Ben Farrales, minus the ‘taray’

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre (The Philippine Star) - June 30, 2013 - 12:00am

As a young boy, Benjamin “Ben” Farrales was shining other people’s shoes and hawking boiled corn. In high school he flunked his math and ended up repeating the subject in Cotabato where he was fascinated by the authentic costumes that the Muslim women wore.  By the time he was in first year college, he was working in a department store while moonlighting in a dress shop patronized by Manila’s rich women.

Even in his early teens, Mang Ben, as he would be eventually called by friends, clients, models and fashion designers, knew what he wanted to become — a fashion designer. He was so good at his craft that Conchita Sunico, grand belle of high society and founder of the Karilagan Arts Intenational, which showcased Philippine fashion, arts and culture here and abroad, named Ben Farrales Dean of Philippine Fashion when he was only in his early 30s.

Thereafter, he did not only keep the respect and adulation accorded him, he also steadily rose in his career and attained distinction as a Filipino of manifold accomplishments — a leader among his peers in the fashion industry, an advocate for the preservation of Filipino cultural heritage, an excellent charity fund raiser  and an exacting mentor known for instilling among young fashion designers and models, his own protégés, a sense of propriety and good behavior.                          

It is for the last, his goal to professionalize the denizens of the fashion world, that has mostly earned for him one adjective that many jokingly say might have been invented precisely to describe him: mataray. When translated to English, the word means grouchy. His loyal friends, employees and clients would prefer to translate it merely as frank when referring to the man. They would point out such “katarayan” is only reflective of his insistence on doing things right, even qualifying that he only gets snappish when provoked.

The party is over

Of the many anecdotes related about Mang Ben, one can hardly distinguish between the apocryphal and the ones that actually took place.

One recalls him declaring, “The party is over,” when he once wanted to dismiss the guests in a gathering that he himself hosted. His bewildered friends wondered if they might have heard him wrong, but when they saw that he had a serious mien, cold and almost imperious, while he stood by the door ready to throw them out, they realized those were exactly his words and immediately queued to get away.

Ben Farrales did not only speak his mind out, he also matched his candidness with an act worthy of his displeasure. 

Nomer Pabilona, the hairdresser to the rich and famous in the 1960s and 1970s, shares, “I saw him prick a popular singer with a safety pin because she could not stand still while fitting on a new gown.” This was notwithstanding rumors that the diva was the mistress of a powerful official of the land. Nomer also saw Mang Ben cut a dress into fragments when a customer was complaining about a gown he made for her. In Nomer’s words: “Pinagpupunit ang baro.” (He tore the dress apart.) 

Fashion designer Goulee Gorospe, who apprenticed with Mang Ben, relates, “When he saw that the sleeves of a Filipiniana attire sewn for a client were not done well, he called the seamstress who made it.  As soon as the erring worker stood in front of him, Mang Ben told her, ‘Congratulations, Melinda, ang ganda ng ginawa mong terno.’ (You made such a beautiful terno.) After making sure his words had sunk in, he screamed, ‘P…I ka, ang pangit pangit ng sleeves.’” (You bitch, the sleeves are so ugly.) 

And yet, there is the other side of Mang Ben that Goulee sees. “After speaking his mind out, he shifted gears and became sweet to Melinda again. He was like a strict yet generous father to us. Once he sent me out to buy a copy of Women’s magazine.  When he gave me P20 for the purpose, he said, ‘Here’s the money.  You can either keep the change or you can return it to me.  That is your choice,’” recounts Goulee, who was then earning only P70 a week.    

Angel Bautista Jr., who also apprenticed with Mang Ben, shares that during one party at Mang Ben’s shop, the caterer and his team came late, causing much dismay to Mang Ben whose guests had been made to wait hungry.  No one complained, of course. “As soon as he saw that the buffet table was being set up hurriedly, Mang Ben threw the food out and drove the catering staff away, but not forgetting to pay them.  Then, he ordered food from a nearby restaurant,” Angel recalls. 

