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Aureo Alonzo: ‘I literally died in February, and the Virgin Mary saved my life’

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre (The Philippine Star) - October 27, 2013 - 12:00am

Aureo Alonzo is alive if not exactly kicking, as the expression goes. In his charming old-worldly home-cum-atelier a few steps away from Remedios Circle in Malate, he has been receiving callers, mostly his clients from way back, fellow designers and former models. They want to know how Tatang, as he is popularly known, is doing. And when they see that he is just as coherent as he has always been, they rejoice that all is well for the only Filipino designer who won the internationally prestigious Camel Award.

Tatang claims that he literally died in February and miraculously lived again a few minutes after he was admitted to the emergency room of the Makati Medical Center. A team of the country’s best doctors and their top nurses, he says, had resuscitated him. 

In a whispery voice, he recalls the day he was resting in bed when he suddenly had difficulty breathing. â€œI had an asthma attack. I was with my two grand daughters Alana and Alia who were lying on the other bed. I told them, while I was gasping for breath, to bring me to the hospital.”  Alia then contacted her father Ariel, Tatang’s adopted son who happened to be out of the house.   “After a while, I lost consciousness,” relates Tatang. 

The next thing he knew: “I opened my eyes and I saw my sisters and nephews around me. I asked them, ‘Nasaan ako?’ And they told me that I was in the hospital and that I was dead on arrival. ‘Magpasalamat ka sa Mahal na Ina. Kung hindi sa kaniya, patay ka na ngayon,’ ang sabi ng kapatid kong si Nene.”

Marian devotee

A Marian devotee since he was a child in his hometown, Navotas, Rizal, Tatang shares that the Virgin Mary has been his constant guide and protector through the years. â€œBata pa ako, nagsisilbi na ako sa kaniya. Akala nila, I was going to be a priest,” he reminisces. “During the Japanese time, a brother of mine was suspected to be a guerilla because he had disappeared from town.  They interrogated my mother and me separately. Dasal ako nang dasal sa Inang Marya.  Nagkatugma ang  sagot naming mag-ina.  We were guided by the Blessed Virgin. She saved us.” 

Years later, when he became successful as a fashion designer, Tatang dressed up the Virgin Mary in her various shrines all over the country. â€œNo, I did not volunteer.  Archbishops, bishops and priests came to me, at binihisan kong mabuti ang Inang Marya sa kanilang mga simbahan,” he clarifies.  He has thus created richly beaded and embroidered garments for our Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception at the Manila Cathedral, Our Lady of La Naval at the Sto. Domingo Church in Quezon City,  the Virgin of Manaoag in Pangasinan, Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Our Lady of Piat in Cagayan, Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Naga City, Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage in Antipolo and  other venerated images of the Holy Mother. No wonder that once when he visited Rome, he was given a special papal audience by the late Pope John Paul II.

It is also to the Holy Mother that Tatang attributes his accomplishments as a couturier.  “I am self-taught. My talent came from God at tinulungan ako ng Inang Marya mapagbuti ko ito.” At first, though, he studied hair styling at the Helen Curtis School in Manila and put up a beauty parlor. But he continued to make cocktail dresses for his five sisters who were always praised when they attended parties.  That was reason enough for Tatang to start his own dress shop.

Tita Conching’s Niño Bonito

Not long after, a life-defining break came to him by way of an invitation from the Philippines’ foremost fashion promoter, Conchita Sunico, to participate in the shows that she produced abroad and in the Philippines. While Tatang was only one of the young turks of the Philippine Couture Association who took turns presenting fashion shows for the lady they affectionately called Tita Conching, it was Tatang who became her Niño Bonito.

