  Now, even in modeling, you notice that they are more aggressive.  It’s different.  It’s not anymore backward slash.   And when you turn, your body turns first. 

It was scientific pala.

Yes, like the tango body turn.  That time, they were more gracious and refined.   I think there was a certain refinement in that era that is missing today.  Not for anything, because everyone is too gorgeous today.

Society was small then?

Four hundred, really.

Now it’s 4,000.  And what about the young ones today? 

Probably 4,000, I don’t know.  At that time, they were very, very strict.  The old-world values were in practice.   Like respect. Now they retort back. In those days, one look from our moms or elders, and we knew.

Did you ever model abroad?

Chona Kasten amid Orientalia in the Kastens’ Forbes Park home:”The house was bought by a niece of mine who is the daughter of Luli Perez Rubio. My mother did not have a good life with her husband in this home.Every time I think about it, I get so hurt.”

I was Inno Sotto’s signature model when he was graduating from the San Francisco School of  Design.   He needed to show his designs.  He didn’t have his shop yet so Christian executed his designs.  So I arrived in San Francisco and people who were organizing the show had to see the models.  I was clad in a Valentino, who was my favorite at that time.  They told him, “Inno your model is beautiful and she is so articulate, but she is too short.” Inno  told them, “Have you seen her on the ramp?  You just have to trust me.   I have to use her on the ramp because the kind of clothes that I design is for her.”  He did a white linen jumpsuit with a beautiful halter top of black and white plaid attached to the pants.  Then, for the loungewear category, he made me hot pants.  Then, the street wear was a beautiful cranberry-colored shirt dress.   What brought it up was the hat and a Saint Laurent kerchief.   Already then, Inno was lifting collars.  And the third was like a tailored cocktail outfit that  you could wear from day to the evening.  You could wear it to the polo field or you could go to the office with it. And if you removed the coat, it was totally backless.   There was an embroidered long gown which had a wrap, and because I was teaching so much of it in Karilagan,  I created drama with the wrap. I came out cloaked, and then I opened it, and it dropped a little bit at the back, and then I turned around.   Inno had my hair pulled back, French mignon.   I came out in the local magazines and newspapers and in the San Francisco Examiner.  But guess what?  It was some kind of a contest among the students and Inno won all the categories hands down.   I also won the Model’s Award.   Because of that, the Grimme Modeling Agency got me.  So I did a lot of work in San Francisco.  This was mostly showroom modeling only, a lot of it.

Were you with the Karilagan at the Lincoln Center?

Yes, I was just watching them  because my mother was one of the models, and  then Cristy Flores got sick, and I was asked to stand in.  That was during the World’s Fair in 1964.   I was studying at John Robert Powers and I had just come from Madrid.  I went to the  School of American   Ballet in New York for  a summer.   But then, I also studied in the Ballet Art School in Carnegie Hall. 

Where were you in 1972, around the time Martial Law was declared?

We were practicing for Bagong Anyo.   I was in the first one.   I remember (my boyfriend) Mike Bilbao used to be waiting for me up to midnight.   There was a time when I didn’t want to go to a rehearsal.  The Metrocom came.

You designed dresses, too, I remember.

I had a line for Shoemart.   It  was on the third floor with Lulu Tan Gan, Jeanne Margaret Lim.   It was called Techie Y. Bilbao for Shoemart.  I was also member of the FDAP or the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines.  I continued being a member but I stopped designing  because I became public relations director of Mandarin.   It was from 1981 to 1984.   Then I went back to the US with Mike.

Did you ever have a mother-and-daughter conflict?

Never.   I hated it every time people asked if we had a rivalry. In school, my classmates would ask, “Is that your mom? Wow!”  And I would say yes.   My hair would stand because I myself was awed by her.  

Is it true that your mom never got angry? 

Yes, and she taught me to be like that.

How was your relationship?  Did she tell you how to do things, how to behave?

Yes, she taught me everything.  Manners, first of all.  And she taught me how to acquire some kind of serenity, about not being stressed out.  Even if you are, you try not to show it. Be calm.  She only got stressed out in her life with her husband.

She was distraught when my dad died.  I remember that she was really sobbing but then, when the hearse was being led by his favorite horse, she said, “Look, his head is down.” She was trying to be restrained but I heard her sob.  

What was it like growing up with Chona Recto Ysmael?

She was admirable.  She was my idol. She was very languid.  Very graceful.  Their bathroom had a sunken tub so she would go down some steps.  And then take a shower.  I don’t think she filled up the tub.  I remember an array of all cosmetic lines were in her dresser. 

