The Ruffa Guiterrez cover was organized by Jun Escario and shot by David Dennis. Her half-smile, half-serious look captured her ongoing life at the moment when she was about to separate from her husband.
From A to Zee: Twenty years of Cebuano life & style
INVESTING ON THE GO - Tanya T. Lara (The Philippine Star) - November 20, 2016 - 12:00am

In a little office located at the basement of a cinema and shopping arcade in Cebu, six people set up one Apple computer on a desk, a laptop and began a magazine 20 years ago.

They called it Zee Quarterly and later Zee Lifestyle when it began to print monthly with two double issues a year.

It was a humble editorial space but the location was telling of what the magazine would later become, because just outside the Belvic building was Fuente Osmeña, a park with a fountain inside a rotunda in honor of the fourth president of the republic, the Cebuano Sergio Osmeña. It’s a place that has become the symbol of Cebuano pride — and being in this city, this pride is very much palpable especially to outsiders.

“The name is from the colonial word for Cebu: ‘Sugbu.’ The diminutive word became ‘Zee,’” says Zee publisher Eva Gullas. “Zee can also stand for a lot of things. We’re so LGBT in this society that instead of the usual C we pronounce it Zee. And maybe because I was just too lazy to think of a magazine title.”

Twenty years hence, Zee is synonymous with the Cebuano life and style, it’s the mouthpiece of everything good, unique and controversial coming from the south. Everything that is anything, everyone who is anyone in society is examined under the magazine’s beach-tinted magnifying glass and reported in its pages. 

Eva says, “I wish I could say I had a lofty vision for the magazine, but it was just us wanting to have fun with this group of people that wanted to see themselves in a glossy magazine. That’s it.”

But, of course, that’s not just it.

Some other magazines have come and gone through the years, but only Zee has remained as the south’s lifestyle bible for two decades, reporting on the growth of a province coming into its own. It’s amazing that the growth of Cebu and Zee is so intertwined that they pushed each other higher — starting with design.

You could argue that Cebu’s unique design scene — in chronological order, architecture, furniture design, and fashion and accessories design — was propelled in large part by Zee, but you could also argue that without the designers, there would have been a paucity of stories to feature in its pages.

In that little editorial office there was Eva as editor, layout artist, marketing manager and circulation agent. She says, “I practically bamboozled everyone to get a copy!”

Two years earlier, in 1994, she and her husband Jiji Gullas came back to Cebu from the US where they lived for eight years. In LA, she worked in the advertising department of Grubb and Ellis’ commercial division and prior to that at a mortgage company where she worked with its ad agency’s creative department for placements in the LA Times. Back in Cebu, she handled the marketing for The Freeman, a newspaper owned by the Gullases.  

In her editorial team were designer and fashion editor Oj Hofer and features editor Jing Ramos.

Then there were the friends that lent their expertise to this fledgling group — photographer Wig Tysmans; former Metro and Today lifestyle editor, the late Abe Florendo; and The Freeman lifestyle editor, the late Allan Rabaya.    

It was Wig that pushed Eva to start a magazine. He was in Cebu to shoot the city’s socialites and they became friends. “He told me, ‘You have a beautiful scenery here.’ That was all we needed!”

“Cebu was really ripe for a lifestyle magazine at the time,” says Jing. “It was just starting to become a real city. When Eva and I moved into the scene, Ayala and SM had just opened and Shangri-La Mactan was very new.” 

Then they got Abe as consultant. “Abe was the most unselfish person I’d ever known,” says Eva. “He was well respected in Manila by all the editors and publishers.”

Jing adds, “He gave us the sheer legitimacy and he was such a class act.”

Plus there was what Jing calls the “gay mafia, the big guns that took Eva in with open arms”: Maurice Arcache, who was instrumental in arranging some cover shoots with Manila-based society women, and the late PR and society writers Donnie Ramirez and Gilbert Perez.