Angel, who eventually practiced his craft in Dubai, clarifies that when “Mang Ben raised his voice, it was for a reason. For example, he demanded discipline of his staff. If you were supposed to be in the shop at nine in the morning but you were running late, you better not report or you would hear it from him. That’s why we were always punctual.”

In a trance

Another protégé, designer Danilo Franco, recalled his first-hand exposure to the Dean’s genius.  “Although Mang Ben could draw very well, like a Fine Arts student who could come out with impressionistic drawings, he felt that he needed someone who would sketch his ideas so that when the client arrived, he would already have something to show her, something that was clear, almost like the customer would be looking at a dressmaker’s catalogue with details and all.    

“While drawing, he would give instructions. He was like in a trance with his pencil moving automatically. I had to listen carefully and intently. Then, I would sketch the dress according to his specifications and he would criticize what I had produced.

“As this went on from day to day, I began to understand his strokes and later on, I would know where his explanation and drawing were going. I would anticipate the intended fall of the fabric and I would be right. Mang Ben insisted it had to have the right feel”

Sometimes, they would develop Mang Ben’s ideas without intending it for a particular customer. “This happened when he was playing with silhouettes. He spent less time on ornamentation which, to him, only served to enhance the fabric.  He gave more importance to line and form. To him, fluidity was important. He would make suits that were tailored simply. ”

Danny also saw the experimental side of Mang Ben. “He made showpieces by working with unconventional materials like plastic and capiz shells. One time, when he was asked to interpret the planet Mars for a CCP show, he came out with a body suit made of red “plexiglass” with a matching acrylic halo that was 36 inches in diameter. It was an unforgettable sight.”

Getting ready to interview Mang Ben as he was celebrating a milestone on July 1, I told myself to behave according to the three tips given to me on how not to be at the receiving end of Mang Ben’s ire — do not be late, do not talk about his love life, and do not even mention the name of another famous designer.

I arrive an hour earlier than my appointment. His all-around assistant answers the bell and ushers me past various images of Sto. Niño garbed differently from each other but sharing the same gentle and innocent smile. Also prominently ensconced on various pedestals are icons of the Virgin Mary, equally frocked richly and elegantly.

The atelier, with its arches and antique furniture, evokes an era when this part of the town, right in the middle of the districts of Malate and Mabini, was the hub of high style and gracious living.  Mang Ben’s shop is an altogether different world far removed from the ugliness of the city that is evident in the slums only a few strides from his doorstep.  Not far too are the karaoke bars and the remaining fine-dining restaurants that stand side by side inharmoniously.

To my embarrassment, the Dean had come ahead. Dressed smartly in a short-sleeved polo shirt, he is seated at his antique desk.   I apologize for being too early and expressed my worry that he might have been expecting a client for a fitting session. With an almost shy smile, he replies in a soft voice, “No, I reserved my whole morning for you.”  That dispells my anxiety, although I had been apprised that he has mellowed. 

Taking in the genteel ambience, I let my eyes explore the wide and deep elegant space.  At the farthest back end of the atelier, displayed in a wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling wooden cabinet, are bolts of exquisite fabrics that I imagined were part of a royal treasure trove.  Almost right behind the Dean are two headless mannequins, standing side by side, exquisitely dressed in silk that had been wrapped around their slim and curved bodies.

If there is one Horatio Alger story Pinoy version come true, this would be Mang Ben’s. Or almost, since he did not exactly come from a destitute background. Still, the youngest of the nine children of Salvador Medina Farrales, a lawyer with a modest practice, and Paulina Samia, the daughter of a former governor of Zambales, had to augment his meager allowance by shining shoes.

“I carried the shoebox around with me,” recalls Mang Ben. “I wanted to have extra money because my parents were sending all of us nine children to school. I was proud that I could make money on my own.  And since I was the youngest, whatever I earned mattered a lot. There was nothing to be ashamed of.” Enterprising, he also sold pandesal sandwiches with matamis na bao (coconut jam) filling and hawked boiled corn around their neighborhood on M. Natividad Street at the back of Cine Apollo in Sta. Cruz, Manila.

