The retail scion on her personal and professional growth
This interview was set right in the middle of the holiday frenzy at the heart of Makati’s shopping district. As expected, crowds were streaming in and out of the shopping mall, hoping to find or have bought the perfect gifts for their loved ones.
It was amid this happy and dizzying rush that a slim figure in an understated yet carefully curated black ensemble and statement accessories strode confidently toward The Sunday Times Magazine team. Inching closer, the long-haired vision started to glow with her smooth sun-kissed skin and a sweet and warm smile.
Despite her aura of sophistication, the young lady exuded friendliness and a down-to-earth personality that somewhat belied the fact that she is actually an heiress of the luxury department store where this meeting took place—Nicole Tantoco of the legacy brand that is Rustan’s.
After exchanging pleasantries, The Sunday Times Magazine asked if she would prefer to proceed with the pictorial and get it out of the way before the sit-down interview.
Unassumingly, she smiled that sweet smile again and said, “I’ll just ask if we can take a photo here.”
But of course, the staff said yes looking pleasantly surprised she even had to ask.
As the pictorial went underway, Tantoco was shy at first to pose in the angles the photographer requested.
Eventually, with much encouragement from the team, she finally befriended the camera, forcing shoppers to stop and take a look at the lovely lady whom they probably thought was modelling for Rustan’s.
Finally settling down for the interview at East Café on the 2nd floor, the 27-year-old started out with a revelation hardly anyone would believe.
“You know, when I was growing up, I wasn’t really conscious of fashion,” she laughed almost sheepishly. “I just wanted to dress up in comfortable clothes, like wear t-shirts all the time. I never wore makeup and just let my messy hair be that messy.”
Yes, Nicole is the great granddaughter of the late Gliceria Rustia and the enduring Bienvenido Tantoco, Sr. whose names and hard work resulted in Philippine retail’s most famous portmanteau Rustan’s; and daughter to Rustan Commercial Corporation president Donnie Tantoco and wife Crickette, who are always considered high society’s best-dressed power couple.
How then could this young lady, born with the proverbial silver spoon and good looking genes to boot be a late bloomer in something that had surrounded her all her life?
Happily, she said she grew up sans any sort of pressure to look a certain way, nor did she ever feel entitled to the finery that surrounded her. She was raised as a regular girl, and not just in her choice of clothes.
Growing up to parents who established supermarket chain Shopwise under the Rustan’s Group of Companies, outsiders would easily think that the brood of Nicole, twin sister Camille, and brother Bienvenido Christian 4th had been groomed to take over the business at a very young age.
“My parents started out in grocery—that’s what they handled for the longest time. So, when we were younger, they would bring us to Shopwise events, store openings and construction sites and we’d watch what was happening. Early on, I did have a sense of the business, and my parents never really went as far as explaining what went behind running a grocery chain. They’re the sort of parents who won’t insist on talking about a topic to their children if they didn’t feel we were interested,” said the doting daughter.
The young Tantoco added that her mom and dad gave them the freedom to choose what they wanted to do, and never imposed the family business on them.
“My parents encouraged us that if we wanted to explore something else aside from retail, we should go for it.
They always told us to realize where our strengths and talents lie, and where our potential was. They wanted us to be true to ourselves, without having to take on what everyone else expects we would do.”
As such, Nicole—an avid reader from an early age, and whose favorites include gothic literature, any work from the 1920s, and classic writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway—always thought she wanted to be a writer. In college, she pursued English Literature at the Ateneo de Manila University.
As fate would have it, however, Nicole found herself working for a glossy lifestyle magazine for her on-the-job-training, and finally took notice of what had been around all along.
“Interning for Rogue opened my eyes to the world of glamor. They were really cutting edge, modern and really forward-thinking in terms of graphic design and especially the kinds of topic they featured. I was really inspired by all that and the experience was life-changing.”
Of course, part of her glossy magazine experience had to do with fashion. Call it serendipity but perhaps this glamourous career path had always been written in the stars for the retail heiress. Nevertheless, it took Nicole sometime before she finally decided to take a spot in the family business, joining Metro Society Magazine as editorial assistant after graduation.
After a year, she took a hiatus before deciding on her next step.
All the same, her parents still gave her the freedom where to take what she learned, until her sister stepped in and suggested she join her in working for Stores Specialist Inc. (SSI), the exclusive distribution arm of Rustan’s that brings to the country the world’s most revered brands in fashion, including food and home furnishings.
“It is my sister who first decided to work in retail, and I wasn’t doing anything at that time. You know, I was a little bit stubborn—having fun and not working yet. At that point my parents finally asked me what I wanted to do, and I went to my sister to ask for advice, and she said, ‘Why don’t you try working in retail, like me?’ So I gave it a go.”
