Last week, the fashion industry lost a great man whose significant contributions to society transcended thread and needles. He was a great artist who had captured the essence of beauty, replete with Filipino sensibilities, on his canvas we called gowns and clothes.
He was simply Pitoy Moreno.
For those who followed fashion, he needed no further introduction.His body of work spoke for himself. Everyone who has worn his gowns felt his undying passion for his craft in the fabrics, threads and beads he used to create them. With a career spanning over 60 years, his genius transcended beyond the Philippines, training the spotlight on Filipino fashion on international runways, paving the way for emerging Filipino designers to enter the global fashion scene.
In this issue, THELOOKBOOK celebrates the life and works of Pitoy Moreno, who passed away due to a heart attack on January 15 at the Manila Doctors Hospital where he had been confined for the past few years for debilitating ailments. Here are some of the things people should know about him.
1. No one knows (or is willing to disclose) the exact date of his birthday. When the news about his demise broke, there were different reports on his age. Some reports stated that he died at age 87, but his grandson Paul Jason Cruz mentioned that he was 92. His biodata simply states Pitoy was born sometime in the 1920s.
2. Pitoy initially planned to take up law, but he somehow ended up enrolling at the College of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines. His older sister Virginia revealed in an interview that he didn’t make it to the College of Law because he was late for the exams. The unexpected became the turning point of his life. He once said that it was in UP where he developed “a finer sense of the fashion world.”
During his university days, Pitoy joined the Upsilon Sigma Phi fraternity where he built a strong social connection with former President Ferdinand Marcos, former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., and former Vice President Salvador “Doy” Laurel. He was also close friends with visual artist Araceli “Cheloy” Dans and Celia Diaz, who would later marry Doy Laurel.
3. Visual artist Araceli Dans wore Pitoy’s first wedding gown. At the time, the artist planned to go through with the wedding wearing just a plain white dress because of their meager budget. When Pitoy learned that Cheloy was getting married in the supposedly first Catholic ceremony at the U.P. Diliman campus, but would not be donning a wedding gown, he would not hear of it. That being so, he designed a wedding dress, his very first, and gave it to Cheloy as a present. That became the precedent for the countless wedding gowns he became known for.
4. He was mentioned in “Bongga Ka ‘Day.” In the popular song by the Hotdog, he was the fashion designer of Annie Batungbakal, a fictional woman who rose up the social rank. The lyrics goes: “Suot mo’y gawa ni Pitoy / Di nanggaling kay Eloy / Ahh, hay! / Bongga ka, ‘Day / Bongga ka, ‘Day / Sige lang, sige lang, itaas ang kilay.” The song emphasized the influence and power that Pitoy held in the fashion scene, where the average Pinoy aspires to own and wear his creations.
5. He had dressed women of nobility. During the height of his popularity, many heads of state, royalties and prominent personalities from all over the world wanted a creation by Pitoy, which were known for their artistic beadwork, intricate embroidery and beautiful handpainting. He was the couturier for the First Ladies of the Philippines from 1960’s to 1980’s. He created gowns for US First Lady Nancy Reagan, Queen Sirikit of Thailand, Queen Margarite of Bulgaria, Princess Sofia of Greece, Princess Margaret of Britain, Princess Suga of Japan, the Marquesa de Villaverde, among others.
6. While his works have been showcased on the international runway from Tokyo to Tehran, Moscow to Madrid and graced the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and other prominent fashion publications, Pitoy made an effort to accommodate people from all walks of life, even those who seemingly couldn’t afford his gowns. One of the models he worked with recalled how he agreed to create a gown for a father whose daughter was getting married.
In the model’s story: An owner jeep parked in front of the designer’s atelier. The driver came out and went inside the designer’s office and asked for Pitoy. Apparently, the man came from the province and wanted to know if they could afford a wedding gown for his daughter. The man revealed they had saved money, but they were not sure if they could afford a Pitoy gown. Pitoy asked for the daughter, who was sitting inside the vehicle. When the daughter came, Pitoy asked her if she wanted to wear his gown. The bride-to-be shyly answered that she wanted to if they could afford it. Pitoy asked the father how much they were able to save. When the father hesitated, Pitoy assured him that he would make a gown and he would only ask for the amount the father could afford.
7. He was the “Fashion Czar of Asia.” The sobriquet, coined by the French tabloid Le Figaro, sealed his status as one of the most sought-after designers in Asia. The term encapsulates his ingenuity and artistry that conquered not just Asia, but the whole world.
8. He spent his early career as costume designer for Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company. Working with the dance company allowed him to immerse himself in traditional Filipino clothes, which became the heart of his creations.
9. He championed Filipiniana. Even though his contemporaries, such as National Artist Ramon Valera and designer Salvacion Lim Higgins, also promoted the terno, it was Pitoy who got credited for popularizing the Philippine national dress. He was known for his Maria Clara gowns, which were named after the female protagoist in Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere.
He worked and promoted Filipino fabrics. Pitoy introduced jusi, pina and lepanto to the world during his trunk shows abroad—fabrics that have won over the world fashion scene since. Long before he retired, Pitoy passed down his knowledge on artistic beadwork on different fabrics to young Filipino designers.
In 2011, there was a retrospective show for Pitoy, featuring 100 pieces of his work including Philippine costumes, couture gowns, 19th century-inspired pañuelo-draped Maria Claras and ternos. It was a charity fashion gala to raise funds for the Lopez Group Foundation’s assisted community programs and projects.
10. His contributions to the Philippine fashion are unparalleled. Some of his notable achievements include: co-founding the Philippine Couture Association, the first association of fashion designers in the Philippines; authoring books such as Kasalan, a fashion book about Filipino weddings, and Philippine Costume, a book on traditional Filipino dresses; designing the uniform of the Philippine Airlines’ flight attendants in the early ‘70s; establishing the J. Moreno Foundation, an organization that offers scholarships to students who are unable to afford an education; working with the Binibining Pilipinas pageant, among others. Actress Rita Moreno wore a Pitoy when she received an Academy Award for her performance in West Side Story.
11. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo named the late designer a National Artist. However, the Supreme Court ruled her proclamation invalid, revoking the conferment of the National Artist awards to Moreno, Cecille Guidote-Alvarez, filmmaker Carlo J. Caparas, and architect Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa in 2013.
12. Pitoy was, and will always be, known as a Filipino designer. Even when he was doing fashion shows abroad, he never forgot his Filipino roots. In an interview, he proclaimed his love for his country: “I went around the world to show what I do, to make my country proud. However European my clothes were, I never betrayed my roots. Remember this: a Filipino who acknowledges his being a Filipino is a successful Filipino.”