So they worked on their first issue featuring Maia Franco, who represented the culture sector of Cebu. “We were going for that demographic of sophisticated, mature ladies. She was the president of the Arts Council, which we wanted to support,” says Jing.

This was 1996 — the layouts were done with Adobe Pagemaker, which Eva had just learned to use, covers and pages had to be color separated (anyone remember CMYK?), and the printing was done by Daiichi in Hong Kong (as most glossy magazines in Manila were at the time).

“I don’t know where we got the money to print in Hong Kong in the first two years but it was fun because we had to fly there to check the proofs,” says Eva. “In the beginning, Zee wasn’t making money but there was always just enough to pay everybody. It was when we started printing 10 issues a year that our figures turned black. My receptionist had a Rolodex of anybody who was somebody in Cebu. He eventually became my account manager since he was so connected, like Andre Leon Talley of Vogue.”

Eva adds that they also approached Cebuano businessmen. “Early on, I invited Bernie Liu of Penshoppe to dinner as a sounding board for the magazine, thinking that his glossy campaign plastered all over the city was a good peg for a lifestyle magazine. Bernie was very supportive of the new venture and was quickly on board.”

Designer and Zee fashion editor Oj Hofer had two choices after graduating from the UP College of Fine Arts with a degree in visual communications. He could either go into advertising or editorial.   

He went for editorial— and fashion design. These two disciplines have produced one of the best Cebuano designers today. Known for his draping and simplicity, Oj used his own aesthetic and training for Zee’s visually rich but disciplined layouts.

Back then, there were no professional stylists — it was just the editor directing and collaborating with the photographer.

“What I learned from fine arts and my background in fashion design gave me a better perspective. I went for very simple and stylish looks. I also worked with designer Furne One and we balanced each other because he liked borloloy and high drama.”

Was there ever a conflict between editorial and advertising? “No, there was no conflict. We just had to follow Eva,” Oj says with laughter.

There was also the CNN show Style anchored by Elsa Klensch, who was a pioneer in fashion and lifestyle shows on cable news networks. “Ming Ramos with Inno Sotto brought her to the Philippines and we got featured. That actually spurred the original Movement 8. Klench came to Cebu and Charie Aboitiz came up with a good exhibit.”

Covering the creatives

A lot more malls, resorts and hotels, new businesses, younger entrepreneurs, new designers, and Cebuanos opening up to new lifestyles.

Through Zee’s five editors in chief, led by current editor Shari Quimbo, who followed Katsy Borromeo, Cybill Gayatin, Leigh Carcel, Jing Ramos and Eva Gullas — these, in a capsule, are the changes that have made Cebu a design epicenter and the second largest city in the Philippines.

You can almost track when these changes occurred by who was editor for that period at Zee.

It started with furniture in the 1990s. “Way back then, it was really just the furniture industry that was propelling our design scene,” says Eva. “It was the heyday of rattan, McGuire Furniture was a big player and they were being featured in Elle Décor and Architectural Digest. Dedon came to manufacture here, then Kenneth Cobonpue became a huge name. It was quite inspiring. We think of ourselves as a little provincial city but we have this wonderful little niche of design-oriented individuals.”

Jing adds, “It was really the furniture industry that gave Cebu some kind of cultural identity. The heyday was up until the financial crisis hit the US in 2008.”

Then came the fashion designers in the mid-2000s. Now based in Arizona with her family and working part-time in an art gallery, former editor Katsy Borromeo says, “Fashion was the beat during my time. It was exciting because the young designers were propping up. The bloggers and “it” girls were starting to emerge. It was driven by the young crowd and we were doing the most number of issues, from eight to 10.”

It was a great time to be in fashion — and covering fashion, too. “It was at its peak. Cebu was exciting, it had a youthful vibe and there were lots of parties. I used to work with Jun Escario, who was big in Manila, then Cary Santiago. Furne One did his big comeback in Cebu in 2012; Vania Romoff was also starting.”