Southern exotica

The young Ben enrolled by his parents at San Beda College was not keen on academic pursuits, primarily because he detested mathematics.  It was when he failed this dreaded subject in high school that his Ate Aida, by then married to Muslim politican Salipada Pendatun, who became Cotabato’s lone Representative and later senator, arranged for him to stay with her in Mindanao. â€œMy mother woke me up one morning and told me to pack my clothes because we were sailing to Mindanao. My Ate Aida, it turned out, had booked passage for us on the George Tucker steam ship. While I was shocked by the sudden announcement, I was happy to go to the South to be with my favorite big sister,” recounts Mang Ben.   

His sojourn in Mindanao, long enough for him to retake and pass the mathematics subject he failed in Manila, serendipitously exposed his fledgling aesthetic sense to the intricate beauty of Muslim artistry and craftsmanship.  For someone who, even at such a young age, had already been fascinated with fashion, this was a totally new world of beautiful women wearing stunningly colorful clothes  while they went about their daily lives and glittery costumes when they attended special occasions or participated in milestone rituals. Bent on pursuing a career in fashion, “I dreamed of dressing up my future clients with malong and its appropriate accompanying blouse, the banggala,” he recalled. It was his early fascination for Southern exotica, of course, that foreshadowed Mang Ben’s eventual success in creating Muslim Mindanao-inspired gowns and dresses that set him apart from fellow designers who look to the western world for ideas.

Ate Aida for a patroness

By the time he returned to Manila and resumed his studies in San Beda, he was raring to enter the world of fashion.  Not surprisingly, he found an ally in his Ate Aida who continued to dote on him. He was, after all, her niño bonito (fair-haired boy). 

“When Ate Aida was getting ready to go to a special occasion, like the opening of the Congress, or the Independence Day reception, I would watch and assist her.  Sometimes she would ask me what she should wear. And she listened to me and followed my suggestions, ” recounts Mang Ben.

Not long after, he began his apprenticeship with the establishments that Aida Pendatun patronized. Although she supported him in his studies, he still felt the need to earn some cash on his own. More importantly, he wanted to be part of the fashion world.         

Mang Ben narrates, “I happened to accompany Ate Aida when she once went to Poulex, a department store in Escolta owned by Aleng Tayang Tankeh. When I asked if I could work in her store, Aleng Tayang immediately hired me. My initial job was to wrap merchandise. So, when people asked what my job was, I told them I was a ‘wrapper.’ Since Poulex sold fabrics, we would help buyers by designing for them. That would help sell the merchandise.

“Actually, I was making ‘lagare’ (moonlighting). I also worked at Aurelia’s in Mabini. It was owned by Ate Nene Gatchalian, a very elegant lady. I stayed long at Aurelia’s and that’s where I learned the tricks of dressmaking because I was helping the professionals.”

Between his two jobs, Ben impressed his employers because “I could do many things.  Aside from wrapping gifts, I could drape a material,   dress up a mannequin, and if they needed to buy thread and accessories, I volunteered to go to Divisoria. All this sharpened my knowledge of what a dress is all about. These things are not learned in school. The exposure made a lot of difference.” Briefly, he also designed for another fashion house, Rosevale. 

All this time, his parents were dismayed, as they had high ambitions for their Benjamin whom they wanted to become a physician. Since their elder children had already graduated from college, they could now afford to send him to medical school. “My father was asking me, ‘Ay, naku, Ben, is there a future in what you are doing?’ It was a practical question. Just like any father, he wanted to make sure I would become financially stable. Well, I just kept quiet. Those days, one did not argue with one’s father to drive a point,” he shared. “Most hurting though was “my eldest brother Rene’s comment that I would amount to nothing but a gay maruya vendor.”  The statement challenged him all the more, “so that when no one was looking, I continued to practice my sketching.”

