Toast of the Town

They traverse the globe seeking inspiration and bring epiphanies back home to Cebu. They are increasingly in-demand with a growing number of celebrity and society clients from all parts of the world. Their diligence at their craft, and undying passion to improve it, has earned them the name fashion designer. Banded together, they are the Fashion Council of Cebu.

For some time now, Cebu has been producing world-class designers. Los Angeles-based Monique Lhuillier leads the pack and serves as inspiration. There are more Cebuano designers wowing the crowds at fashion shows like Philippine Fashion Week, Metro Wear, and Fashion Watch and getting standing ovations; more fashion editorials from magazines and national papers, and a vibrant clientele from all over the globe. As Oj Hofer, who also happens to be this magazine’s fashion editor for the last 15 years says, “Cebu is a hub. We can fly up to Manila or down to Davao for clients easily. We can also source out fabrics and seek out inspiration in Hong Kong or Shanghai through direct international flights”. Add to that is the background of the local furniture industry’s active involvement in international markets like Milan, Paris and New York, and one can easily get a glimpse of a truly global perspective in the design scene.

Of course, it is not all parties and champagne, or celebrity clients and jet-setting, there is a lot of hard work involved, and an extremely meticulous eye, an unyielding talent and an ability to be constantly inspired because being in a cut-throat industry such as fashion can only make or break you. That is why this group of Cebuano fashion designers got together, to be there for one another as a support system, to have each other’s back, and to prosper together. They call each other regularly to compare notes, share shows, and discuss projects.

The Fashion Council of Cebu, or FCC, first got together in 2007, initially calling themselves the Cebu Designers Guild–now, with ten members: Cary Santiago, Arcy Gayatin, Oj Hofer, Yvonne Quisumbing, Jun Escario, Philipp Tampus, Jojo Romoff, Vania Romoff, Albert Arriba, and council president Philip Rodriguez. Just because one can sketch and sew does not guarantee admission. It is by invitation only, through standards that may include talent and dedication to craft, coupled with a growing clientele.

The Fashion Council of Cebu has come up with a foundation that supports women who want to work in the fashion industry as cutters or embroiderers with general dressmaking skills. Unlike robotized factory workers, the designers want to produce a new breed of artisans, and the FCC are eager and willing to share their time, resources, and expertise to help support the industry this way.

It is also a pleasure to be in a room with these designers when they band together. Each one has their own character that is reflected in their creations from time to time, no matter what their current inspiration. Arcy Gayatin, for instance, injects her ironic wit into conversation and keeps it going; Cary Santiago’s flamboyant candor magnifies his forthright nature; and Oj Hofer and Jun Escario are catty with a cheeky sense of humor that never fails to get people into bawls of laughter.

But there are more facets to being a designer aside from character. For one, there’s the designer’s muse. Cary Santiago’s muses are women who are strong, confident, successful in their field, and well-respected in society for her contributions. “And she must have the body,” he quips, referring to Charo Santos, Christina Ponce-Enrile and perennial favorite Mariquita Yeung. Cary’s sparse atelier is a contrast to his passionate nature which he spreads to a group of acolytes that count a number of make-up artists and models seen lounging around at any given afternoon at his shop while well-heeled ladies in their chauffeur-driven cars come in for their fittings.

“My muses are the ladies who inspire me to create clothes, paintings, or floral arrangements,” says Oj Hofer, rattling off a bevy of society ladies such as Dorla Villalon, Jojo Ongsiako, Gretchen Baretto, Joy Onglatco, Bernie Aboitiz, Rosebud Sala, Amparito Lhuillier, Carla Yeung-McKowen, Jackee Gullas-Weckman and Ball Dominguez, to name a few. But it wasn’t always so, for Oj. “When I was eight, I went to painting lessons regularly on Saturdays. I always wanted to become a painter who would be internationally recognized,” he said. But on his way back home to Davao after finishing a degree in Fine Arts from UP Diliman, Oj was invited by his Cebu-based cousin Ann Hofer, to be the designer for her small atelier, Chiaroscuro. “I decided to stay for a couple of years to get into fashion design,” but he has never left Cebu since.

If seniority was a crown, then this can only be worn by council president Philip Rodriguez, who counts Rey Santos and Felix Jacinto as associates and whose shop at Ramos Street has seen a large number of people since the late 70’s. Every fashionable lady in this city, and a number from out of town, has visited that shop filled with exotic fabric, at one time or another. Appropriately, Philip envisions Audrey Hepburn as his muse. He is a master when it comes to making clothes that are timeless, clothes that can be handed down through generations. Just ask his multitude of clients.