Of their distinct collaboration, Tatang relates, “When she asked me to do a show, ang sabi ko, ‘Tita Conching, tatanggapin ko. So, ganito, itatanong ko sa kaniya, “Tita Conching, what is your show? Tell me, what is your style? Do you have an idea? For example, what is the name of the show? Para naman fitted to the show yung gagawin ko. Pag nabuo ko na, sasabihin ko sa kaniya, ‘Tita Conching, ito ang part 1. Checkin mo. Ito ang part 2. Ito ang tela and so on. Discussion first before we finalize. Ano ang sabi ni Tita Conching? ‘Kay Aureo, sleep today, tomorrow nasa lugar lahat. ”

His Tita Conching  could not have been more pleased with his professionalism. “Sa abroad, pag si Aureo ang kasama niya, areglado lahat. Plantsado. Pati pag empake, ako ang nagaasikado. Inaayos ko lahat, letter a, letter b. Mga kasama ko, never sila nagplantsa. Ako pa ang naghe-hairdo ng mga model, nagme make-up. Ako rin ang humaharap sa customs. Deklarado lahat kaya walang sabit.”       

Society girls

Tatang, moreover, was well behaved. Frannie Aguinaldo, one of the well-bred girls chosen by Tita Conching to model  for Karilagan, recalls, “He was one of the top three designers of his time, along with Ben Farrales and Pitoy Moreno.  He was always smiling. I never heard him say any cuss word. He neither got mad, nor frowned, which was a common sight during rehearsals.  And if there were misunderstandings or even running feuds between the designers, Auring, as I called him, would only have an impish smile. He was friendly with everyone.”

During this glamorous era, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, Tita Conching handpicked Manila’s society girls to model for Karilagan shows. To this well-bred set belonged Pearlie Arcache, Trina Yujuico, Minnie Osmeña , Toni Serrano,  Chona Recto Ysmael Kasten and other collegialas.  Frannie herself had just arrived from her high school studies in Spain when she joined Karilagan.

Of the same ilk was ballerina Tina Santos, who recalls that her first modeling engagement for Auring, as she also called him, was for the Beautifont Show in 1966. â€œI was 16 years old then and so excited to meet him.  Next, we were asked to model for Karilagan ’67.  For our Giting Kayumangi  production  at the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong, I wore Auring’s  A-line dress that was studded with blue Osmeña pearls.  It was a hit among the audience.” 

Invitation from Madam Biki

If Tita Conching recognized a first class talent in Aureo, it was Madame Biki, chair of the Camel Awards, who paved the way for his global recognition. 

Right after she saw Aureo’s creations in a fashion show at the Milan Hilton in 1974, Madam Biki asked him to participate in the Camel competition, which recognized designers who upheld the superior standards of high fashion. 

Although at first reluctant, Tatang eventually submitted his sketches, which received the nod of the awards committee. Right before the judges, among them Madame Biki herself, Yves Saint Laurent, top British bespoke tailor Henry Poole and renowned American sculptress Beverly Pepper, he demonstrated his dressmaking skills. Finally, they trimmed the contestants down to 10 finalists, with Tatang as the only Asian.

 â€œWe were made to design, make a pattern, cut and sew the clothes as they watched us.  I was thanking myself for knowing how to do everything.  But it did not end there as these had to be worn and tested by models who were all Europeans,” he relates.

Signature model

Tatang, however, insisted, “My model is going to be Ping Valencia.  Ang sabi nila, we cannot accept her unless she will pass through the jury. So, Ping was asked to go to a room where they asked her to stand up, sit down, walk and pose.  After a long time, she came out and whispered to me, ‘Tatang, nakapasa ako na magsusuot ng damit mo.’ Tuwang-tuwa ako because the models were going to be interviewed too about the clothes that we made.”

Ping recounts, “I was residing in Paris then when I received a call from Tatang late one evening. He asked me if I could model his four creations. Of course, I said yes. He sent me the tickets to fly to Servignio, Italy.” 

The statuesque Ping loved the clothes she modeled.  “They showed Tatang’s masterful use of bead work and embroidery,” she recalls.

During the awards night in February, 1975, her violinist husband wore an Aureo Alonzo barong tagalog with a Philippine flag pin stuck on his collar. “We were very proud of Tatang. When his name was announced as the winner, we were beside ourselves. Tatang simply smiled as he accepted the trophy and envelope containing the check for 1.5 million lira, but his chubby face was so red. â€

His fete was validated by one of the jurors, couturier Yves Saint Laurent, who described  him as “a man who knows his business,” obviously in reference to Tatang’s  adeptness in creating a dress.            