First shop

It was Nene Gatchalian who encouraged the young Ben to put up his own shop. “There is nothing more you can learn here, Ben. It’s about time you went on your own,” she told him. Her statement emboldened him into partnering with Zorro David, the hairdresser who, like Ben, also became famous. In 1954, Ben Farrales, at age 22, inaugurated his first shop, located along Romero Salas corner Mabini Streets.

Very soon, he found out that many of the women he had assisted “were waiting to follow me and give me their support. ‘Why didn’t you do this sooner?’ they asked me. I told them that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be successful. ‘But we are here, your friends,’ they countered. If I had any doubts about pursuing dressmaking as a fulltime profession, this was dispelled by the loyalty professed by my customers. And they proved true to their word.”

Besides, no other period in the country’s social history could have been timelier. “Those were the days when society women spent for their clothes.  They changed twice or thrice during the daytime, and wore beautiful gowns at night in parties that appeared in the society pages,” Mang Ben recalls.

Fun place

The Mabini area, according to Mang Ben, “was both a fun place and the center of the fashion and beauty industry. I chose to be there because that was where the best shops were located.  We were beside La Cibeles, where the glamorous set dined. Others in the area were the Kayumanggi Beauty Shop, New Yorker, Madonna of Vicky Galang and Pedrito Legazpi. At the far end was Christian Espiritu who was starting. Tres Chic was originally on Avenida Rizal, also Manila Fashion and Madonna, but they later transferred to Mabini.” Also close by was a fabric store owned by Bambi Lammoglia (later Mrs. Harper), whose name Mang Ben submitted for a search for the Filipina Maid of Cotton organized by Conchita Sunico.

Bambi, who had dropped in to pick up a gown, joins us briefly as she insisted she had to rush to her graduate class in the University of the Philippines.  She recalls, “Actually, I didn’t know there was a contest. Mang Ben just told me to be at the Manila Hotel because there was a show. He made me wear a black and white polka dotted dress.” Bambi, who emerged the winner that night, later modeled for him in the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 and the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

 Those were the days, Bambi shares, “when designers had to teach us girls how to walk, when to turn, how to pause, how to slouch. When we had our photographs taken, Mang Ben would be there too, showing us how to pose, which foot to put forward, how to purse one’s lips and look this way or that.”

Theirs is a friendship that has withstood the vagaries of life. That Mang Ben is perceived by many to be mataray has never bothered her at all. “We are of the same feather,” she declares with a laugh, explaining why they click. 

For his part, Mang Ben says of her, “She is my muse, my favorite model and my buddy. We are frank with each other.  We don’t think ill of each other. She is one person I could trust to give me a good advice.”  It has helped their friendship that years later, when Mang Ben transferred his shop to Adriatico, he again found himself living and working close to the Italian restaurant that Bambi’s family owned and managed.

Social register

It was in this new place, a stone’s throw away from Remedios Circle, where Mang Ben lived for the longest time and hosted big parties and intimate dinners for friends and clients, the latter  following him to have their dresses made.

Among those who frequented his Malate shop were fashion icon Chona Kasten and her daughter Techie Ysmael Bilbao, both favorite models of Mang Ben’s from Karilagan shows at the Lincoln Center in New York, all the way to Bagong Anyo in Malacañang and at the Nayong Pilipino, the latter a project of First Lady Imelda Marcos.

Of Chona, dubbed by her adoring public as La Divina because of her gracious ways on and off the ramp, Mang Ben shares, “She was perfect from head to toe. No rough edges. She was fina. You could spot her in a crowd because everyone would be talking but she would be quiet.”

On the matter of dressing her up, Mang Ben says, “In a polite way, Chona would tell me her preference, like a particular color.  And I never questioned her because I knew that this lady knew what she wanted.”

