Sunday Lifestyle

Inno Sotto on fashion, love, life and what matters most

10 THINGS - Bianca Gonzalez -

Every Filipino in the fashion industry respects and looks up to he who is called Manila’s Prince of Fashion. Models consider themselves to have “made it” when they are chosen to walk the ramp for his shows. His name has been immortalized in a classic hit from the Eraserheads with a line that goes, “Rumarampa sa entablado, damit mo’y gawa ni Sotto.” His long, black hair, crisp white shirts, and perfect-fitting pants have become his trademark look, eliciting both inspiration and intimidation. Here are 10 things you should know about legendary fashion designer Inno Sotto.

1. Inno originally wanted to take up architecture, and it was only when he took on a summer job to do drawings for designer Christian Espiritu that his interest in fashion started.

He shares that he’s always been fascinated by forms and shapes, and how certain homes are designed based on the lifestyle of the person or the place or point in time. “If I have to go to a department store, the first I go to is the home section, then the fragrances; for some reason fashion is always the last,” Inno reveals. He was living most of his life in the US, and during one particular vacation to Manila, his sister referred him to Christian Espiritu who was then in need of an assistant to draw for him. “Christian was very kind, generous and patient with me. And at that time, he was dressing the most fashionable women in the country.” Upon returning to the US, after a liberal arts course in the University of San Francisco, Inno moved on to the San Francisco School of Fashion and Design, then eventually to Parsons in New York.

The very first dress he made was during his third year in design, and it was for his sister’s wedding. “It was a morning wedding and I did a heavy piqué fabric, I did the pattern and then somebody helped me put it together,” Inno recalls. He admits to being bad with machines, gadgets, or anything too technical. He reveals that he is not too much into brands, and prefers the most sensible, basic things. “Believe it or not, I’m a Gap and Muji person.”

2. In his opinion, designers and stylists should be reminded to not constantly go over the top, and models are really getting too thin.

On the issue of models today getting thinner and thinner, Inno says, “No question about it, they’re easier to fit, but they’re too thin now.” He thinks “fashionistas are overkill” and shares his list of muses (as told to Bea Ledesma in a 2010 STAR article) including women from different fields and with varied personalities such as Imelda Cojuangco, Bea Valdes, Heart Evangelista, Tessie Sy-Coson and Gretchen Barretto.

We talk about how nowadays, it’s much easier to be a designer, stylist, actor, singer, writer and, actually, anything. Inno declares: “There are certain people who have to be custodians, not to tell people what to do, but to sort and be very conscious about constantly raising the bar.” There are some who tend to go over the top, or some who just want to do one better over another, and to this Inno says, “Hindi naman pwede lahat ng damit na gagawin mo ay obra maestra, at the expense of the woman wearing it.” He shares that this is what Fashion Watch, a bi-annual showcase of designers he runs along with the Council of Fashion Designers of the Philippines, is all about. He says he does not claim to be the champion of anything, but when the time comes that he does decide to retire, “I will leave a profession that I highly respect, because the practicing members of that community are real designers. Rather than to actually retire and leave when the rest of the people there don’t really count. That’s what matters to me.”

3. Inno represented Filipino design in several international shows throughout his career. He got a standing ovation at his Paris show and a rave review by Suzy Menkes for his Singapore show.

When I asked which of all his international shows was most memorable, he said it would have to be his Paris show, simply “because it was in Paris!” He did a Filipinized collection and flew an entire 80-piece collection, a few Filipina models (whom he required to have 24-inch waistlines, and so “most girls just ate a banana and that was it for the day”) and his set design from Manila to Paris. He worked with composer Louie Ocampo on music, photographer Neal Oshima on collaterals, and celebrated French lighting director Thierry Dreyfus (who also did shows for Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano) to complete the mood of his show. But beyond all that, Inno fondly recalls, “I think the more important thing was the standing ovation accorded to me after the show that was good.”