Juliet of the Philippines

Notwithstanding the accolades, including a “Premio Internationale Cavalieri della Nuova Europa,” a knighthood bestowed on him in Rome, and an international clientele that included Empress Farah Diba of Iran and Princess Margaret of England, Tatang accepted the offer of then aviation and travel czar Roquito Ablan to showcase Philippine contemporary fashion and costume through the travelling group Fiesta Filipina.

Among Tatang’s Fiesta Filipina models was theater and movie actress Lotis Key, who was once named the Juliet of the Philippines in a search intended to promote the local run of the movie Romeo and Juliet,

Now a US-based writer, Lotis, in an email interview recounts, “Once when I accompanied my mother for a fitting at Tatang’s shop, he asked her if she would allow me to join him in a European tour and she agreed.  That’s how I became part of that traveling group which included Gloria Diaz, Ruby Ann Alano, Charina Zaragoza and Nelia Sanchez.”

She recalls a less unruffled Tatang who, during those rehearsals, “could be very funny. He would scream from the sidelines as if his throat was being cut just because he saw a turn or a pose that he didn’t like.  He’d also pretend to faint if you did something gauche. I’d start laughing and that would make him mad.”

She remembers their flights, “As soon as the plane took off, he would smear on an avocado beauty mask. I asked him once, ‘What if there is an emergency and something happens, what would you do with all that green stuff on your face?’ He told me, ‘If I die, wipe my face clean before they find me.’ And we both had a good laugh.”

From model to politican

It was also in Europe where Emily Relucio, a former Karilagan model, renewed ties with Tatang. â€œI was then studying in Germany when I joined Auring in his European fashion shows for the Fiesta Filipina,” Emily recalls.

 â€œIn between fittings and runway shows, we would talk about personal matters. He was thrilled that I had a German fiancé. He became my personal adviser, although I sometimes defied his advice. He was devastated when I broke up with my fiancé.”

Years later, Emily became wife and mother, and not long after, a congresswoman and governor. “Through it all, Auring dressed me up, especially during presidential inaugurations and the annual joint sessions for the Presidential State of the Nation Address. When my daughter, Celine, became Queen of Jaro and a Muse in Bataan, she wore Aureo’s gowns,” she relates.

Three generations

Tatang counts Emily among his venerable clientele, which includes the fashion icon Meldy Cojuangco, the Madrigal sisters, wives of generals and ladies of the affluent Chinese community.

And, of course, there’s Imelda Marcos who once wondered why her favorite couturier, Joe Salazar, made exquisitely fabulous gowns.  When she asked him, “Where did you study dressmaking, Joe?” he replied, “I apprenticed with Tatang Aureo.”  The then First Lady, who was taken aback, admitted to Joe, “No wonder, when I wear your gowns, they mistake them for Aureo’s creations.”   

Tatang has also dressed up generations of women of the same families. An example is dramatic soprano Remedios Bosch Jimenez, who wore his beautiful ternos in her concerts. Next, he began designing for her daughter, Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas, when she was only 15 years old.  Then came Rachel, Baby’s only daughter, who stood out whenever she danced the Rigodon in Malacañang when she was representative of the 5th District of Pangasinan. Being a hairdresser, he has also done their hair and claims “to be the only one who knows the exact length of Baby’s famous tresses.”  

Now a congresswoman herself, Baby cannot exactly pinpoint which of her more than a hundred Aureo Alonzos of recent vintage is her favorite.  “However, I love the magenta, off-shoulder Grecian inspired gown which I wore in a dinner show of tenor maestro Andrea Bocceli.”

Tribute in November

 â€œName them, and I have dressed them up,” says Tatang, who continues to receive socialites and government officials’ wives who come to order their dresses and gowns from him. In between, he rests and, of course, prays to the Blessed Virgin Mary.     