Not unexpectedly, Mang Ben’s appointment diary through the years is a veritable social register as it lists the names of Chona, Blue Lady Edith Rabat, Southen beauty and television host Elvira Manahan, clubwoman Olga Martel, scholar and politican Tingting Cojuangco, glamorous sisters Ching Montinola and Menchu Concepcion, luxury retail tycoon Nedy Tantoco, the Madrigal sisters Pacita, Chito and Ising, Carmen Yulo whose family owned vast tracks of sugar land , Letty Syquia who was wife of the Ambassador of Malta, former Miss Universe Margie Moran, three-generations of Dolors — the banker Doña Soledad Dolor, her best-dressed lister daughter Fe Dolor Serrano and her granddaughter, Catholic lay leader Tanini Serrano De Leon, among others. A number of times, Mang Ben dressed up First Lady Imelda Marcos.  He also created the debutante’s gown of actress-turned-politician Vilma Santos Recto and the formal wear of multi-awarded dramatic actress Lolita Rodriguez.

For a long time, especially from the 1970s to the 1980s, Mang Ben’s number one customer was businesswoman Dolly Potenciano who, according to him, “was not just a favorite client, we were practically like siblings. She used to own this bus company, and if you needed a bus, she would lend you one. She was the kind who would literally take a dress off her back and give it to a woman admiring it. Mabait eh, to the point that people took advantage of her. If she heard something about me, she would ask me if it was true. On the other hand, she had a temper, and you had to be a true friend to understand that. â€

As Dolly now prefers to stay mostly in the province, her place of honor in Mang Ben’s life is now occupied by society hostess and lawyer Mellie Ablaza. Mang Ben narrates, “Our friendship started when my fellow devotees and I would bring the image of the Sto Niño to different houses.  So one time, around the 1980s, it was the Ablaza family’s turn to receive the Sto Niño in their home.  The first time I saw Mellie, she struck me as someone who knew how to dress up.  From that initial meeting, our relationship has grown. She came to have her clothes made.  Masarap siyang bihisan (I enjoy creating her clothes). And we were soon calling up each other and eating out regularly.”

Mang Ben goes on to talk about a number of his more prominent clients, their likes and dislikes when it comes to fashion, but mostly about the twists and turns in his relationship with them, some of them moving on to other designers (“I cannot please them all the time and I do not have the monopoly of talent.”) and some of them criticizing the outfits he made for them (“Just so they could get away with paying me less so I tell them they could have their money back.”).

“You decide the price.”

Before I leave, he gives me a copy of a book about the Sto. Niño that he and his fellow devotees of the Infant Child Jesus, Congregacion del Santisimo Nombre del Nino Jesus, published.  And since he said he does not exactly want to talk about “my so-called achievements, as you put it, because others may have their own version of my stories,” he gives me a list of designers and clients I could interview, along with their contact details. “And I am not promising you they will say only nice things about me.”

Mita Bantug Rufino says: “I had my party dresses made by Mang Ben during my teenage years.  Of his many creations for me, my favorites are my wedding gown, which was made of piña calado with a fully beaded lining, a Mindanao-inspired costume which made me feel like a true princess when I wore it and a brown antique kimona with white beads and antique skirt, which won for me a Best Filipiniana award in a Zonta Club party.”

“Mang Ben is very easy to deal with,” Mita says. “He is a sweet person and quite friendly. He has a kind heart and is not greedy. He gives his friends special rates and we can also make tawad (ask for a discount). If ever we do that he would say Bahala ka na (You decide the price). But of course we don’t abuse his goodwill.”

Techie Ysmael Bilbao, who, with her mum Chona, participated in the “mother and daughter” segments of Mang Ben’s shows, recalls: “Mang Ben was always a real pro whether we had local or international shows,” recalled Techie. “He was structured, organized, disciplined and punctual. He would get into a fit if the models were undisciplined and late. He disliked models who thought they knew better. And when we travelled, he was generous.” 

“Everyone called him Mang Ben except me,” reveals Techie. “He told me to call him â€˜Tita Ben’ during one happy occasion. Years later, he corrected my son Fabrizio, then four years old, who kept calling him Tito. He told Fabrizio to call him ‘Tita’ instead and it stuck.  We are so close, that‘s why he allows that. I’m not sure if that right has been bestowed on anyone else.”  

