Starweek Magazine

The Incomparable Pitoy Moreno

- Michele T. Logarta -
It will undoubtedly be the fashion event of the year, definitely a red-letter day for Manila’s perfumed social set.

Pitoy Moreno has spent more than forty years in the fashion business. Hailed as the fashion czar of Asia and credited with bringing Philippine fashion to the world’s fashion ramps, Pitoy is the subject of a tribute that the Cultural Center of the Philippines is sponsoring on October 26 and 27. Billed as Ginintuang Moreno: A tribute to J. Moreno, the special multi-media production will be a major fund-raising event for the Center’s Arts for the People program.

Pitoy began designing dresses during his college years at the University of the Philippines where he majored in Fine Arts. Classmates like Celia Diaz (Laurel), Araceli Limcaco (Dans), Corito Kalaw (Araneta), Nora Daza, Linda Garcia (Campos), Josie Trinidad (Lichauco), Elena San Juan (Fernando) were some of the campus belles who wore his frocks and gowns.

Pitoy says he actually wanted to take up law but was late for registration at UP. "I had no idea I would be a fashion designer. I took up Fine Arts in UP and majored in portrait painting. I can draw but I am not a master," he says, recalling that he once gave painting lessons to war veterans in Fort McKinley, now Fort Bonifacio.

Designing for the beauteous and popular daughters of the rich and famous who were his classmates at UP gave him a good start in the fashion business. He had a costurera at his Gagalangin, Tondo home and that served as incentive for him to continue after graduation. "I was already earning when I was in UP!" he shares with elation.

But Pitoy’s love affair with the art of dressmaking began even earlier, during the war when he was a young boy. "We had a long sala then which I loved to clean and fix up. Binubunot ko ’yun. Then I would take a shower. After that I would go to my neighbors, two brothers like Laurel and Hardy. One was fat and the other thin. The fat one would be busy sewing or drawing designs, the thin fellow was in the mezzanine and I would stay by his side watching him work at the sewing machine. Lalake sila," Pitoy emphasizes. And that was very unusual at the time, since men didn’t make women’s dresses.

There Pitoy learned to make lilip by hand, and banat using the sewing machine. He eventually did some beading as well. The first gown he ever made was for a neighbor, 14-year-old Geneng Ampil who became a life-long friend. "She was a beautiful girl and we made a gown for her for the Santacruzan."

Glossy fashion magazines were rare at the time, Pitoy recalls. "In the news, we would hear about designers like Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Pierre Balmain, Madame Cres, Balenciaga and Schiaparelli," he says. "These were the designers who were famous before and after the war. The few magazines that reached my hands–and they were quite expensive and rare–were Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar."

Among the Filipino designers, Pitoy was inspired by Pacita Longos, the premiere gownmaker of the 1920s through the 1940s. "I love her work. She makes beautiful ternos. I believe that she was one of those who really started the terno."

Pitoy himself eventually became a master of the terno as well. But first, a definition of the terno. In his book Philippine Costumes–of which he is most proud, a work "20 years in the making" he says–Pitoy writes: "It has been called a masterpiece, a classic, a national treasure. Terno is from the Spanish word meaning ‘to match’. The Filipino terno refers to the matching of blouse and skirt, joined at the waist to form a one-piece creation, with both bodice and skirt made of the same material."

All Philippine First Ladies (except Mrs. Aurora Quezon) and two Philippine presidents, President Corazon C. Aquino and Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, have have worn J. Moreno ternos. First Lady Eva Macapagal wore one at the inauguration ball of her husband Diosdado Macapagal. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has worn J. Moreno gowns since she was a young girl.

Perhaps Pitoy’s most famous "model" for the terno was Imelda Romualdez Marcos. He recounts how they met: "She was a very beautiful lady and she came to my shop in Taft Avenue. She wasn’t yet First Lady then, but she was already very elegant and very beautiful. How did I come to meet her? President Marcos knew me very well because we were together in the Upsilon fraternity. I remember that when he became president, Upsilon held a victory party for him and he announced that he had asked his wife Imelda to have her gowns made by a brod–that was me. She ordered many, many gowns from me, from the time she was a congressman’s lady. The last gown I made for her was for a recent birthday."

Pitoy remembers that there were times when he would have to make gowns in such a rush, Imelda would come to the shop, wait for the last stitch, put the gown on and dash to whatever occasion it was she was attending. "She came so often that she became friends with my costureras," says Pitoy with a laugh. "She was always very happy with my work. You would never hear a side remark from her. But you must remember she always looked beautiful in a terno. She really gave me a lot of opportunities. She sent me around the world 18 times."

Another First Lady Pitoy has dressed many times is Mrs. Ming Ramos, wife of President Fidel V. Ramos. "She always liked my kimona version," he says. "I would like to give credit to her for helping me a lot in my shows." It was at Malacañang during the Ramos term that his book Philippine Costumes was launched.

But the First Lady who really opened the door for Pitoy to Malacañang was Mrs. Leonila Garcia, wife of President Carlos P. Garcia. "I remember that even while we were in college, Linda Garcia asked me: ‘Pitoy, mommy is asking if you can make terno for her.’ And of course, I said I would! And with Linda at Malacañang, I got all the opportunities. I’m very grateful to the Garcias because they really handed it to me."