Uncertain as she was on what particular field of merchandising to take, Nicole soon realized that working in
fashion had a lot more in common with her first love of literature than she thought.
“Fashion isn’t that far off from literature—liking beautiful pieces in fashion is similar to liking works of art. They speak so much not only about the person who made them but also about the people who wear them,” Nicole explained.
“I think that’s what really made me interested in fashion eventually. When you look at someone’s fashion statement, you can kind of tell like what values he or she has. What their preferences are says so much about who they are,” she added.
Not only did she find a new definition of fashion joining the family business, but Nicole also found herself immensely enjoying her newfound career.
“After joining Rustan’s, I got to discover more styles and things about myself and what I like. That’s because in a creative office, you see so many things that make you want to experiment on looks, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” the young executive said.
From describing her style as “laid back and casual,” Nicole started adopting a minimalist aesthetic “with splashes of history and a quirky sense.” She admits to leaning towards wilder trends, wanting to try those more than others.
“Before I used to be the opposite—I used to be so safe in my fashion that I didn’t want to try anything new. I wasn’t even conscious that there’s this whole world of different looks out there!” Nicole exclaimed, adding that if she likened her personal transformation to a film, it would be Anne Hathaway’s Andrea Sachs in the box-office hit The Devil Wears Prada.
With a more defined understanding and a newfound passion for fashion, Nicole began climbing up her career. Starting out as a merchandising assistant for PS by Aeropostale, she is now as an associate researcher for Rustan’s clothing department.
“What we do is help Rustan’s find its creative direction in fashion. We give guides on what trends people are talking about especially in social media. From there, we recommend the brands that we think Filipino women would be interested in based not only on what’s going on globally but also on our context here and the customers who already love to shop at Rustan’s,” Nicole elaborated.
Before anyone thinks Nicole had it easy all the same, the young professional is quick to dismiss the idea. She said she had to learn the ropes like everyone else, starting at the bottom, before eventually finding her footing.
“When I finally decided to go for it, I had a different impression of what it entailed in this industry. I thought that I knew better than most people because I grew up with it. But after the two years that I’ve been here, I realized that I have so much to learn. In the process, I’ve learned so much from the people who’ve been in this business longer than I have—like how to work with a team better, how to understand people and how to take criticism,” Nicole said.
Furthermore, taking on such responsibilities has allowed the once “disconnected” retail heiress to go out of her comfort zone and transform herself from a timid follower to a confident leader.
“It was very challenging most especially the first year. At times I’d feel like, ‘Wow am I a bad person?’ Because I wasn’t used to telling people to do things; I was used to be the one receiving orders. As you know, I had assistant jobs before so it took time to grow into my position right now.”
Given everything she has gone through in her young life—including not knowing what she wanted to do at the beginning—Nicole only feels grateful she finally found a career she enjoys immensely, and more importantly, a position that has truly tapped into her creativity.
“My work has also given me so many opportunities—I get to meet people, learn, really understand the business that my family is in, and discover what I can do.”
Finally planting roots in her birthright and maturing as a professional, Nicole is also embarking on a major change in her personal life this new year as she walks down the aisle in May to marry fiancé Miko de los Reyes.
Excited over marrying the young architect, Nicole is also looking forward to wearing her first ever custom-made gown—yet another surprise for someone with her family background.
She has chosen mom Crickette’s favorite designer Jojie Lauren to design her wedding gown, and Rosanna Ocampo for her bridesmaids’ gowns.
“It’s addicting to work with a designer. I feel like asking, ‘Why did I never do this?’ or ‘I need more things made’!” she confessed in between laughter.
Indeed the retailer in her has grown exponentially, appreciating the Filipino talent just as much as the international brands she handles. “I want to keep working with more designers. The wedding preparations have shown me just how much talent we have here in Manila—designers with great visions that are comparable to the international market.”
Despite her heavy workload as an associate researcher, Nicole happily said she and her soon-to-be husband are very hands on in every detail.
“I’m actually surprised because I never thought I’d be hands-on on anything but I am enjoying it. I feel like I’ve grown a lot through this, making all these decisions because really, I was that kind of friend who would be OK with anyone’s suggestion. It’s different, having to make all these decisions for yourself for once and having to work on something that kind of represents you,” Nicole openly shared.
When it was time to wrap up the interview, The Sunday Times Magazine congratulated Nicole for successfully coming out of her shell and still being grounded.
Ever humble though, she replied, “I don’t think I’ve broken out of my shell completely but I hope that happens soon. What I do feel is that I’ve grown up a lot, and it’s been a great time in my life, the good and the bad parts included.”
Cover credit: Nicole Tantoco would like to thank Japeth Purog for her hair and make-up.
COVER PHOTO BY RUSSELL PALMA