Techie, who hung-out with her “Tita Ben,” became the “baby” of the Mabini Group, a clique of creative types that included  furniture maker Edgar Ramirez,  art dealer Bernard Fah, painter Oscar de Zalameda, interior designer Pandot Ocampo and couturiers Eddie del Rosario, Pedrito Legaspi and Casimiro Abad. The leaders of the group were Ben and interior designer Joaquin Imperial.  Nomer Pabilona joined them if he was not busy fixing the hair of the Blue Ladies, Imelda Marcos’s coterie of high society women. Now and then, art dealer Teyet Pascual and couturier Pitoy Moreno came too. When Techie married basketball star Mike Bilbao, he too was welcomed by the gang.   The only businessman-executive was Danny Dolor who, after holding office at their family-owned Philippine Savings Bank in Quiapo, went straight to Mabini.

Friend all the way

Danny share with me stories about their group.  “Joaquin would often call us up if his cook Millie had just prepared one of her specialties like pochero.  We would all go, converse and engage in banter,” he recallS. 

Mang Ben, according to him, was level headed. “He was always self-composed although he would relate funny stories too. We would go to Chinatown to eat in one of the authentic Chinese restaurants. Sometimes we would spend a weekend in Hong Kong. It was a tight group until, one by one, some of the members passed on, while others were kept busy by their growing clientele,” recalls Danny.    

 Through the decades, Danny’s friendship with Mang Ben has not wavered.  “If you are a friend of Ben, you are his friend all the way. And if you are his enemy, you better watch out,” he says.

In time, Mang Ben would invite Danny to be a judge in the selection of beauties during the annual Flores de Mayo that the Congregacion del Santisimo Nombre del Niño Jesus  organizes every year.

Lifetime Chairman

Mang Ben’s chairmanship of the group goes all the way back to that day in 1978 when fellow designer, Nolie Hans, along with artist Sonny Viana and another fellow designer, Gang Gomez, who eventually became a monk, invited Mang Ben to join the core group.     

“He was at first hesitant. He considered himself a novice, but as time has proven, he has become our most active and dedicated organizer and promoter,” narrates Nolie. “Since he is a respected person, we voted him as Founding Chairman. The Congregacion members look up to him.  In turn, he is concerned about the members even more than their parents are. ”

Mang Ben, Nolie says, has “a personal devotion to the Sto. Niño because of his San Beda education.  He often tells us that from elementary to high school, they would have an annual celebration in honor of the Sto Niño which he always looked forward to.”

Charity fund raiser

The Dean of Philippine Fashion, Nolie says, also started the Fashion for a Cause in response to the call for help for victims of the Mayon Volcano eruption in the 1980s.  “He would tap all designers to donate their services, as the proceeds go to victims of calamities like the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, a fire in Pandacan and recently, Typhoon Ondoy. He also got fashion designers together to raise funds for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) stranded in the Middle East.” 

“Mang Ben’s involvement with Red Cross began when veteran actress Rosa Rosal, a client of his, called him up. She said the Red Cross needed blood donations. So Mang Ben called up his costumers and friends, among them the staff and officers of Unilever Philippines, the multinational company that has supported his various endeavors through the years.  And they went to the Red Cross office and donated blood. They knew there was nothing for them in return,” shares Nolie, who has become Mang Ben’s confidante and regular lunch mate. “Thereafter, he mounted a series of Fashion-for-a-Cause gala shows for Red Cross.  Mang Ben also helped organize in the mid 1990s the Red Cross 50th Anniversary Ball at the Fiesta Pavilion of the Manila Hotel. It was as fabulous as the Kahirup and Mancomunidad balls organized by the sugar planters of the Visayas and Pampanga before the Martial Law era.”  

Nolie points out, “The Congregacion has evolved from being completely religious to one with social and cultural tone. That’s why we have the Flores de Mayo. Mang Ben told us that in in Oroquieta, on M Natividad St, where he grew up, this was an annual May event that he always looked forward to as a child.  So, he assembled us, designers, and organized us. He explained to us that it was a way of getting us united so we would have an identity as a professional sector.  So, when we accepted his invitation, we took it as a cause, one that we would support out of love. Mang Ben made it clear that not one of us would be paid. So, every year, we come out with our best creations to suit our theme. And then we have a board of judges that selects the most beautiful gowns.”