Manila’s Prince of Fashion says: “Every woman must own a white shirt, a black dress, a nice handsome bag, a mannish watch and pearl earrings.”

Another highlight in Inno’s career was being the Philippine representative in a big show in Singapore along with other Asian designers. Famous fashion critic Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune was invited to watch, and it was an important event because then, it was only Hong Kong, Japan, and India that she had been to and this was her first time to be exposed to more Asian designers in this part of the world. At the open forum before the show, Inno, who was then teaching introduction to fashion design at Benilde, asked her what she expected to see. She answered: “I have no idea, but I am hoping to get a whiff of what Asian fashion is all about.” A few days after the show, on Sept. 23, 1997, Menkes’ review came out. She described Inno as “a Philippine designer whose subtly draped clothes in silky jersey, accessorized with metal bands like curved blades, caught the perfume of Asia in a contemporary way.” Inno shares, “The review was very, very encouraging for me.”

4. Inno Sotto in numbers:

30 to 45: Approximate number of days it takes to make a gown. “It depends on the amount of handwork that goes into it.”

80: Most number of staff members he employed at one point.

8: Siblings in his family. “That’s a brother, sister, myself, another brother, twin sisters, my sister who passed away, then the youngest is a girl.”

3: Scents in a fragrance line he released in 2006, Inno Sotto Mondo: Huite, Miro, and Deauville.

27: Gala shows he’s done in his 32-year career

5. Looking back to when he was 20, he would’ve loved to have apprenticed with a designer abroad.

After the longest pause of this interview, he says that having gone through the last “800 years” (a phrase he often uses to describe his career thus far) has been very rewarding. Knowing what it is all about now, he says that he would’ve loved to work for an international designer in his younger years. He reminds designers today: “Before the dress, the most important thing is the woman you are dressing up.” He goes on to say how some garments tend to “wear the woman,” instead of it being the other way around. “I just want to make women beautiful, I don’t want to throw my fantasy on them. That doesn’t work for me.”

6. He is beyond fascinated with women. “It is amazing what they have to go through,” he says of women as opposed to men.

He has this very interesting observation: “He meets her and they get to know each other. When they get engaged, they assume roles. When they’re married, it’s her world that changes more than his. She is given the role to handle the house, him, the kids, while he continues with his life. And she’s not just dealing with that, she’s dealing with herself, because she’s no longer who she was. She’s the one constantly changing. He doesn’t change much. The woman physically and psychologically changes, and I see that, and I can understand.” He goes on to say that whatever he does with his life, it will always have something to do with women.

7. According to Inno, every woman must own these five items:

1) A white shirt

2) A black dress

3) A nice, handsome bag (“Not a bag that’s only for that season.”)

4) A mannish-looking watch for day

5) Pearl earrings

The main man in Inno’s life right now is a three-year-old boy, his son Joseph Marco.

8. His take on malicious rumors spread about him: “When people make up stories, it strikes me as vicious.”

One of the most hurtful rumors he encountered was that his partner allegedly hit him. This spread years ago when Inno attended an event with a bruised arm, which he got from having slipped and hit a table corner. “It didn’t bother me, but when it got to family abroad and it bothered them, I didn’t like that.” There was another rumor that his long-time client and good friend, the late jeweler Fe Panlilio, allegedly asked him to return jewels that he was holding. He says “The whole scenario was just so strange,” sharing that he and the Panlilios remain close and in fact he just did a wedding within their family recently. “As far as I’m concerned they can tell me, ‘You know, Inno your dress really sucks,’ you know, I don’t care. I really don’t care,” Inno declares. But when it has to do with more personal issues other than the label, that’s when it affects him.

I asked if that means he now just lets false rumors pass, he says, “Always.”

9. His partner of 24 years, Richard Tann, passed away seven years ago on the eve of Inno’s birthday. The flowers Richard intended to give Inno for his birthday ended up as the flowers on Richard’s casket.