During the Garcia presidency, President Dwight Eisenhower came, but without Mamie. Pitoy did the gown of Mrs. John Eisenhower, the presidential daughter-in-law.

"I got a call from the President’s secretary after midnight," Pitoy shares. "He said: ‘The president would like to see you at 10 am tomorrow at the Manila Hotel. Can you come?’ I said of course I would and then I dropped the telephone."

Pitoy thought it was all a joke but the thought, like an itch, that it might not be a prank kept recurring. "So I took my car to Roxas Boulevard the next morning but stopped a few blocks away from Manila Hotel because of security. I had to walk and was repeatedly stopped by security. I had to inch my way to the hotel and I was getting annoyed already. Finally, I arrived at the fourth floor where the President was staying. The secretary came out and said, ‘Ah, Mr. Moreno, the President is waiting for you.’ So it was true!"

Pres. Eisenhower came out, with just a towel wrapped around him, fresh out of the bath. He said he wanted Pitoy to make gowns for his daughters. When asked how much he would charge, Pitoy gave a sum, small in comparison with that of foreign designers. "He started to make tawad!" Pitoy reveals, chuckling. "I finally gave in, kasi nahiya ako!"

Pitoy did a barong for Nancy Reagan, wife of then Governor Ronald Reagan when she came with her husband to attend the opening of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969. When she became First Lady, she continued to order from Pitoy. "I think Mrs. Marcos put in a good word for me and (Nancy) would order from me through an emissary, Condesa Romanones, who I met in Spain. In W Magazine, there was a feature on Nancy. It was called ‘First Lady of Taste’, and that was a big write-up on two pages that showed her in 13 gowns. I think six or seven were mine."

The list of celebrities who have worn J. Moreno gowns is legendary: queens, princesses, movie stars, the rich, the famous, even the infamous. Look around the many framed photographs in his Malate atelier or in the pages of his myriad albums and you’ll get a pretty comprehensive roster of the international Who’s Who of the last four decades.

Among his many glamorous clients, there is one of whom he speaks very fondly and only in the superlative. "I have dressed so many famous and beautiful women in my career. Imelda Cojuangco is one of the most beautiful persons I have ever dealt with. She is truly a woman of substance and beauty. Everything she wears comes off beautifully. When we had a chance to be together, we really clicked. We agree on the designs of her clothes; she has her own ideas and she knows what she likes. She can wear clothes that even models cannot wear. When she goes out, all eyes are on her. She’s like my muse, but then she is the muse of all designers."

But it’s not only gowns that have made Pitoy famous; he is the premier barong maker in town as well.

"I’d like to believe that I helped popularize the barong," says Pitoy, who is famous for innovations on the barong like using linen and cotton, as well as re-interpreting it for women.

"If you look at photos before the war, you will see everyone wearing americana and in white too," he explains. "After the war, you’ll see everyone wearing dark suits as they did in America. Much later, everyone began to wear the barong. Materials became more comfortable. And today, everyone, even expatriates here, use it every day. No one wears suits anymore."

To be a Filipino designer is all Pitoy really wanted to be. "When I create, I always focus on Philippine design, Philippine embroidery, Philippine material, costume, artifacts. Everything about the Philippines can influence me in my designing. I am very proud to be a Filipino designer."

In Philipine Costumes, he writes: "Costume is culture manifested in clothing. Filipino dress tradition sums up, in every stitch and seam, the elements of local culture, past and present. In threading the story of the Filipino costume, there is a sense of viewing Philippine history. This book is not meant to be a scholar’s contribution to fashion history. Rather, it is a designer’s collection of stunning images, evidences of a uniquely Filipno sensibility, expressed in clothing."

Life for Pitoy nowadays is not as busy as in his younger days when he would make more than a hundred gowns at a time for the legendary Kahirup balls of the 1950s and 1960s. He recalls also having made over a hundred evening dresses and gowns for the 40th wedding anniversary of Nitang Lopez and her husband, then Vice President Fernando Lopez. This was an affair to remember indeed, complete with fountains overflowing with champagne and guests flying in from all corners of the globe.

These days, Pitoy does 12 to 15 gowns a month, 20 at most. Three floors above Pitoy’s office on genteel Gen. Malvar Street in now trendy Malate is the workshop where he has cutters, costureras and burdadoras diligently at work on evening frocks and entire wedding ensembles. Halfway up the first flight of stairs is a sign that reads "Stop", a signal to Pitoy to pause for a breath.

"My stairs are steep," he explains. "I’m an early riser, and I go around and around, all the way to the third floor to inspect the work. I supervise everything because if I don’t, things can go very wrong."

That is the mark of Pitoy on every gown, terno and barong he makes––exquisite attention to detail, superb craftsmanship. That is what audiences will see in the CCP tribute in October. A 120-piece collection will be shown, structured around seven vignettes that include the major fashion capitals of the world which have, in the last four decades, been the stage for his fabulous creations.

Resident companies of the CCP will participate in the extravaganza. Event chairperson is none other than Pitoy’s muse, Imelda Cojuangco. Also sponsoring the event is Gawad Kalinga, which builds communities by providing housing and other infrastructure, values education and health care in depressed areas in Metro Manila. As of press time, other organizations have expressed interest in sponsoring additional performances. Please contact the CCP Marketing Department at tel. 832-1125 local 1800 to 1806 for more information.

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