Sampaguita bride

During the 1987 Flores de Mayo, Mang Ben discovered one of his muses, Marina Benipayo, who was the sagala of fashion designer Danny de la Cuesta. “I was chosen as the first La Flor de Manila, and from then on, he has always included me in his shows,” Marina shares.

Of the hundreds of creations that Marina modeled for Mang Ben, she remembers  best the ‘Sampaguita’ wedding gown, thus named because her gown and the umbrella that she held were festooned with sampaguita blossoms, and a red draped gown which billowed beautifully at the back as she walked. Admired by the audience for her intense presence on the stage, she recalls, “Mang Ben gave me free rein as to how I should model his creations.”

Outside of her modeling chores, she looks up to Mang Ben as a mentor, who, on the matter of love life, advised her, “Basta masaya ka, yun ang mahalaga.” (“What is important is you are happy.”)

When Mang Ben presented a gala show to commemorate his 50 years in fashion in 2002, Marina was among his select muses who walked the ramp to show his masterpieces. The other fashion divas who came out of their retirement were Apples Aberin, Tweetie de Leon, Alta Tan, Annette Coronel, Abbygale Arenas, Melanie Marquez and Tina Maristela Ocampo.

They were, of course, part of that distinct group of beautiful women who, at various times in Mang Ben’s long career, had been his models — among them, Criselda Lontok, Barbara Perez, Ping Valencia, Dayang-Dayang, Pearlie Arcache, Shirley Gorospe, Elsa Payumo,  Margarita Romualdez, Imelda Pagaspas, Nini Ramos, Bessie Badilla, Jenny Peña, Aurora Pijuan, Guadalupe Sanchez and Tina Romualdez.

Rosary in the morning

When I visited Mang Ben again one week after our initial interview, I braced myself for a more daring conversation.    

I begin my gentle probing by asking him slum book-type questions. I ask him about his typical day.  His response: “In the morning, I pray the rosary. And then after that, I take a bath. I have my breakfast and then my driver brings me here. I always look forward to coming to my shop. This is my bread and butter and it is also an outlet for me.  It’s worth it, traffic and all, as I do what I have to do.”

“So, how do you keep fit?” I ask. â€œPhysical fitness? Whatever exercise I have is all part of my routine. Rain or shine, even if I have to wear boots, I go to Quiapo every Friday.  I also go to Divisoria to find the things I cannot find in the big stores. So I get to walk around the malls in Divisoria. Sometimes I go as often as three times a week.”

Favorite dish?  “Adobo. By the way, I don’t eat vegetables. Not a leaf.” Singer? “Frank Sinatra.” Song? “My Way.  Matigas ang ulo ko, eh.” (‘I am hard-headed.) Movie? “To Each His Own, with Olivia de Havilland as the star.” Actor? “Montgomery Cliff.” Actress?  “Of late, I have not seen anybody worth my taste.  If you really want to know, Jennifer Jones. She was in the movie Love Letters.”

My cue finally comes. “So, have you ever been in love?” I bravely ask although somewhat cautiously. “I have not heard about you being linked to anyone.” 

“I know how it is to have loved and lost,” he answers. “I have a pain that remains in my heart. I will never open it. It has taught me a lesson. 

“It made me a better person. I learned from this mistake.  I know how to cry, how to be frustrated, how to be taken advantage of.  I have gone through the whole gamut of emotional experience. But it has taught me life, more than anything else.  It is of course nice to love and to be loved, but you yourself will know better if a relationship is meant to last, or it is a fleeting one. I believe it is important that you love yourself first, because if you don’t love yourself, who will love you?”

The feud with Pitoy

The touchy topic was, for me, was the perfect cue to delve into another controversial matter. Mang Ben’s feud with Pitoy Moreno, the designer considered by many as his equal and therefore number one competitor, is the stuff of which high-end gossips and intrigues are made.