It was one afternoon in 2005 when Inno got a call from Richard’s staff saying he wasn’t feeling so well. Richard refused to go to the hospital, went on to attend an event, and it was when Inno rushed to him right on time that they were able to bring him to the hospital. “They were waiting for him to stabilize before they could do a quintuple bypass, but he never did,” Inno recalls. The reality and gravity of the situation hit him when the doctors told him that they could do the operation, but the chances of survival were slim. Later that night, Richard went through another attack, and while everyone was saying “Richard, hang on,” Inno saw what he was going through and said, “Richard, you let go, you just let go, it’s okay, I’ll be okay here...”

Richard passed away the morning of the next day.

That morning, Inno had to attend to all the arrangements for the funeral. “I called Antonio (Garcia) and said I needed flowers for Richard’s casket. I said whatever it is you have, I just want it to be special,” Inno recalls. Inno had no idea that the morning prior, Richard was the one who called Antonio to say that he wanted to order very, very special flowers for Inno’s birthday. What was supposed to be a gift for Inno ended up as an offering for Richard. “Just like a movie, right?” Inno says. The wake was very difficult for Inno, but he recalls a special moment. “I wrote my entire eulogy in English and I asked somebody to write my letter for Richard phonetically in Mandarin. I don’t know how but I literally memorized it phonetically in Mandarin. How I did it I’ll never know,” Inno reveals. “I realized when you want to do something for someone you truly, truly love, you do it, and I did it.”

Inno and Richard started out as friends, then became best friends, then partners, then business partners. “When he passed away, I realized not so much that there was no one to help me with things, it was more… If I came home late, his was the last face I’d see. If I woke up early, his was the first face I’d see. And when you have a partner, you just fall into place. It makes sense. It’s that. You lose that,” Inno reveals. He shares that what he misses most about him is his voice (“Strangely enough, Richard was a singer and did demos, and so I compiled them”), his nearness (“Sometimes we’re in a room and he’s doing things and I’m doing things, we’re not talking, but we’re literally good”) and how “when I wanna watch a movie, or when there’s this new place for dinner,” Richard was the first person always.

10. The main man in Inno’s life right now is a three-year-old boy, his son Joseph Marco.

Joseph Marco is the biological grandson of Julie, Inno’s yaya for most of his life. “In the ups and downs of my life, the deadlines, the most relaxed phases, when I met Richard, when he passed, she was there,” he says of Julie. When Julie’s daughter gave birth, Inno offered to have the baby live with them, so that Julie could take care of the baby. When the 10-week-old baby came to their home, things changed. Julie was to be called “Nana,” meaning grandmother, and Inno was to be called “Ahia” meaning older brother, and everyone was to do things and chores on their own. “I didn’t want him to grow up thinking his grandmother was my yaya, or that it’s one particular kind of class that’s supposed to serve,” Inno explains.

Inno shares he just wants Joseph Marco to grow up to be respectful and kind, and that hopefully he will never have to go through any kind of injustice or discrimination. “I’m gay. This was not his choice, this was my choice, hopefully to make his life better, that’s what I hope for him,” he shares. Inno shares his realization that with having a lover, you expect things, and that comes with disappointments. In his relationship with his son, there are no expectations. With a certain lightness and peace, Inno says, “I’m so contented. You deal less with your own vanities, and all of a sudden all you are concerned about is ‘What do I want for him?’”

* * *

I asked Inno how he has kept himself so relevant all these years. “I’m just naturally curious, not just about my work but about people in general,” he shares. It’s actually quite fitting that Inno never refers to age. How he chooses not to recall at what age he did a certain show, at what age he reached a certain point in his career, or even what his age is now. He just answers with a default, “Age is so difficult, like I said, I’m 800 years old!” Inno Sotto is ageless and timeless, significant decades ago as he is today, relevant today as he was decades ago. Curious today just as much as he was curious 30 years ago, interested not just in design but in everything, interesting not just as a designer but as a human being.

* * *

E-mail me at askiamsuperbianca@yahoo.comor follow me on twitter @iamsuperbianca.

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