 She had small bottles of cologne, perfume.   And she said, “You can use some because it could get stale.  So, I would have a field day.  She taught me how to dab behind the knee, on each ankle, all the pulse points, so when you pass by, you don’t reek, but you smell nice.   And I like that now.  I can’t live without doing that.

How was she when she was dressing up?

 At that time, she was very uncontrived.  She would not lay a dress out, unless it was like a formal occasion, or something for which she had something specific to wear.

Like the Kahirup Ball?

 Ay naku, the Kahirup.  Everyone was always dressed to the nines.  Especially those who were dancing the rigodon.   One time, she came to the Kahirup Ball, she didn’t have a single bead on her gown.   She wore an off-white alaskin with a shocking pink lining.   Everybody just got so stunned.  She had no jewelry.  They had trains and all, but when she walked in, sheer simplicity.  

 Did you ever model with your mom?

Yes, when Mary Esteban, who was a famous designer of children’s dresses, had a mother-and-daughter fashion show, I would come out with her.   So, we would all come out with Mary Prieto and her daughter Marilou, who was very shy at that time.

Did you find yourself copying her?

She was inimitable.   Nobody could imitate her, not even me.   But what makes me feel very blessed is what she ingrained in me.  She taught me how to bear suffering.   In her own special way, how to be a sounding board and how to understand people, never to put them down. 

How was she spiritually?

She internalized good values.   She was very prayerful.  She was always praying the rosary, always praying to some saint.   When we were in Rome, we would make it a point to buy rosaries.  She was so devoted.  But people didn’t see that.

 She was misunderstood?  

They got the wrong message.   They would only see that part of her that had to do with vanity. 

That’s probably because the so-called society girls were stereotyped.

Yes, but she was so intelligent, and she wrote very well also.  She was very articulate.   She described things really well, and it flowed naturally.   She never put on an act.

 How did she cope with chismis?

She would just sigh. And she would say, “The day they stop talking, that’s when I should worry.”  Or she would shrug them off. “Ay, they are just jealous.” Her attitude was: “That’s their problem, not mine.   I couldn’t care less.”  

Who was she closest to?

Tita Mary Prieto was her best friend.  And during her last years, she was very close to my brother Louie, who accompanied her everywhere.

Talking about beautiful clothes, who are your favorite designers?

Valentino, Givenchy, Chanel, YSL.   You know, if it were not for  Eman Pineda, his brains, his fashion ingenuity,   I would not have noticed Adora.   I sensed it right away.  Wow, I wanna work here, I told myself.   Eman is Adora’s  president and artistic director. 

What is your advice to people who have the means and would like to rise in society, to be accepted and all that?

I think breeding counts a lot.  But it can be acquired.  One learns through time. Let me tell you something.  We had a maid named Editha.  She was like a duck, really a loudmouth. We taught her and our other maids the refinements, and they absorbed the culture, and so they could be anywhere.   Editha married a Brit engineer, and she now has like a castle.  The other one, Paz, was hired by Margot Fonteyn.

Even if people  come from certain origins if they imbibe a certain culture, and they are well-bred and well-mannered, they will fit anywhere.   They have to be humble, they have to be softspoken, they should not be scandalous.

What are the values or traits that one should have to be like Chona Recto Ysmael Kasten?

First is refinement.  Everything that you do has to be refined.  That has to do with gentility.  Number two is being ladylike.  The third is humility. Fourth is sincerity.  Fifth is commitment to your family and your job.  Then, the sixth is graciousness and hospitability among friends and family.  Seventh is love for life, which refers to the humanities like  music, the visual arts, dance. It’s not about money.  You can be entrepreneurial but not greedy.  Do not let greed rule over your entrepreneurial spirit.  You have to stop somewhere.  Don’t be destroyed by greed.  Eighth is behavior.  How you behave in public or when you are alone should be the same.   No double standards.  Ninth, you adapt to what life is now. Like people now wear jeans, unlike before.  Tenth is you must follow rules, but if you must skirt around the rules, you better have a good reason. You should use your best judgment.

What is the all-time rule for making it to the best-dressed list?

Simplicity.   Have your own identity so you don’t end up imitating the way others dress up.  It is better to be understated.  But if you have confidence and you can get away with your choices, go ahead. 

What is your ultimate say on style?

Style comes with time.  It is natural.  Choices should be inherent.             

CHONA INNO LOLO CLARO MOM ONE TIME
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