What brought about this celebrated quarrel? Mang Ben relates his version candidly: “It all began when a magazine launched a search for the most popular couturier.  Readers were supposed to cut out the ballots from the magazine and mail their votes. Pitoy, I was told, resorted to ‘underhanded’ tactics. From what I gathered, he sent in votes for him in the name of fictitious readers. Well, we all have our way of interpreting the rules, but to me, that was below the belt. My belief was if I was going to lose, I would lose in a fair competition between gentlemen. For a long time, he had very few votes while I was way ahead of him, and then, by October or November, his votes dramatically increased. To me the contest was all for fun and not something serious. He came out the winner and I took the second place.

“After that, even if we were traveling together, I refrained from talking with him. I stopped being close to him. My feeling was there was no need for us to hold hands or to be as chummy as we were before. We used to be close, designer Gilbert Perez, Pitoy and I, but the friendship between Pitoy and me was broken. Still, we both remained close to Gilbert.”  Interestingly, the three, along with the other young turks of Philippine fashion, co-founded the Philippine Couture Association.    

The feud has lasted for 50 years, “even fueled by customers who would say things like they can always go to Pitoy if I had no time for them.” I tell him that the ailing Pitoy may no longer remember it.  Does he still harbor any ill feeling? His response: “I pray for him. Why rub alcohol where it would further hurt?  I hope he will open his heart more.”

What made him successful? His forthright answer: “From my youth, I have always respected myself. I am gay and I respect myself  being  gay. Don’t fool around with me. Give me credit for the work that I do. I started on my own after serving my apprenticeship. I gradually built my credentials. On my own, I did my best to build a name that will last longer than my lifetime. Ang akala ng iba ang mga designers ay patay gutom. (People think that designers are a hungry lot.) Ako naman, I make it a point na our pride and self dignity cannot be bought.  One should be proud because he rightfully earns what he is paid.”

His advice to young designers? “Do it. If you want to be where I am now, do it. If you aim for even a higher level of success, do it. Because in the end, your success or failure is your own doing.

“There’s always room for everyone especially if you know how to play your cards well. Huwag mong haluhan ng kalokohan. (Don’t fool around.) If you are going to be what you want to be you have to earn it. You can’t be a designer today and the next day, not be one because you have to see someone.”

I could not resist mentioning that he was known to be mataray. His reply: Mataray only because I try to put things in order.  Hindi yung mataray na basta sisigaw (Not bitchy in the sense of someone who shouts for the heck of shouting). That does not serve any purpose.  I can be frank if someone is not toeing the line, and just like in any field, we have to have discipline. Whether you are a designer, or a model or a costurera, you have to behave correctly. If I were mataray in the wrong place and at the wrong time, I would not be able to continue my annual activities.  Designers are close to me because they understand me. How come we have the Flores de Mayo every year? Also,Tita Conching would not have asked me to design clothes for the Karilagan fashion shows again.”

When I ask him why Tita Conching “baptized” him as Dean of Philippine Fashion, Mang Ben says,“I was the eldest among the designers whom she sent abroad as well as to state dinners for fashion shows.  We all had distinctions. Aureo was her niño bonito, for example.  I have always believed that the proof of the butter is in its taste. So, if someone of her stature believed that I deserve the title, I am very much honored.  It was she who coined the term.” The appellation has, of course, stuck because he has mentored fashion designers and models who, of course, all agreed he was a strict, exacting and no-nonsense mentor.

How does it feel to have lived for eight decades so far? In a pensive tone, he states, “When I think of where I started and where I am now, I tell myself I cannot complain. I have earned what I have. I am grateful that people talk highly of my creations. When my customers are asked who made their gowns or dresses, they proudly say it was Ben Farrales.”

Is there anything else he wants in life? With a smile, Mang Ben answers, “Let God decide what is good for me.”

* * *

(If you wish to agree or disagree, praise or damn, please e-mail me at cyber.proust@yahoo.com

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