Furne was described by writer Mikey Sanchez in the pages of Zee as “Cebu’s gift to the world — a symbol of Filipino pride that comes in a halo of gorgeous fabrics, shimmering beadwork and bold designs.”

Indeed, looking at pictures of his work — bold, ornate, out of this world— it doesn’t surprise that people like Shakira, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez, Heidi Klum, Nicole Scherzinger and Nicki Minaj have all worn him.

“The Cebuano designers were well respected,” says Katsy, “and a lot of them were part of the Fashion Design Council of the Philippines (FDCP). It was a great time for Philippine fashion in general.”

Oj Hofer says that before that fashion explosion there wasn’t much of a retail scene in Cebu. “Everything was couture, so we were working a lot with local designers. We’d have a theme and then go to the designers’ boutiques to pull out their collections or ask them to work around a certain theme.”

On his very first fashion shoot, they had six models and eight designers. “The first photographer I worked with was Wig Tysmans, so I was a bit spoiled because I worked with the best at the outset and we had Romero Vergara as makeup artist.”

How does Cebu influence its designers? In furniture, the answer may be quite obvious because of the material available in the province — what about in fashion?

Katsy says, “I think Cebuanos are very inspired because the scenery is beautiful, we go on weekends to the beach or the mountains. One designer told me that it was the weekends at the beach when he was growing up that inspired his organic look.”

Current editor Shari Quimbo says, “It has come full circle now because when you talk to young and upcoming designers and ask them who they look up to, it’s all the local designers from 10 years ago. It’s really about finding that Cebuano identity. They don’t feel a need to look outside Cebu to find inspiration.”

“There’s pride to being Cebuano because now you have the names attached to the fashion industry,” says Katsy.

And so we come to Cebu of today — the demographics have widened, the middle class has become stronger, the expats have multiplied, and Cebuanos are embracing the lifestyle of big cities but still keeping it laidback.

Shari says, “It’s exciting because a lot of businesses like restaurants and real estate are here. We’ve found that people starting businesses today are very young, they’re in their 20s. The entrepreneurial spirit is very strong right now and our last few months’ content is all about this.

“One of the things we’re always doing is looking for more stories. Cebu right now is thriving. In the last few years it hasn’t been hard to find stories because there’s always something new opening, new events, all these international brands coming in. It’s not much of a challenge to look for stories anymore.”

Where is the innovation coming from? “Real estate is one of the biggest. Sheraton is opening, also Mandani Bay by the Gaisanos and Hong Kong Land. It says something where Cebu is heading — they expect it to grow a lot more.”

There’s Arthaland, which is building Cebu Exchange, envisioned to help boost Cebu’s economy. It is the first green office project in the Visayas and Mindanao region. Cebu Exchange is an IT and business process management (BPM) building along Salinas Drive that can accommodate at least 13,000 seats, which translates to about 40,000 business process outsourcing (BPO) agents for three-shift operations.

The forecast is an annual income of P7.2 billion for Cebuanos and the rest of VisMin, not including the thousands of jobs in constructing the P8-billion project at Cebu IT Park.

Cebuano culture & fave covers

People always talk about Cebuanos being a proud people — and it’s true. Even before they express it, you feel it. But that sense of pride has more to do with how much they love life in Cebu — having the sea, the long coastline, waterfalls and mountains —  than anything else.

Most Cebuanos don’t feel the need to come to Manila to “make” it, it’s not a lifelong dream for people here to move out of Cebu. In fact, the normal route is to stay or to study in Manila (or abroad) and then come back right away to Cebu. Or, as in the case of Shari and Katsy, live in Manila for a few years and then go back to Cebu to build a career or start a business.

“The Cebuano pride is intrinsic,” Jing says.

And what is the Cebuano identity? “Frugal!” he says with laughter and everybody agrees. “That’s the first putdown we all get when we go to Manila. People say, ‘Pag Cebuano, kuripot.’ It’s part of our provincial charm. I cannot think of any stronger identity than that and we hold it with pride.”