Tatang, who turned 84 last July 19, is looking forward to a fashion show tribute in his honor which, he pensively shares, “ hopefully will only be a few days away from the birth centenary of my benefactress, mentor and beloved friend Tita Conching.” The day also happens to be the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

For sure, Tita Conching is watching over her Niño Bonito from the heavens above.     

* * *

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

Tatang claims that he literally died in February and miraculously lived again a few minutes after he was admitted to the emergency room of the Makati Medical Center. A team of the country’s best doctors and their top nurses, he says, had resuscitated him. 

In a whispery voice, he recalls the day he was resting in bed when he suddenly had difficulty breathing. â€œI had an asthma attack. I was with my two grand daughters Alana and Alia who were lying on the other bed. I told them, while I was gasping for breath, to bring me to the hospital.”  Alia then contacted her father Ariel, Tatang’s adopted son who happened to be out of the house.   “After a while, I lost consciousness,” relates Tatang. 

The next thing he knew: “I opened my eyes and I saw my sisters and nephews around me. I asked them, ‘Nasaan ako?’ And they told me that I was in the hospital and that I was dead on arrival. ‘Magpasalamat ka sa Mahal na Ina. Kung hindi sa kaniya, patay ka na ngayon,’ ang sabi ng kapatid kong si Nene.”

Marian devotee

A Marian devotee since he was a child in his hometown, Navotas, Rizal, Tatang shares that the Virgin Mary has been his constant guide and protector through the years. â€œBata pa ako, nagsisilbi na ako sa kaniya. Akala nila, I was going to be a priest,” he reminisces. “During the Japanese time, a brother of mine was suspected to be a guerilla because he had disappeared from town.  They interrogated my mother and me separately. Dasal ako nang dasal sa Inang Marya.  Nagkatugma ang  sagot naming mag-ina.  We were guided by the Blessed Virgin. She saved us.” 

Years later, when he became successful as a fashion designer, Tatang dressed up the Virgin Mary in her various shrines all over the country. â€œNo, I did not volunteer.  Archbishops, bishops and priests came to me, at binihisan kong mabuti ang Inang Marya sa kanilang mga simbahan,” he clarifies.  He has thus created richly beaded and embroidered garments for our Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception at the Manila Cathedral, Our Lady of La Naval at the Sto. Domingo Church in Quezon City,  the Virgin of Manaoag in Pangasinan, Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Our Lady of Piat in Cagayan, Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Naga City, Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage in Antipolo and  other venerated images of the Holy Mother. No wonder that once when he visited Rome, he was given a special papal audience by the late Pope John Paul II.

It is also to the Holy Mother that Tatang attributes his accomplishments as a couturier.  “I am self-taught. My talent came from God at tinulungan ako ng Inang Marya mapagbuti ko ito.” At first, though, he studied hair styling at the Helen Curtis School in Manila and put up a beauty parlor. But he continued to make cocktail dresses for his five sisters who were always praised when they attended parties.  That was reason enough for Tatang to start his own dress shop.

Tita Conching’s Niño Bonito

Not long after, a life-defining break came to him by way of an invitation from the Philippines’ foremost fashion promoter, Conchita Sunico, to participate in the shows that she produced abroad and in the Philippines. While Tatang was only one of the young turks of the Philippine Couture Association who took turns presenting fashion shows for the lady they affectionately called Tita Conching, it was Tatang who became her Niño Bonito.

Of their distinct collaboration, Tatang relates, “When she asked me to do a show, ang sabi ko, ‘Tita Conching, tatanggapin ko. So, ganito, itatanong ko sa kaniya, “Tita Conching, what is your show? Tell me, what is your style? Do you have an idea? For example, what is the name of the show? Para naman fitted to the show yung gagawin ko. Pag nabuo ko na, sasabihin ko sa kaniya, ‘Tita Conching, ito ang part 1. Checkin mo. Ito ang part 2. Ito ang tela and so on. Discussion first before we finalize. Ano ang sabi ni Tita Conching? ‘Kay Aureo, sleep today, tomorrow nasa lugar lahat. ”

His Tita Conching  could not have been more pleased with his professionalism. “Sa abroad, pag si Aureo ang kasama niya, areglado lahat. Plantsado. Pati pag empake, ako ang nagaasikado. Inaayos ko lahat, letter a, letter b. Mga kasama ko, never sila nagplantsa. Ako pa ang naghe-hairdo ng mga model, nagme make-up. Ako rin ang humaharap sa customs. Deklarado lahat kaya walang sabit.”       

