Nono Palmos: Weaving high art
- Catherine Jones () - March 23, 2008 - 12:00am

When the IPA, Ilonggo Producers Association, dreamed up the idea of hosting a fashion show to bring attention to the vanishing weavers of Panay, they called on Miag-ao native, fashion designer Nono Palmos. He immediately said yes, and on February 28 delivered a stunning performance called, Hinabol: The 2008 Filipiniana Collection Featuring The Heritage Fabrics of the Island of Panay at the Punta Villa Resort in Iloilo.

In 2006, soon after I arrived in the Philippines, I met Nono (that’s what everyone calls him) in his tiny atelier on Bautista Street in Makati. I needed a gown for a formal dinner at Malacañang. As he sketched, his assistants presented me with yard upon yard of gorgeous fabric. Nono would look up from his sketch every now and then to tell me how and where each piece of cloth was made. “Choose the fabric and color and I’ll make it for you,” I remember him saying. I was in awe. I eventually selected a fine silk-piña to be dyed in deep purple-and-lilac tones.

In 2007, Nono gave me a tour of his hablon weaving business in Miag-ao. That was my first trip to Iloilo. I went back a second time to accompany my husband Paul, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, on a trip where we visited various U.S. projects and met with local officials. And now, I’m here on my third visit, to witness how Nono magically transforms the humble fabric of hablon into gowns worthy of a Paris runway.  

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, three hours before curtain time. I enter Room 307 at the Punta Villa Resort, where I find Nono and his eight-seamstress crew, including his mother, who taught him how to sew, making last-minute adjustments to his sixty-piece collection. Beads, pearls, sequins, and loose threads litter the floor. 

Anna Yranela, an arrestingly beautiful 19-year-old local student-model, stands tall in seven-inch heels. She dwarfs Nono, who is on his knees adjusting her hemline. After examining every inch of her ethereal peach silk gown, Nono asks her to walk down the hotel’s third-floor hallway, a make-shift catwalk, to see how the fabric flows. He nods in approval. Five male models are fitted next. Celebrity Mark Anthony Fernandez, the show’s poster boy, will lead these guapo blokes down the runway in a tatlong hibla coat-barong (made from a mix of cotton, silk, and piña).  

Eyeing the hangers of silk pastels, earth tone hablons, and gemstone hues of jusi, I ask Nono if his show has a particular theme. “I always start with the fabric,” he tells me. “The pastels are a mix of abaca and silk, which is difficult to weave, but the result is beautiful. I give hablon a new twist with organic colors and deconstructed, asymmetrical silhouettes. My bold colors, with hand-painted flowers, are Chinese inspired.”

Each piece of fabric is indeed a work of art, and Nono is behind every thread count. He oversees his weaving businesses in Miag-ao and Kalibo, where fabrics are made to his unique specifications. He is single-handedly modernizing an ancient craft to keep up with his own 21st century designs. “Weaving is intuitive,” Nono tells me. “I learned how to weave when I was a boy. The hardest part is giving the fabric a new twist...finding the right mixture of threads and colors.” 

Depending on the dress, Nono works with his weavers to decide the silk-abaca or silk-piña ratio. The silk comes from a silkworm farm in Bacolod, and the pineapple and abaca are locally grown. “All the weaving is done by hand, so each piece is unique,” Nono explains...and he hopes it stays that way.  “Machines are not the answer. We will lose the beauty. We are building 60-inch looms because the 45-inch looms are not wide enough. I need the silks to be airy. I need to be able to cut on the bias.” 

The guest of honor, Senator Loren Legarda, who is from Antique, arrives at the show with her entourage. A classic Illongo ballad, Dandansoy, carefully chosen by the show’s director, Chi Narvaez, opens the first act. 38 “socialite models,” from the upper crust of Iloilo society, parade down the catwalk, one by one, in made-to-order gowns by Nono. Everyone paid for their gowns or barongs, and part of the money will be donated to the weavers. 

Pangging Rosales, one of the primary organizers, leads the cascade of lovely ladies. She is striking in copper-colored opera coat crowned with a gem-studded panuelo. At the end of the runway, she removes her cape revealing a nude-colored, sequined, tulle column-gown. The 300-person audience erupts with applause, which climaxes with Mark Anthony Fernadez’s appearance in a black tuxedo with yellow hablon lapels (very Elton John-esque, and it works).  

At halftime, Senator Legarda climbs the catwalk. She is not in a Nono Palmos gown, but her classic beauty radiates nonetheless and possibly even more, because her starkly simple yellow-and-black patad-yong dress, which she admits is ten years old, gives her tremendous credibility. “I agreed to come here to work, not just to attend a fashion show,” she says, indicating her plans to hold a meeting the following morning with the IPG organizers (including Valerie Maravilla, Rowena Zulueta, and Nonoi Ybiernas), local officials, and others to discuss how to re-energize the weaving industry.  

She briefly outlined her 2003 Tropical Fabrics Law, designed to improve the entire weaving industry of the Philippines, from north to south, and to promote Filipino fibers, a bill that she says “will spur economic activity at the grassroots level.” In addition, under this law, all government officials will be encouraged to wear Filipino fabrics.  

Senator Legarda leaves the stage, the lights dim, and the second act, featuring the professional models, begins. Reed-thin visions of beauty emerge from a white curtain backdrop emblazoned with a glittery Nono Palmos logo. Hablon reaches unprecedented levels of splendor tonight, on both men and women.  

Following the hablons is a collection of bold-colored jusi gowns, which burst forth like spring blooms. A yellow daffodil with an asymmetrical neckline and a purple crocus with a looped collar. A blue hyacinth trailed by a flowing open bathrobe 1920’s-style train and a red tulip, in the classic body-skimming Chinese qipao style, though playfully backless. 

The icy pastel ethereal gowns are a masterful combination of feminine loveliness and sophistication. A little skin showing in all the right places (or wrong places if you’re over 40) made them the sexiest dresses in the collection. A brief, but beautiful, red-and-black Spanish gown interlude, complete with mantons, follows and the show ends with kasalan, a breathtaking bridal collection. Arnel Papa, from Greenbelt 5 in Manila, created the fashion accessories for each model, which were an exposition of their own.  

The Hanibal Show had a handful of corporate sponsors, but as Pangging Rosales explains, “what makes this show unique is the fact that the local government is pushing the weaving industry now, and this is a first. They are investing in the weavers and trying to raise money.”

On the plane back to Manila, as I read the International Herald Tribune’s fashion pages, I ask myself how many of the Oscar Award’s red-carpet designers – including Jean Paul Gaultier who designed for Marion Cotillard, John Galliano for Heidi Klum, and Roberto Cavalli for Kelly Preston – can boast that they not only have the talent to design the dress, but the hands-on experience and knowledge to weave the fabric. I’d bet none.  

Nono Palmos is not only a champion of world-class haute couture design, but a national hero for creating livelihoods where there would otherwise be poverty, and for breathing new life into the time-honored, ancient art of hand-weaving in Panay.

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