Eva adds, “In Manila, people really spend so much, they’re more freewheeling with money, whereas here, we watch every cent.” 

I remember going to Cebu when Ayala Center Cebu opened and one mall executive told me that their biggest challenge was to get Cebuanos to eat out.

“That’s true, but now the dining scene is very good,” says Eva.

Shari says, “The dining scene was quieter before and one of the reasons is that we have such good food at home and in the markets or holes in a wall. But now, so many restaurants are opening and people love to eat out.”

What are their favorite covers and stories in the past 20 years? Let’s start with the present.

Shari says, “Off the top of my head, it’s the fold-out cover for our next issue, which was challenging to do because we usually don’t do a shoot of this scale. We brought together 12 of our cover girls from the past 20 years, which include some big personalities. How did we choose them? We all talked about the personalities who were relevant when they first came out and still are.”

Katsy says, “I would have to say Borgy Manotoc and Georgina Wilson because it was their first outing as a couple. We did it with Cary Santiago and it was especially challenging because Cary would only work with Jon Unson at the time — and Jon doesn’t edit his photos, so they had to be really good. We shot on location at Shangri-La Mactan.”

For Oj, his favorite shoots were when they photographed the Bulgari jewelry in Manila. “We had Ito Curata and Bulgari, and again I worked with Wig Tysmans. I love that story for both the subjects and production. It was very elegant. I don’t like grunge and things like that. Another one is the story on Inno Sotto and his collection which was shot  by Amanda Luym.”

Eva’s fave cover is from 17 years ago: Monique Lhuillier because she saw her career from the start. 

“Monique had just finished college and she was starting to build her career. The Lhuillier girls always come home for Christmas and we photographed her with Jon Unson. “

Eva was in LA and finished her interview with Monique in Beverly Hills. “In between our interview, she was talking to her publicist, so I was privy to that career being launched, and also saw the support of her dad. She was a brand-new name then — and now look at her!”

Jing chooses a controversial cover girl for his most memorable: Minnie Osmeña in 2001. She had just come back to Cebu from a long spell in the US and Maurice Arcache was assigned to do the story. (Maurice called her “the most passionate” of the Osmeñas.)

Jing says candidly, “It was such a hoot because Minnie’s such a fabulous namedropper. I love her! She’s really entertaining and so much fun. Alex van Hagen and Maurice produced the story and pictorial in her house in Dasmariñas.”

In the 1990s, Minnie made headlines in the US — and all over the world — when she was slashed in the face with a wine glass by Indonesian President Sukarno’s fifth wife Dewi Sukarno during a party in Aspen, Colorado. Sukarno was later sentenced to 60 days in jail. 

Jing says, “Eva and I had fun doing it because of the juiciness of it all. Minnie Osmeña is, rightfully, a good icon for Cebu. She had all the elements of a cover story — enough scandal and family background. Covers like this are fun to do and remain fresh in my memory.”

Eva says, “What’s amazing is that Cebu is still a small community. We’ve featured people in the ‘90s and you still see the same people today.”

There’s a lot of laughter at the table as they remember past cover stories and that little office in the basement (they moved to Ayala Center after a few years and are now in Mandaue).

In those days, Eva says, they would sometimes go up from the basement and sneak into the movie house to peek at what was showing.

But, also, in the first four months of 2001, when protests in Manila over President Joseph Estrada’s plunder spread across the country, their office was right in the center of the Cebu demonstrations.

To Cebuanos, this circle also symbolizes their courage. 

 “Fuente Osmeña was just outside our office,” Eva says. “We would stop working, join the protests and then go back to work. It was quite fun.”

“Nobody really expected Zee and us to last this long,” Eva reflects.

They did and that took courage — and lots of laughter along the way.

 

* * *

Visit Tanya Lara’s travel blog at www.findingmyway.net. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @iamtanyalara.

 

FROM A TO ZEE
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