Society girls

Tatang, moreover, was well behaved. Frannie Aguinaldo, one of the well-bred girls chosen by Tita Conching to model  for Karilagan, recalls, “He was one of the top three designers of his time, along with Ben Farrales and Pitoy Moreno.  He was always smiling. I never heard him say any cuss word. He neither got mad, nor frowned, which was a common sight during rehearsals.  And if there were misunderstandings or even running feuds between the designers, Auring, as I called him, would only have an impish smile. He was friendly with everyone.”

During this glamorous era, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, Tita Conching handpicked Manila’s society girls to model for Karilagan shows. To this well-bred set belonged Pearlie Arcache, Trina Yujuico, Minnie Osmeña , Toni Serrano,  Chona Recto Ysmael Kasten and other collegialas.  Frannie herself had just arrived from her high school studies in Spain when she joined Karilagan.

Of the same ilk was ballerina Tina Santos, who recalls that her first modeling engagement for Auring, as she also called him, was for the Beautifont Show in 1966. â€œI was 16 years old then and so excited to meet him.  Next, we were asked to model for Karilagan ’67.  For our Giting Kayumangi  production  at the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong, I wore Auring’s  A-line dress that was studded with blue Osmeña pearls.  It was a hit among the audience.” 

Invitation from Madam Biki

If Tita Conching recognized a first class talent in Aureo, it was Madame Biki, chair of the Camel Awards, who paved the way for his global recognition. 

Right after she saw Aureo’s creations in a fashion show at the Milan Hilton in 1974, Madam Biki asked him to participate in the Camel competition, which recognized designers who upheld the superior standards of high fashion. 

Although at first reluctant, Tatang eventually submitted his sketches, which received the nod of the awards committee. Right before the judges, among them Madame Biki herself, Yves Saint Laurent, top British bespoke tailor Henry Poole and renowned American sculptress Beverly Pepper, he demonstrated his dressmaking skills. Finally, they trimmed the contestants down to 10 finalists, with Tatang as the only Asian.

 â€œWe were made to design, make a pattern, cut and sew the clothes as they watched us.  I was thanking myself for knowing how to do everything.  But it did not end there as these had to be worn and tested by models who were all Europeans,” he relates.

Signature model

Tatang, however, insisted, “My model is going to be Ping Valencia.  Ang sabi nila, we cannot accept her unless she will pass through the jury. So, Ping was asked to go to a room where they asked her to stand up, sit down, walk and pose.  After a long time, she came out and whispered to me, ‘Tatang, nakapasa ako na magsusuot ng damit mo.’ Tuwang-tuwa ako because the models were going to be interviewed too about the clothes that we made.”

Ping recounts, “I was residing in Paris then when I received a call from Tatang late one evening. He asked me if I could model his four creations. Of course, I said yes. He sent me the tickets to fly to Servignio, Italy.” 

The statuesque Ping loved the clothes she modeled.  “They showed Tatang’s masterful use of bead work and embroidery,” she recalls.

During the awards night in February, 1975, her violinist husband wore an Aureo Alonzo barong tagalog with a Philippine flag pin stuck on his collar. “We were very proud of Tatang. When his name was announced as the winner, we were beside ourselves. Tatang simply smiled as he accepted the trophy and envelope containing the check for 1.5 million lira, but his chubby face was so red. â€

His fete was validated by one of the jurors, couturier Yves Saint Laurent, who described  him as “a man who knows his business,” obviously in reference to Tatang’s  adeptness in creating a dress.            