In contrast, there’s the playful nature of Jun Escario whose creations can go from flimsy chiffon to solid tweeds. Always au courant, Jun spots trends like no one else and before it hits the runways of Milan, it is already at his shop in Greenbelt 5. Asked for inspiration, his quick reply is the blushing bride, and this about sums up the excitement he conjures—that of a lady about to enter a new chapter of her life: the idea of fresh and endless possibilities.

Anthony Romoff, or more fondly known as Jojo, as a young boy, was always around his grandmother Viring Romoff’s shop. The legendary dressmaker Viring was the go-to designer for weddings and big parties in the 70’s, and her busy shop was a hub of activity that was Jojo’s classroom. On his most prolific days, Jojo’s sketches evoke Valentino’s lines, clothes that make women feel sexy, and just like the late Gianni Versace, his muse is his sister, Vania, now a budding fashion designer as well. She is the youngest member of FCC and has made a name for herself in Manila very early on in her career. Proof positive that in this family’s case, lightning can strike twice.

Arcy Gayatin admits she is a big fan of Lanvin’s creative director, Alber Elbaz, for his artistic genius and humility. She says, “he understands that fashion is not only about the clothes, but it’s about giving the wearer the power to feel like they own the clothes, rather than the clothes owning them.” Perhaps it is also this philosophy that has gained Arcy a loyal following of women who appreciate her ability to create easy pieces that flatter one’s assets while concealing the undesirable, effortlessly. Arcy credits her predisposition to fashion to her mother, Remy Ancajas, who taught her an appreciation for tailored and custom-made clothes at a very young age, often taking her to the atelier of Jutie Borromeo, a local designer back in the day. With this exposure, it was only a matter of time before she started designing clothes herself. What started out as a small business in her own home has since grown into an atelier with a highly skilled workforce. Without her knowing it, twenty-five years in the industry had already passed, a seeming acceleration of time, which is actually “very typical of fashion,” she laughs. Arcy’s atelier today along A.S. Fortuna Street is a true reflection of her: elegant, put together, no fuss, but with a stylish bang.

Taking inspiration from the movement of water against the wind, “soft, feminine, effortless and light,” is how Yvonne Quisumbing’s silhouettes can be described. Yvonne took Interior Design in La Salle Benilde and took fashion design classes as electives. But with Inno Sotto as mentor, she enjoyed it and decided to shift to Fashion Design and Merchandising. After consistently winning shows with her intricate art pieces-cum-dresses and fashion accessories, Yvonne’s name was soon on the Manila it-crowd’s lips. She is also currently working on a new space in her Prince Plaza 1 atelier, in Legazpi Village in Makati City. As the newest member of the group, Yvonne feels fortunate to be nurtured by her more senior peers.
Albert Arriba pursued a make-up artistry and hairdressing career after a business course in college, but eventually fell in love with fashion. His desire to create beauty went beyond making faces and it has been so for 30 years, and counting. Albert adores Paco Rabanne, who he says has influenced the way he designs. It led him to then put up shop, first along Archbishop Bishop Reyes Avenue, then along Acacia Street, but today Albert has moved his house of beauty: a salon and atelier to the busy Mango Avenue. He says the “endless possibilities of the future” inspire his creations, which is why his dresses are more avant garde, but with a touch of nostalgia.

Philipp Tampus taught himself how to sketch while in college studying computer science. His father originally disapproved of his interest in fashion, especially after finding out he was secretly working in a local boutique along Fuente Osmeña on the side. This led Philipp to be exiled to Ilocos, to focus on his studies. There, he decided to set up shop with his sister and when it became successful, his family finally saw it was more than a passing phase, and that it was his calling. Philipp moved to the Middle East to design for big fashion houses, where he also sharpened his craft and after almost 12 years, came back home to Cebu and in 2007 joined Project Runway Philippines, which served as his introduction to the national fashion industry.

A STYLISH PARTNERSHIP

Through its fifteen years of existence, this magazine has always worked closely with the local fashion industry. A lifestyle magazine cannot exist without this component, and so for this milestone year, Zee publisher Eva Gullas called up Philip Rodriguez to partner for a grand event on December 15 with a fashion gala to benefit the advocacy program of FCC.
That’s what’s great about being in a club. Aside from having each other’s backs, when a member believes in something, the whole group can seek out the resources they need to help materialize their cause. Zee Lifestyle is proud to have grown and flourished with many of them, also while providing an additional outlet for this overwhelming creativity. Let’s drink to that.

Zee Lifestyle
Zee Lifestyle

Zee Lifestyle strives to capture the pulse of Cebu! As a city-centric lifestyle magazine, it aims to inform and entertain with features on culture, personalities, travel, food, fashion and everything in between. Follow Zee Lifestyle on Instagram at @zeelifestyle.

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