Juliet of the Philippines

Notwithstanding the accolades, including a “Premio Internationale Cavalieri della Nuova Europa,” a knighthood bestowed on him in Rome, and an international clientele that included Empress Farah Diba of Iran and Princess Margaret of England, Tatang accepted the offer of then aviation and travel czar Roquito Ablan to showcase Philippine contemporary fashion and costume through the travelling group Fiesta Filipina.

Among Tatang’s Fiesta Filipina models was theater and movie actress Lotis Key, who was once named the Juliet of the Philippines in a search intended to promote the local run of the movie Romeo and Juliet,

Now a US-based writer, Lotis, in an email interview recounts, “Once when I accompanied my mother for a fitting at Tatang’s shop, he asked her if she would allow me to join him in a European tour and she agreed.  That’s how I became part of that traveling group which included Gloria Diaz, Ruby Ann Alano, Charina Zaragoza and Nelia Sanchez.”

She recalls a less unruffled Tatang who, during those rehearsals, “could be very funny. He would scream from the sidelines as if his throat was being cut just because he saw a turn or a pose that he didn’t like.  He’d also pretend to faint if you did something gauche. I’d start laughing and that would make him mad.”

She remembers their flights, “As soon as the plane took off, he would smear on an avocado beauty mask. I asked him once, ‘What if there is an emergency and something happens, what would you do with all that green stuff on your face?’ He told me, ‘If I die, wipe my face clean before they find me.’ And we both had a good laugh.”

From model to politican

It was also in Europe where Emily Relucio, a former Karilagan model, renewed ties with Tatang. â€œI was then studying in Germany when I joined Auring in his European fashion shows for the Fiesta Filipina,” Emily recalls.

 â€œIn between fittings and runway shows, we would talk about personal matters. He was thrilled that I had a German fiancé. He became my personal adviser, although I sometimes defied his advice. He was devastated when I broke up with my fiancé.”

Years later, Emily became wife and mother, and not long after, a congresswoman and governor. “Through it all, Auring dressed me up, especially during presidential inaugurations and the annual joint sessions for the Presidential State of the Nation Address. When my daughter, Celine, became Queen of Jaro and a Muse in Bataan, she wore Aureo’s gowns,” she relates.

Three generations

Tatang counts Emily among his venerable clientele, which includes the fashion icon Meldy Cojuangco, the Madrigal sisters, wives of generals and ladies of the affluent Chinese community.

And, of course, there’s Imelda Marcos who once wondered why her favorite couturier, Joe Salazar, made exquisitely fabulous gowns.  When she asked him, “Where did you study dressmaking, Joe?” he replied, “I apprenticed with Tatang Aureo.”  The then First Lady, who was taken aback, admitted to Joe, “No wonder, when I wear your gowns, they mistake them for Aureo’s creations.”   

Tatang has also dressed up generations of women of the same families. An example is dramatic soprano Remedios Bosch Jimenez, who wore his beautiful ternos in her concerts. Next, he began designing for her daughter, Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas, when she was only 15 years old.  Then came Rachel, Baby’s only daughter, who stood out whenever she danced the Rigodon in Malacañang when she was representative of the 5th District of Pangasinan. Being a hairdresser, he has also done their hair and claims “to be the only one who knows the exact length of Baby’s famous tresses.”  

Now a congresswoman herself, Baby cannot exactly pinpoint which of her more than a hundred Aureo Alonzos of recent vintage is her favorite.  “However, I love the magenta, off-shoulder Grecian inspired gown which I wore in a dinner show of tenor maestro Andrea Bocceli.”

Tribute in November

 â€œName them, and I have dressed them up,” says Tatang, who continues to receive socialites and government officials’ wives who come to order their dresses and gowns from him. In between, he rests and, of course, prays to the Blessed Virgin Mary.     

Tatang, who turned 84 last July 19, is looking forward to a fashion show tribute in his honor which, he pensively shares, “ hopefully will only be a few days away from the birth centenary of my benefactress, mentor and beloved friend Tita Conching.” The day also happens to be the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

For sure, Tita Conching is watching over her Niño Bonito from the heavens above.     

* * *

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

CENTER CONCHING TATANG TITA TITA CONCHING
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